03 September 2008

You Aint From Around Here, Are Ya?

J's post today got me thinking about speech and our perceptions of people based on speech. Speaking as one of the heavily accented (yes folks, Daktari is from the land of Hatfield and McCoys), I have watched, sometimes with amusement, sometimes in horror, as others attempt to place me in some context of their own ideas about the South.

I grew up in Kentucky, the daughter of two West Virginians. My lineage traces itself along river towns running from Virginia and West Virginia to Ohio and Missouri. Those long vowel sounds have at least four generations of meat on their bones. Despite living in Chicago for nearly 12 years, I can honestly say that it is easier to quit smoking than to change your regional accent and dialect. It took six years in Chicago to switch from "y'all" to "you guys". While I broke the "aint" habit somewhere around the time I graduated from college the first time, I still find myself occasionally slipping into "how's ya mama an 'em" when speaking to a fellow Twang American.

Southerners speak slower than most. We can draw out a word for hours. Ham has three syllables. We take shars in the morning. Change awl in the car. We put slaw on our dogs and drink Cokes for breakfast. And yes, I grew up saying Aren't un, Ahi (loosely translated as Ironton, Ohio). I have been known to use a low-brow euphemism now and again. Southerners take great pride in developing and striking the unsuspecting with an appropriately inappropriate euphemism.

But it's not all Southern charm. As the comedian once said, "I'm used to being treated like I'm stupid. I'm a Southerner. " I was a writer for 15 years. And without false modesty, I can say that I was pretty good at my job, which is why, I heard many times in my career, "I can't understand how you can write like THAT, and talk the way you do."

I think it is one of the reasons that I have lived my life refusing to acknowlege the bias. I approach people with the assumption that they are going to respect my intelligence and my education and my reasoned ideas. By and large they do. I can't speak as to the internal dialogue that they may go through to get to that point. I seldom have a problem with people treating me as though I'm stupid because of my speech patterns.

The accent has come in handy on occasion, but not in the ways you might imagine. Not in a disingenuous way. The accent helps me connect with people who might be intimidated or offput by my educational pursuits. My accent keeps me humble. No matter what I do or where I go, my background is front and center. Maybe, just maybe, my accent, my education, my achievements, will help change people's perceptions about what it means to be Southern.

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