Accents and Assumptions

This post was originally intended as a guest post elsewhere.That fell through, so here is something I wrote that has nothing to do with self-esteem:

The South has been my home for all thirty of my years. Although I find myself longing for a change of scenery now and again, I have no real intentions of living anywhere else. I was born here, and with any luck, I will die here. My ashes will be spread on the fields where I was raised, and I will become a part of my home.

I’m a native North Carolinian. In fact, my paternal family has lived in North Carolina for somewhere around four hundred years. The fight song of The University of North Carolina (which happens to be the oldest public university in the country) goes ‘I’m a Tar Heel born, I’m a Tar Heel bred. And when I die, I’m a Tar Heel dead.’ Even though I didn’t attend Chapel Hill, and don’t much care for collegiate basketball, I fully intend to live up to that song.

That’s how much I love the South.

I love the South so much that I dedicated an entire chapter of my book to a regional discussion of self-esteem. Predictably, I spend the whole time posturing and pointing out ways that the South is better than everywhere else. It’s bad enough, I preemptively apologize at the beginning of the essay. A Southern man is polite, after all.

I can talk about my home for hours, especially when it comes to culture and norms. We tend to be a proud and tenacious people below the Mason-Dixon, and those of us that move into the cities, suburbs, or entirely outside of our region have to contend with our fair share of stereotypes.

There are plenty of different stereotypes that I could talk about and attempt to discredit. For instance, I have all of my teeth, have never slept with one of my relatives, and I’m literate. I also owned three non-working Camaros simultaneously, so I’m not exactly beyond reproach. Out of all these things, I choose to talk about our accent, and the stereotyping that occurs around it.

The moment a person outside of the South hears that accent, they assume they are dealing with a complete moron. Bill Burr even acknowledges on stage that every time he has to do a ‘stupid guy’ voice, he defaults to a Southern accent. Even within the South itself, many people assume that the thicker the accent, the less literate the person.

I don’t have much of an accent, even though I can turn one on like a switch. This is and endlessly annoying thing for my wife, who is originally from the Midwest, and assures me that I sound uneducated when I speak with an accent. It probably doesn’t help matters that my accent slips out more naturally when I’m angry or drinking – you know, those times when a person tends to sound less educated anyhow.

I love the way my paternal family sounds when they speak, and sometimes wish I had a thicker accent than I do. The idea that I should hide this in order to appear as smart as I am is borderline offensive. My wife gets a pass, since she’s my wife, and I love her. Anyone else suggesting this gets told pretty quickly that they should probably move back to their home, and leave me and mine to the people fortunate enough to have been born here.

I grew up around drawls that are derived primarily from the Scots and Irish who settled North Carolina centuries ago. Linguists say that this particular accent is called Carolina Brogue. It’s a thick beast of an accent, that people from outside the region can’t really understand. It’s the product of the English language ceasing development somewhere around 1870. I liken it to the Cajun or Creole accent – it’s English, but not the kind that outsiders are familiar with. To me though, it’s the sound of home, and there is no better sound than a familiar accent when I’m in a room full of strangers.

No matter what sort of Southern accent you may or may not have, one thing is for certain – the thicker your accent, the stupider people are going to assume you are, especially outside of the region. The upside to this is that it’s a very friendly accent. People tend to think you are being nice, polite, or friendly when you speak to them with a Southern drawl. This only makes the idea that it’s associated with stupidity more confusing – like friendly people can’t also be intelligent.

I’m not even going to bother with listing out examples of people hailing from the South and discrediting the assumption that our accents and heritage lend themselves to stupidity. Suffice it to say, there are countless people that have contributed great things to the world while speaking with a deep, molasses infused accent from Georgia, or a nasal drawl from Appalachia, or barely understandable Creole.

But people don’t want to see the intelligence that exists here, or the creativity for that matter. They want the South to remain what it always was – simple folk working the land and fishing the waters. To a degree, it still is, but this does not preclude the idea that there can be smart people doing so. There is comfort in keeping us in the cultural box that we were assigned about 150 years ago. Until this changes we all get to be thought of as stupid, inbred, and racist as soon as we open our mouths outside of our regional home.

This isn’t something that is confined to the South, so it’s interesting (or maybe kind of sad) how prevalent this assumption is outside of our region. Anyone with a thick accent runs the risk of sounding unintelligent. Think about other stereotypical accents – the booming accents from New York City, the sharp Bostonian accent, the California surfer/stoner. All of these accents are stereotyped in movies or television as the stupid/simple/common people in those areas.

I, for one, refuse to accept the idea that the only way to sound intelligent is to forego my own accent and heritage in favor of sounding like I’m from somewhere so uninteresting that it lacks an accent. I don’t want to sound like a newscaster, I want to sound like a real person.

Embrace your accents, y’all, It’s part of your heritage and who you are. Be proud of it. Own it. If someone wants to make negative assumptions about you because of your voice, so be it. Those are the sort of people you probably don’t want in your life in the first place.

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2 comments

  1. Love the post and, being from Texas, I can understand the regional pride thing. We have been accused of having a little of that over here.

    Not only are accents in play when dealing with “others”, in my case non-Texans, especially of the northern variety, certain words need be avoided to keep them from frothing at the mouth.

    Two quick examples: Riding the moving sidewalk in the Cleveland Hopkins airport in a nearly deserted area between terminals. A man approaches, walking in the opposite direction. Reflex action, I say “good morning.” He stops and asks, “Do I know you?”
    I say, “No.”
    He asks, “then why did you speak to me?”

    Example #2, same city, setting: a fast food restaurant. The lady at the register, she late twenties or early thirties, asks, “is this for here?”
    I respond, “yes, ma’am.”
    She bristles at that and asks, “why the hell you calling me ‘ma’am’.”

    When Jimmy Carter and crew were checking in at the White House someone remarked about all the accents. The person on Carter’s team responded with, “we won the election, y’all are the ones with accents now.”

    Liked by 1 person

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