My wife can’t stand listening to Reba McEntire speak. Something about the nasal tone and the shape of the vowels drives her mad. Lest you think this is a hit piece on Reba, I’ll point out that my wife also has little patience for the voices of John Edwards, Jeff Foxworthy, and Paula Deen.
I find this intolerance amusing because my wife sounds like Holly Hunter, especially when she’s angry. If you come around and notice that someone’s playing deleted scenes from Raising Arizona at a house-party volume, you best come visit another time.
My wife was born and raised in Memphis and, despite her efforts in high school and college to erase the vocal evidence of her upbringing, the accent was one of the first things I noticed about her. That and her delightful figures of speech. “I’m so hungry I could eat the ass end out of a horse” was one of the first sentences she spoke in my presence. I’d never heard anyone in the exurbs of northeastern Ohio, where I grew up, talk like her. Oh baby, what’s a boy to do?
I followed her down south, where I encountered many surprises: that dirt could be red; that cooked vegetables could taste like bacon; that Christmas day could be warm and sunny; that barbecue could be far more delicious than the ice cream scoop of chipped beef I got on a tray at school lunch; and, most disorienting of all, that I had an accent.
I know a lot of northerners talk funny. No doubt the New York metropolitan area has provided lifetimes of study for thousands of linguists. Even Midwesterners can speak in a peculiar manner. (Listen to Jon Gruden — also an Ohio boy.) My Pennsylvania-born mother liked to buy groceries at the Giant “Iggle” (Eagle) grocery store. She was known to inquire of her two sons which “din-o-sar” they most favored.
All those years, I thought I was eliminating vocal tics that would distract the audience. It turned out that the product I’d created was nestled inside the uncanny valley, molding the vocal version of Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween.
Somehow I escaped her dialect and worked deliberately to scrub away any tinge of a Northern Cities Vowel Shift in order to achieve the ideal of General American. General American is the way newscasters talk, and I wanted to be a newscaster. Specifically, I wanted to be a newscaster for NPR. As far as life goals go, this one’s pretty boring. As boring as, well, an NPR newscast. Nonetheless, I took elocution classes in college and grabbed regular on-air shifts at the NPR affiliate there. I made dozens of aircheck tapes, listening closely to my pronunciation and delivery. By the time I graduated, my speech was pristine. Flat, unhurried, untraceable. The voice of Anytown, USA.
It was not the voice of Memphis.
I got a job at a radio station there and found that my colleagues spoke like the natives of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee that they were. Their voices were a comfort to the audience, who adored them. The sounds they made were familiar and reassuring, genuine and musical. I sat down at the mic, opened my mouth, and it announced me as a foreign entity. Not simply a person from a different area of the country, but a person with no evidence of heritage or upbringing. A robot voice, programmed into producing proper forms according to dictionary pronunciations.
All those years, I thought I was eliminating vocal tics that would distract the audience. It turned out that the product I’d created was nestled inside the uncanny valley, molding the vocal version of Michael Myers’ mask in Halloween. A blank, off-putting sound.
Our voices — octave and meter — are unique to ourselves. But the way we talk is shaped by the places we live. It’s not true that regional accents are disappearing. It may be true that the people we hear on television and the radio are less likely to speak with a regional accent and more likely to speak General American. Especially if the broadcast audience is nationwide. I mentioned Jon Gruden earlier. Compare him to Dan Patrick, who grew up in the same corner of Ohio. He’s as general as General American can be.
There are exceptions of course. But as a rule, thick accents are only part of the performance if they’re required for the role. Larry the Cable Guy does not, in fact, have a southern accent. He puts on the accent along with a sleeveless plaid shirt and a camo cap and sells a pile of tickets. His intention, through costume and fugazi speech, is to sound like a hick. He’s appealing to an audience that wants to hear a dim-witted straight-talker talk some common-sense wisdom. A guy who dresses like that and says those things doesn’t speak General American. Neither does a Texas governor running for president, even if he was born in Connecticut.
I mentioned earlier that my wife tried to get rid of her accent. It was part of preparing herself for a career. She’s told me that she didn’t want to launch into the wide world and have people think she sounded like a hick. In other words, she didn’t want people to hear her speak and think of Larry the Cable guy. When you meet someone new, you take notice of the way they dress, the way they style their hair, and the way they talk. These initial impressions allow you to create a quick sketch of their story — a place to begin as you get to know each other.
If your heart is filled with sunshine and frolicking puppies, you will receive these impressions with gladness and serene acceptance. If you are a part of modern society, you’ll judge your new acquaintance harshly — especially if he talks like that dumb-dumb Gomer Pyle. They’ve done research on this. Notice that it’s not just an American phenomenon. The aforementioned article mentions Adele, and before her it was The Beatles talking like a bunch of low-class dopes. Mikhail Gorbachev was derided in Russia because he talked like a farmer. Something my wife has in common with a world leader.
