I can say, “Hi, how are you,” and in those four words people know that I am from the south. My accent isn’t as thick as it was when I first came to Portland. Back then I couldn’t even say “Hi” without people saying, “Where’re you from?”
The crazy thing is, they’d use a fake Southern accent to ask me, like, “You all ain’t from around these parts, are you?”
I didn’t like having a voice everyone recognized. I’d call girlfriends with toddlers who answered the phone, “Hel-wo,” and I’d say, “Is your mommy home?” They’d drop the phone on the counter and yell, “MOMMMMMEEEEE, IT’S SUZANNE ON THE PHONE!” 4 words is all it took.
One time I tried to disguise my voice by making it real low, like a gruff old man. “Is your mom home?” The phone slammed down and I heard, “MOMMMMMEEEEEE, THERE’S A MAN ON THE PHONE AND HE SOUNDS LIKE SUZANNE.”
I started trying to figure out what makes southern speech different.
One thing is that it’s rambling. Southerners talk as if they’re sitting on the front porch swing sipping sassafras tea with nothing in particular to do for the next six months. For instance, normal people might say, “I went to the store at noon.” Southerners would say, “I went down to the super market long about noon or a little bit after or maybe it was a little bit before, it’s hard to recall because it’s been awhile, but the point I’m trying to make right here is that when I went down to the grocery store long about noon today, I ran into…”
Southern talk is lazy. We take shortcuts. Everybody probably knows about dropping the g’s on words ending in “ing.” Southerners are laughin, walkin, talkin, fightin, bitin, chewin and spittin. But we also run words together. Like the rapper who named himself after a half dollar. 50 cent. He pronounces it fiddy cent. If you ask someone in the south if they have change for a dollar, they’d say, “Sorry, I’ve only got fiddy cent.” We also say, “Let’s go in nair.” “What chew doin?” and “How’s ’bout we sit a spell.”
Southern talk might be lazy, but we add in a bunch of syllables to make up for it. In fact, there is not one 1-syllable word in the southern accent that I know about. I found this out one time when my son had a friend over when they were both around seven or eight. I gave them a couple of choices for drinks with lunch. The friend looked puzzled and whispered something to my son. My son said, “She wants to know if you want milk or water.” The kid said to me, “What was that other choice?” I said, “What other choice?” He said, “The meal–ulk one.” That was the first time I realized that I had made milk into two syllables. We do that with everything. We say, “Pa-ass the br-ead.”
The fourth thing we do is pronounce our vowels all wrong. I’s sound like ah. “Ah’m gonna go outside.” Or we’ll add an “r” to it, so that if I’m sleepy I might say, “I’m tarred.” And our e’s sound like a’s. Me sounds like may. My kids used to love to say “me” like that. “Give that toy to may.” “No, give it to may.” They started out saying it like that to make fun of me, but now they keep saying it out of habit, and I think it’s cute.
I have given my southern accent a lot of thought and decided that it’s something that makes me stand out. I know I’ve used it to my advantage to get out of traffic tickets and so forth. I’ve decided that I’m proud of it. If you are interested in talking southern, I’ll try to come up with some more lessons. Until then, just say, “Y’all.” You’ll have people eating of your hand.
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