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By Audrey Atkins
That’s not what you expect to hear on a business call when all you’ve said is “Good morning. This is Audrey.”
But that’s exactly what happened to me recently when I called someone who’s from the North and with whom I’d never spoken before. I introduced myself and they started laughing. Having said nothing that was inherently funny, I assumed it was because of my accent — my very thick, distinctive Coastal Southern accent.
I also made that assumption because it happens to me frequently. I say something and people laugh, generally following their guffaw with a hearty “Where are you from?” Or they mimic me…to my face. “Hoooooow aaaaare yeewwwww?”
Now if I’m in New York or Chicago or California, I get it. It’s odd to hear a Southern accent outside the South. But I don’t understand why, when I’m in my home state of Alabama, it strikes people as odd to hear a Southern accent. You’re talking to someone from the South who’s in the South. What’s so damn funny?
And it’s not just me. I’ve heard Southern professionals from all over tell countless stories of being called out in front of classmates or colleagues, shamed really, for something intrinsic to their very being — their accent. And if you’re a native Southerner reading this, I bet right about now you’re thinking about a time (or times) that it’s happened to you too.
“People will comment on how ‘slow’ the speech of Southerners is, which they inevitably link to being ‘slow’ minded as well,” said Jennifer Cramer, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Linguistics at The University of Kentucky. “There is an expectation that everyone has equal access to and desire to use a standard variety [of English], and the use of any non-standard variety is evidence of laziness, ignorance, and other unseemly characteristics.”
That’s why many Southerners feel compelled to drop their Southern accents when they pursue educational or professional opportunities. They don’t want to be thought of as “slow.” They don’t want to be denied opportunities. They don’t want to be singled out and embarrassed in front of their peers.
“When I was in tax school at NYU a professor asked me to translate for another student from south Alabama,” said Elizabeth H. Hutchins, an attorney at Dentons Sirote in Birmingham. “He couldn’t understand the word ‘light’ pronounced in Southern.”
“Speakers of non-standard varieties [of English] face issues in school, the workforce, the housing market, the judicial systems, etc.,” said Dr. Cramer. “The effect of such perceptions is that a person’s whole livelihood could be impacted negatively by perceptions that may not be based on reality.”
So where do these perceptions come from?
The answer is movies and television according to Gareth Jones, a professor of Film Studies at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and co-host of Sleep In Cinema, Birmingham’s only live radio show about film. “In both mediums, it is important to quickly establish character,” he said. “Tropes and stereotypes are the easiest ways to accomplish this.”
Jones cited early examples like It Happened One Night, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and, of course, Gone with the Wind. And the negative stereotypes have persisted and still continue on today, he said, through movies like Deliverance, Talladega Nights, Borat, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Sling Blade, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Forrest Gump. “I think film and television, for good or ill, help Southerners internalize the stereotypes and this affects how people perceive themselves.”
But it does not affect how people outside the United States see us. “Other English-speaking societies do not have the same stereotypes about Southern accents. If a Southerner is in a video conference with native English speakers from India, they will have no negative connection for those dialect features,” said Kirk Hazen, Ph.D., Professor of Linguistics and Benedum Distinguished Scholar at West Virginia University. “Only when dialect features are socially indexed with a negative stereotype are they perceived in a negative way.”
Dr. Hazen believes that “dialect discrimination is often considered the last open back door to discrimination.” He said that with language, people can hide behind prescriptivism, making the argument that there is a supposed right way and that any Southern way of speaking is wrong. That’s why he believes it is much more publicly acceptable to critique someone’s speech than to criticize their culture, even though that is exactly what they are doing.
And as someone who is regularly singled out, mocked, and laughed at, I can tell you that this “dialect discrimination” is exhausting. And Dr. Hazen said that while he is not a psychologist, he can tell how the negative judgments pile up and weigh heavy on people. “Especially at times when people need to speak up in professional settings,” he said, “If they are not carrying the confidence they deserve, if they are critiquing themselves before they even open their mouths, they are not going to perform as well as they could.”
There are those, however, that have been successful despite their accents — folks like Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, Jr., Reese Witherspoon, Morgan Freeman, Elise Jordan, Stacey Abrams, Ted Turner, Tim Cook, and Rick Bragg. I imagine, however, that they too have felt the pressure to play down their accents and that they probably have.
And these folks and others like them are the exception, rather than the rule. Southern author Lee Smith is credited with saying that if Southerners are never heard saying intelligent things, the Southern accent will never be associated with intelligence.
Let me repeat that for those of you in the back: If Southerners are never heard saying intelligent things, the Southern accent will never be associated with intelligence.
That’s why I say to you, my fellow y’allers and drawlers, be brave. Say your smart things in your smart Southern accents. Don’t let yourselves be homogenized. The cost is too high.
You see, when we lose our accents, we lose one of the best parts of our Southern heritage. We lose the “Jesus weejus” blessings over Sunday dinner that go on so long you think you’ll starve, we lose Mawmaw’s recipe for cobbler that can’t be found in any cookbook, and we lose the stories told time and time again that float off front porches into the night.
We lose the very thing that makes us … us. And once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back.
Audrey McDonald Atkins is the author of They Call Me Orange Juice, a collection of essays about growing up and living in the south, and the creator of Folkways Nowadays, a popular blog about southern culture and whatever else comes into her mind. Born and raised in Citronelle, Ala., she now lives with her husband in Birmingham where she is the Director of Community Engagement for WBHM, NPR News for the Heart of Alabama.