Of course, this is all bullshit. An accent does not mean a person is stupid. If you spent an evening with our friends and family in Memphis, you’d hear a lot of strong southern accents. But you’d meet no dummies. Certainly no one as moronic as a certain current, heavily-accented world leader.
I waged this war on accents for one reason: I didn’t want my child to sound like a hick. Even though I’d lived the falsehood of that sentiment, even though I knew its condescension and judgment, I couldn’t seem to banish it completely from my mind.
In fact, if you dropped in on this hypothetical dinner party, you’d realize there’s no such thing as a southern accent. There are myriad dialects spread across a musical family. Think of the woodwinds in an orchestra. They’re related, but a clarinet sounds quite different than an oboe. So too the voice of a person born into the long tail of cotton wealth compared to a person born down by the railyard. The mountains, the delta, the piney forest — each of these natural features shape the glottal stops and diphthongs of its residents. The melody and rhythm of each place is unique, and after 13 years of living in the south, I could tell when somebody had left the holler behind for the big city.
But even as I grew to revere the bold and jagged brushstrokes, the dabbles of watercolor, the heaping, gooey piles of oil painted across the canvas of speech, I struggled to keep the walls of my home painted beige. When my daughter was a toddler, I’d scoop her up and lift her high into the air. She’d squeal and exclaim, “Put me daay-owwn!”
“You want me to put you DOWN?”
When she began grade school, I waged war against putting things “up.” In Memphis, when you take a cup out of a dishwasher, or a folded towel out of a laundry basket, or a box of cereal out of a shopping bag, the next thing you do is put that object “up.” This drove me nuts. What if the cereal goes on the bottom shelf of the pantry? You’re not putting it up. You’re putting it away. As you should be.
The reason grade school is important here is that it’s the point when she left my home and started to interact with hundreds of southern kids and southern grownups who spoke like southerners. All day long, her teachers were telling her to put her markers up. Then she’d come home and offer to help me put the dishes up. “Away!” I’d bellow. “You can help put them away!”
I’m just a general American, mayo on a slice of white bread with a side of butter noodles. I feel no pull of personal history. And I regret that I worked so hard to try to force my kids to talk like me.
I waged this war on accents for one reason. To my great shame, I didn’t want my child to sound like a hick. Even though I’d lived the falsehood of that sentiment, even though I knew its condescension and judgment, I couldn’t seem to banish it completely from my mind.
In the immortal words of the hair band Cinderella, you don’t know what you got (till it’s gone.)
I’m writing this from my house in Seattle. It’s cloudy and gray outside, and that also happens to be the palate used to form the dialect here. Monochrome. Local researchers say a regional Pacific Northwest accent does exist, but it’s hard to pick out of the crowd. I’m living Rachel Carson’s silent spring, recast as a total erasure of accent. Everyone pretty much sounds the same. In the land of Microsoft, the robot voice rules. You’d think I’d feel more at ease here, camouflaged among the flat speakers. But I miss the musicality of speech in the south.
More importantly, I mourn the possibility of my kids acquiring an intriguing bend of anchoring notes in their speech. They’ll never talk like Cherry Jones or Alton Brown because they no longer live around people who do. Except when I get their mom riled up — and in that instance I hope they’re not listening closely, less because of the sound of the words she’s using and more because of the words themselves.
The term “General American” describes more than the sound of my speech. It also describes the way I feel about my origins. I’m a man from nowhere. I had no regrets about giving up an Ohio accent because I had no regrets about giving up Ohio. It’s where I was raised, but I never really felt at home there. I don’t consider myself an Ohioan or a Midwesterner. I’m just a general American, mayo on a slice of white bread with a side of butter noodles. I feel no pull of personal history. There is no distant radar ping of regional culture received within my soul. Put me in Dallas or Cleveland or Orlando and, generally, I’d feel pretty much the same.
I think that’s wrong. I wish it weren’t true. And I regret that I worked so hard to try to force my kids to talk like me. It’s good to be from a place, to carry the evidence of your rearing out into the world. To set your throat and lips dancing together in a manner learned in your mother’s arms and at your grandmother’s kitchen table, the sound of your little symphony rising like steam from the magnolia trees after a summer rain. It’s good to meet someone and open your mouth and explode their snap judgments with the content of your character. It’s good to retain a recollection of home, no matter how far away, and all of the jumble of contradictory feelings it contains: pride and frustration and love and disgust. It’s good to be specific instead of general.
We’ll be in Memphis for Christmas this year. I expect it’ll be warm and sunny. I expect to eat some delicious barbecue. I expect my daughter will put up the good china after dinner. I expect I’ll keep my mouth shut when she does.