Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Say What? Accentuating the Negative

When I'm relaxed, tired, or not paying particular attention, you'll hear it.  It's worse in my own home.  Much worse.  The accent.  It's beyond drawl, that's not entirely it.  It's the quirky vowel swap that gets people.  If you're from roughly where I am, your long "I" sound turns into sort of a short "A" sound, more "AH" than "EYE."  Oh, that's not too bad, you say.  Barely noticeable, I'm sure.  Uh, no.  Huge problem.

An excerpt of an actual conversation I had Saturday:
E.C.:  That Children's Festival thing was great!  We took Jack over there and made kahts.  They were so cool!
Nice Neighbor Lady:  I'm sorry, cots?  They let you make cots?
E.C.:  Uh, no no, the ones you flah.  Kahts.
Nice Neighbor Lady:  *Glances at H.M. with puzzled look*
E.C.:  String.  Paper. Yah flah 'em.
H.M.:  *Interjecting, annoyed*  KITES.  He means KITES.
Nice Neighbor Lady:   Ohhhhh, kites.  Um, neat.
And lahk - sorry, like - everyone, I've got the typical southern habit of incessantly dropping 'G's, which at one point in my life was an issue so pronounced that I couldn't correctly say the name of my university.
Circa 1995 Neighbor:  Whereya goin'ta college, boy?
18 Year Old E.C.:  Hardin'.
Circa 1995 Neighbor:  Ah!  Hardin Simmons.  Great.  Daddy went there.  Baptist.
18 Year Old E.C.:  Nosir, Hardin'.  HarDING.
Circa 1995 Neighbor:  Neverheardovit.
Generally you try to clean this mess up when you're talking on the telephone with foreigners (i.e. native New Yorkers) or when you're reading Scripture aloud in church.  You concentrate hard then, trying to knock off the edges.  Or maybe Scotch-tape them back on.

At HarDING, it helped immeasurably that (1) I'm somewhat of a mimic and (2) had a Midwesterner roommate that spoke cleaner English than Tom Brokaw.  By the end of sophomore year, after bunking with a fantastic dude from Worcester, Massachusetts (!), folks back home believed I had suffered a stroke, having only partially regained the ability to speak.

Accents are funny things.  They conjure up preconceptions that may or may not be true.  They tip people off about your upbringing, social status, education... and can even comment on your level of real intelligence.  It's a common belief in the U.S (especially in politics) that a southern accent magically lops off 30 I.Q. points as soon as your mouth opens.

We know a few other things about accents.  One is that strong regional dialects (ones lahk mahn)  are disappearing.  Our speech is becoming more and more homogenous all the time.  (So THAT'S why our grandparents sound like Flannery O'Connor characters!)  Another interesting thing is that as income increases, dialects generally flatten out.  So as we grow wealthier, and watch the same TV shows, speech distinctions begin to vanish.

So how much of a big deal is it for Jack to screw up his vowel sounds me to screw up Jack's vowel sounds?  Does it (materially) limit him in an increasingly competitive world, where small advantages - heck, any advantages - are ruthlessly exploited?

In other words, should ah watch mah mouth?

Majesty is having a small, controlled fit over this.  (KAHTS, huh?!  Really?!  She couldn't even understand you!)  And ah finally found out whah:
Others monophthongize /aɪ/ in all contexts, as in the stereotyped pronunciation "nahs whaht rahs" for nice white rice; these speakers are mostly found in an Appalachian area that includes eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and Northern Alabama (the "Inland South"), as well as in Central Texas.  Elsewhere in the South, this pronunciation is stigmatized as a working class feature.
 Oh dear.  Of all the things that could've done us in, who could have predicted accent bigotry?!


Jennifer said...

Okay, being from DEEP east Texas myself. This post made me laugh to the point of disrupting the rest of the ministers...especially part about the increase of the accent when tired and about being a mimic in college to help drop the accent. I dated a boy from Iowa once in college and by the time we broke up, one might swear that I had grown up amidst the cornfields. Oh yeah, and I got my doctorate in Michigan. Imagine how quickly I made sure to drop my accent for the sake of IQ points during that time in my life. Truly, I feel your pain. I also feel H.M.'s.

El Comodoro said...

Had you squarely in mind on this one.

bebe said...

You should go somewhere like Chi-town and see how they react to your ordering cheesecake--'are you sure you can PAY for that cheeeeesecayke?'!!! It's even hard when you add the g at the end of words that need one!!

Donna said...

Oh it's so true. I'm a terrible mimic and take on any accent I'm around- my poor kids- Julia says "hotayal" for hotel. And my father in law always makes fun of the way I say pie. We need Designing Women back on the air to show "classy" southern accents. You could never accuse Julia Sugarbaker of not being muy intelligente. (which brings me to my next point- southern accents trying to speak Spanish- not pretty)