The Southern accent, in my experience, is not one thing. It’s is many and varied. It changes from city to city, state to state. Someone in coastal Savannah or Charleston sounds speaks differently than a person from the mountains of Tennessee or the city of Atlanta. People from my hometown of Thomasville, Georgia make fun of those from Macon (a mere 2.5 hours north) for sounding like Yankees. Yet the American media would have you believe our voices are all the same.
But consider this: I have lived in Georgia all but two years of my (very early) life. My formative years were spent in the extreme southern parts of the state where our accents are fairly pronounced. Since turning 18, however, most of my time has been spent in Northern Georgia between Athens and Atlanta. I’m also a bit language and pronunciation obsessed so I’ve literally changed the way I say some words, like ‘water’. My husband, who grew up in Queens to a Taiwanese family, says that word more Southern than I do. With those simple changes some Southerners have decided I am, in fact, no longer a true Southerner. Whatever that means. I think sometimes we buy into the media’s idea of what we should be.
One day back in 2006, I was driving a gameday shuttle from Sanford Stadium to the parking decks after a UGA game when a passenger struck up a conversation with me. He was an older gentleman with a coastal accent. He really drawled out his vowels, but still managed to sound genteel, distinguished, and highly educated. He asked me where I was from and I told him Thomasville. For ten minutes he argued with me, got downright angry, because he could not believe I was telling the truth. He said I sounded like a Northerner through and through. I’d never been accused of something so ridiculous – or insulting (no offense, Northerners). Ever since that experience I’ve had an obsession with trying to pin down the Southern accent and mostly, I’ve completely failed in that endeavor.
The only conclusion I’ve been able to arrive at – those not from and of the South almost never get it right. Or, at least, they ignore the nuances and focus on the most backwards, hick accent they can create. This is why Honey Boo Boo grates on my nerves. Not because people don’t actually speak like that (her family is one of thousands who sound like that all the time) but because they are stealing all the limelight and perpetuating that single Southern voice I despise so much. A voice that even Southerners who sound so completely different have bought into. But it’s a lie. Even my sister and I have intensely different accents despite being raised in the same city, in the same house, by the same people.
Just some food for thought!! If you’re from the South, have you had any similar experiences? If you’re not, where have you gotten your ideas and impressions of what sounding Southern means? Movies, books, television? I’d love to know.