A Southern Anecdote: The Accent Thing

If-Ya-Aint-From-The-South-Motivational-Love-QuotesThe 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.

7 thoughts on “A Southern Anecdote: The Accent Thing

  1. I grew up in the foothills of Appalachia near Rome, Georgia, with a fairly pronounced Southern accent. We used to visit my cousins in Florida during the summer, and I can remember my uncle asking my father once, “How can you let your kids talk like that?” As we moved closer to Atlanta and I eventually moved away from the South and become an English teacher, my accent has become much more neutral. The only time my Southern really comes out is when I’m upset or when I’m speaking to my mom on the phone.

    The funny thing is that many people, when they find out I’m from the South, ask me to “do” a Southern accent for them, and I can’t! Or it comes out sounding very movie-fake and cheesy. I guess it has to come from the heart. 🙂

    • My accent comes out when I’m around my family as well, especially my sister who has an adorably heavy accent. I can’t ‘do’ a Southern accent either. I cringe just hearing myself try. But every once in a while I’ll hear something come out of my mouth that is just as bad as something Honey Boo Boo would say.

  2. I am from the Atlanta area and upon returning home after being away at college (in GA) my mother said I had lost my accent. Now I think it only comes out when around family and then it is only apparent when I say certain words. I totally agree that there are difference between dfferent areas of the south. I have even noticed that there are subtle differences between native Atlantans and someone from a southern suburb of Atlanta, like Newnan.

  3. I was born in Richmond, VA but spend much of my childhood in FL. My dad is from New Orleans and my mother from VA. My father still has a middling New Orleans accents but it only really comes out strong when we are down there visiting or he’s talking to relatives. Growing up I never thought that I had a ‘Southern Accent;’ I thought me and my siblings spoke in a generic American accent. But when I moved to England for a year to study abroad I was told by a girl from Canada that I had a ‘slight’ southern accent and that she could hear the difference in my speech compared to the other Americans living on our floor! Truthfully I think I am an amalgam; a mix between my fathers regional southern and my mothers more generic, slightly southern accent (although she was raised in the south and as a child she lived in Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, and the mountains of Kentucky, both or her parents were from Pennsylvania which I think influenced her speech).

    Personally I can’t do the southern accent that most American’s think of when they think of the South! I absolutely love the old time Virginian accent that unfortunately isn’t that common any more which makes me sad. I’m not really a fan of the accent of the Honey Boo Boo’s either but I do agree that most Americans have no idea how varied the speech is down here which is a shame as there are some wonderfully beautiful accents to be found!

    What an interesting post- thanks for this!

    • I love the diversity of the Southern accent! And I love that you got to experience two of them growing up. My parents were both born and raised in South Georgia so they sounded mostly the same. Somehow my sister got the heaviest accent – and it is HEAVY.

      • It’s funny how people growing up in the same family can sound so different within the same accent! We’ve had many discussions (i.e. arguments) in our family about how to ‘properly’ say words like caramel, pecan, pattern, and even the word crayon! I don’t know how family members living in the same place and in the same house can end up sounding so different but I do find it very interesting!

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