Thursday, August 05, 2010

Accents and Insecurities

Recently I've had a number of conversations with coworkers and friends about accents, specifically my perceived lack of a Southern accent.  (Before I continue, let me say to those who took part in the conversations and who may also read this: I'm not mad, and don't feel awkward about this!  I just think it's an interesting issue I want to explore more.)  Maybe it's because I've met more people in the past few months than I do on my normal timeline, but several have said something to the effect of, "Wow, you're from Arkansas, but you don't sound like it!  How'd that happen?"  Now I've never been one to limit my own Arkansas-bashing.  I'm glad I grew up there, I wouldn't change that fact for all the world, but I'm also very glad I no longer live there.  To me, home is people, not a place, and the fact that there's no (relevant and interesting) job I could find in Arkansas or Memphis makes me even less likely to call it home anymore.  Still, I get a little defensive when people make assumptions or judgements I perceive to be class-based, region-based, or accent-based.

I know that, as a white person who grew up in relative wealth compared to the sharecroppers on our farm, I am and have been incredibly privileged in my life.  I went to college mostly for free, and got an advanced degree in the process.  I'm employed, and I support myself.  These are all Good Things, and it's pretty hard to find a way to belittle someone for them.  The most obvious position on which someone could discriminate against me, gender identity, is one I actually welcome: I enjoy verbally and professionally eviscerating anyone who assumes that my particular set of genitalia means I'm inferior.

So maybe regional identity is the only place where I feel my armor is weak, the only thing I'm sensitive about.  And that's true - I do feel that being labelled as a Southerner can be detrimental.  I purposely started trying to drop my accent when I was a teenager, because I was afraid of the impression it could give people.  I have friends from college who were also from the South, and many felt the same way that I did: it's okay for people to assume that our accents mean we're stupid or bigoted.  Not everyone has those assumptions, of course, but enough do that it's better to be safe than labelled a redneck.

And maybe that's just it: even though I want to believe otherwise, I've internalized the concept that your accent indicates your socioeconomic class, your respectability.  Even though many people I love have Southern accents (some quite strong), I still look down on those accents in a certain way, because I don't want to be perceived as being what those accents mean to me.

Next-day post script: At lunch today I had a conversation with coworkers, including the one who'd asked me the question yesterday, about accents and the social codings they carry.  It was really interesting, and no one was upset by my defensiveness.  The conversation meandered into other region-based stereotypes and how we have to deal with the ideas that exist in the world about our homes.  Interesting stuff, all in all, and I feel better for having had the conversation with people.


  1. Great post. Great insights. As a native Kentuckian, I know a bit where you're coming from, though I was never blessed with a Southern drawl; I'm from too far north in Kentucky.

    I've pseudo-adopted Cincinnati, because no one really seems to know where Kentucky is on a map. Once in Cleveland, I told someone I was from Kentucky, and his response was, "Oh, I know someone from Tennessee." I don't recall my response (I probably just stared dumbfounded), but I should have said, "Yeah, what's his name, I probably know him."

    And as I'm also fond of telling people, "We have a saying in Kentucky: 'Thank God for West Virginia.'"

  2. I couldnt agree more. I am from Tennessee, and didnt leave that state until my early 20's. I worked very hard to lose the accent, and for the same reasons as you.
    And I, too, get questioned when someone finds out my 'heritage' why I no longer have an accent. They deem it 'cute' but I find that with those southern accents, people pay more attention to how you are saying things instead of what you are actually saying.
    I'm not bitter or anything, though. Really. :)

  3. I definitely have a south Texas drawl, right now since I have been on home leave it is pretty strong. However it tends to fade quite a bit while I am at post. In fact a friend of mine in Frankfurt asked me why I didn't sound like I was from Texas. I stuttered "I don't know!" Later I wished I had remembered this friend, also with no accent, was from Jamaica. The perfect comeback would have been "I don't know, why don't you sound like you are from Jamaica, Mon?"

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  5. I'm from PA, but basically grew up in TN (3 years in Nashville, then age 10 on in Memphis). I know I had an accent when I left for school, but it didn't take long for it to disappear once I landed in DC for college. I also felt the same way...that I was being judged if I sounded 'too' southern. Heck, even just saying I was from Tennessee when visiting friends out of state (especially in elementary & high school) would incite all sorts of questions about whether folks wore shoes and did we have indoor plumbing.

    Now, when you go home, do you re-adopt said accent? I find if I don't codeswitch, I stick out like a sore the minute the pilot indicates we are about to land, the accent begins to come back full-force.

  6. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this. I lived in Mobile, AL until I moved away to grad school, all my family is still there. People are always surprised to hear that I am from the South.."where's your accent??". Not sure exactly when I lost it but I do know I had to make a real effort to drop my "ya'lls" when I moved to Seattle. Got tired of drawing attention to myself I guess. But I know it is still there because it always reappears when I call my Mama ;-)

  7. I didn't get the Southern accent either. I'm not too surprised. My dad was from the north and I took after him in many ways, and I grew up in Florida, which is very southern, but not always Southern. Still, it surprises me when people guess my origin completely wrong... usually Canadian. I don't get that at all!

  8. Thanks, all, for the feedback. It's a hell of a note, isn't it? And yes, I do code switch like crazy when I'm on the phone with family from home or when I'm actually back at home visiting - no one at Wal-Mart (because of course there's a Wal-Mart) can understand me when I talk to them unless I slow it down and add a syllable.

    I'm glad others out there feel the same way!