Speakin’ Southern

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The other day I was making polite conversation with some friends when someone I didn’t know very well interrupted me and said, “Where did you say you were from again? You have such a strong southern accent!” I was quite taken aback. Some people have told me that I have a slight one, but never more than that. I tried to think back over the last words issued from my mouth and couldn’t think of anything out of the ordinary. Puzzled, I asked him why he thought so. He promptly replied, “Well, you just said you were fixing to go to the store.” So that qualified me as having the strongest southern accent he’d ever heard? And we were in Virginia! But I just smiled and conceded, “Well, I guess you have me there.”

On my way home I thought some more about the short exchange. It wasn’t that I was offended by the thought of having a southern accent; I actually think it’s a nice one to have. I’d just never thought of myself as having one. Sure, I use certain idioms common in Southern Georgia, but I am completely lacking in either the twang or lilt required in a southern tone. I feel as if I speak a partial dialect – I use the slight turns of phrase and yet I pronounce them in Standard English. For me, it has always been the pronunciation that makes the accent, not the words themselves.

Last semester in Professor Smith’s creative writing course we talked a lot about how colloquialisms are a more effective tool for providing a character’s dialect than changes in the orthography. Having read my share of books that looked as if they didn’t contain a word of English, I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Colloquialisms and idioms were definitely more successful than butchered spelling when trying to convey a certain tone of voice on the page. If you use enough colloquialisms the readers can and will imagine the accent for themselves. In light of my recent conversation, apparently that theory did not just apply to writing, but speaking as well. Use enough southern sayings and people will probably project a southern accent onto you whether you have one or not.

So what do you think, do colloquialisms an accent make?

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3 Responses to Speakin’ Southern

  1. Lauren Starnes says:

    I don’t necessarily think that colloquialisms make an accent. I would say that I have a Southern accent, but it’s not the words I use that cause me to have an accent. My accent is more present in the way I say certain words, rather than the words I use. For instance, my freshman year certain Northerners used to make fun of the way I said “friend” and “lawyer.”

  2. Tim McAleenan says:

    Catherine, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “Puzzled, I asked him why he thought so. He promptly replied, ‘Well, you just said you were fixing to go to the store.’ So that qualified me as having the strongest southern accent he’d ever heard?” I think that vocabulary has far more of an impression on most people rather than accent–sure we can recognize strong New Jersey accents or the Southern twang similar to Haley Barbour when he spoke at the Mock Convention yesterday, but I think that most people fall somewhere in between, and it largely comes down to the vocabulary that they employ.

    I worked for a Congressman this summer, and whenever I used “y’all” I was able to establish trust much easier with people in rural Missouri. Of course, there’s a certain uneasiness to feeling typecast as a Southerner, Midwesterner, Northerner, whatever–if I ever said “y’all” to someone in rural Missouri, I’d feel a certain pressure to act “Southern” so they wouldn’t think I was just another city slicker from St. Louis during the ensuing conversation. That is to say, I’d have to do things like refer to people from St. Louis as city slickers to maintain my street (farm?) cred.

  3. Meade says:

    Some Virginians have very deep drawls that rival Mississippi. But then there’s Northern Virginia where everyone is from some place other than Virginia.

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