Sunday, November 27, 2005

What Y'all Talkin' 'Bout?

This rather confused AP article looks at the Southern accent. It begins by professing the Southern accent is being stamped out or pushed aside, but then offers ample refutations. Go figure.

I'm interested in this because I've always had trouble with accent. Not in hearing it. I can tell the difference between someone from middle Georgia and north Florida and the Carolinas, for example. Central Mississippi and Arkansas or Alabama. It's also fun to listen for the difference between modern urban black accents and the rural Mississippi accent here in Memphis.

No, it's my own accent. My mother is Quebecois (French Canadian, for those public-schoolers who might be confused). She came to America in the mid-Fifties when she was in her twenties. She still has a pronounced French accent, though I can't hear it, having grown up with it. But all my childhood friends used to love to listen to her talk, because she sounded so different from other Alabamians

My Dad is from south Georgia, and grew up in south Florida, but he went into banking, so he eradicated any accent he grew up with to adopt the Standard American accent, what television news anchors used to use. Meeting his sister -- my aunt -- was a surprise, as she has a strong, thick Georgia accent.

The result? Even though I was born in Alabama and lived my first thirty years there, I was forever being asked "Where y'all from?" In fact, I had to learn to say "y'all!" It was painful, as I consider myself a Southern man, and proudly so.

I'm told by family that I do indeed have a Southern accent now, though nowhere near as strong as my Georgia or Florida cousins.

The article I started out talking about only briefly mentions the influx of Northerners, and their class prejudices and gleeful bigotry towards Southern speech. A Southern accent, in fact, is still one of the acceptable forms humor bigotry. Need someone to be a hick, a pumpkin or a racist? Just give 'em a Southern accent, of course. Everyone will immediately know what you mean. Never mind that the state with the largest Klan membership -- both in raw numbers and percent of population -- was Indiana.

Anyway, it's the old stereotype of the Southerner as slow and stupid. Life in the South, until the advent of air conditioning, was by necessity slow-paced. There was little sense in getting out into the hot, humid sun and unnecessarily working up a sweat. There was little to do in rural homes that required speed to get it all in. It was only in the invasion of the fast-paced, automobile powered, air conditioned, television and telephone connected modern world that the Southern way of life began to dramatically change.

Southerners are proud of their past. Until very recently, we were a land of farmers and croppers, tied to the soil. We are acutely aware of family and the bonds of obligation -- both ours and others. And we have the sensitivity of those who have been humiliatingly defeated in a bid for independence. Shame and resentment will sharpen your memory that way.

We have always held ourselves apart down here. Maybe it was growing up in Huntsville that made me aware. Huntsville was a sleepy farming town, and former State capital, in northeast Alabama. It was so little regarded that when Interstate 65 was being planned the designers routed it through nearby Decatur, as they judged Decatur as the town with the most future promise.

But then came the German rocket scientists to Redstone Arsenal. After that came the Marshall Space Flight Center, the third leg of America's space program alongside the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Texas. Suddenly, a quiet corner of the rural South was swollen with a lot of German ex-patriates who only spoke halting English, and their fellow engineers and scientists from around the country.

Huntsville quickly became a rather cosmopolitan small town. One of the FM stations, until well into the Seventies, turned over its weekend programming to German music -- oompah polkas! German restaurants were followed by restaurants that served a wide variety of American and world cuisines for the employees of Redstone Arsenal and the MSFC. Farmers developed a keen interest in seeing that their children received solid science educations, so they could compete with the immigrants for jobs.

And so a small out-of-the-way community developed German, Indian, Nigerian and Chinese communities. And we had a welter of dialects and languages all around us. So maybe it's not so odd that I never developed a pronounced Southern accent, my parents being more aligned with the immigrants than the native Southerners.

Nor, I guess, is it any wonder that as a second-generation immigrant I developed a pronounced interest in, and immersion into, the culture of my birth.

My home's in Alabama, as the song goes.

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