“There’s a southern accent, where I come from.
The young ‘uns call it country
The Yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin’
But everything gets done, with a southern accent
Where I come from.” Tom Petty
I’m a forester by education and profession. I’ve spent most of my working life in central Alabama, buying timber, managing forestland, and dealing with a diverse group of people. It’s a challenging job–especially the dealing with people part. On any given day, I may have to effectively communicate with blue collar folks who have never finished high school, all the way up to white collar professionals with advanced college or technical degrees.
Communication–it’s a constant challenge we all face. Not just the right words, but also the more intangible aspects: tone, facial expression, volume, cadence, and body language. Sometimes even accent plays a role.
I’ve been made more aware of the accent aspect recently. I also own a small real estate company, specializing in the sale of farms, forest, and other rural properties. I subscribe to a 1-800 number service for my business. It’s a telecommunications slight-of-hand that allows potential customers to dial a toll free number, which then transfers the call to my cell phone. This toll free number is considered to be essential to doing business in this modern world. It’s ironic in a way. I would assume that someone who has several thousand dollars to potentially purchase a property would be willing to spring for a long distance call, but apparently not.
My problem is that my toll free number is very similar to that of Comcast, a large telecommunications business. I’ve been getting a lot of calls from New England lately, especially Massachusetts. The calls invariably go something like this:
Me: “Clifton Land Company, this is Ray.”
Me, repeating: “Clifton Land Company, this is Ray”
Caller: More silence, then “Is this Comcast?”
Me: “No, I’m sorry, buy you have the wrong number”
Caller: More silence, then a tentative “O.K.”, or “Huh?”
The callers have what I consider to be a heavy northeastern accent, but I have no problem understanding them. I can tell by their reaction, however, that they don’t have a clue as to what I’m saying. We live in the same country, speak the same language, watch the same T.V. and entertainment, but you’d never know it. I might as well be speaking Russian or Chinese.
Accents are an integral part of who we are. They attach us to a particular landscape and time. Like it or not, they create an image in a listener’s mind. To the callers from Massachusetts, I believe mine may include overhauls, a straw hat, and a banjo. For the record, I don’t own a banjo.
The term “southern accent” is really a misnomer. There are a wide variety of variations across the American South. A trained ear can locate your origin from these subtleties. There are distinct differences in the speech patterns and choice of words. South Louisiana is distinct from Virginia. Kentucky southern is distinctly different from the Mississippi variety. Texas southern is different from everywhere else. I don’t consider Atlanta or the entire State of Florida in the discussion. There are so many Yankee transplants in those two locations that they might as well be located north of the Mason-Dixon line.
There are also variations within States. Low country southern is softer than hill country southern. Aristocratic low country southern is the softest of all. You can always spot these genteel wannabes because they don’t pronounce their “r’s”. As in, “I rememba the old days in the South. It was a kinda, gentla, sota time…” I agree with Alabama author and fellow hillbilly Rick Bragg about these phonies. Nobody talks like that without a conscious effort to do so.
There’s a scene in a movie I like (Slingblade) in which the main character Carl describes the nature of his friendship with a young boy. Carl says “Me and him’s good friends. He like’s the way I talk and I like the way he talks.”
Maybe you and I will talk someday. If so, I hope you’ll like the way I talk.
In the meantime, ya’ll come see us, and tell yo momma and ’em I said “Hey.”