This week The Economist features a short piece concerning southern accents: “Mind that drawl, y’all.” The August 9th-15th issue suggests quite clearly that southern speech continues to draw unwanted attention. In fact, since southern accents tend to elicit such harsh reactions from so many Americans, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee planned a weekly “Southern Accent Reduction” class. Their tag line was “be remembered for what you say, not how you say it.” The class was cancelled. I guess things did not work out so well even though it is readily apparent that quite a few Americans think southerners sound like dipshits. Case in point: the article sites Jennifer Cramer of the University of Kentucky as stating that people often associate the accent with stupidity and lack of education. And this is not limited to northerners. One study noted children from Illinois and Tennessee saying people with northern accents sounded “smarter” and more “in charge.” Well now. How about that.
If you will, please allow me to speak of this from experience. Though I think of myself as a Californian (Angeleno), I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. My family relocated to the Golden State in 1976. I was nine. When I got to the West Coast, I had the most syrupy sweet southern accent you can imagine – think Gomer Pyle not Ashley Wilkes. Now, nine-year-olds being what they are (vicious, horrible creatures) I was ridiculed and tormented for sounding like a hick (I also wore jean cut-offs, which didn’t help). But the torment didn’t end there. Things got much, much worse. Back in those days California public schools were among the best in the nation (they aren’t any more) and I had to go to summer school to catch up to my peers. In summer school I discovered the performing arts and was cast to play the Wizard in a staged version of The Wizard of Oz. So far so good, right?
Wrong. The casting was clearly the despicable work of some grade school teacher bent on exposing me as a rube. Those of you who are familiar with the Wizard’s last lines as he floats aloft in his hot air balloon will remember the bellowing: “Bye folks! Bye folks!!” Well in a southern accent this sounds more like: “Bi fokes, Bi fokes!!!” Everyone laughed. Everyone. The kids. The parents. The teachers. Even I thought I sounded like a moron. It was awful.
So awful in fact that little nine-year-old Keith went home and vowed to never sound like a hick again. I would watch TV news personalities and mimic their words as they spoke, especially Hal Fishman on KTLA, realizing even then that news anchors are among the most homogenized when it comes to speech inflection. In short order, and with a LOT of practice, I completely eradicated all traces of my southern accent. I ditched the cut-offs, bought some OP shorts and Vans slip-ons, a skateboard, and I fit right in. Local boy. California.
And you know what? When I went back to the Heart of Dixie to visit they made fun of me there. Even my grandparents said I looked and sounded like a Yankee. Sheesh. A kid can’t win.
Would I follow the same course today if I were not nine and susceptible to seemingly insurmountable ridicule? I doubt it. Generally speaking, I don’t care what people think these days. But I will note that it is really interesting to learn that some things will change very little over the course of nearly four decades. So the next time you overhear someone at the airport say, “Y’all want somthin’ cold, some cold drank?” they might just be on their way to a Mensa meeting.