I have long been intrigued by accents. Who doesn’t enjoy the lilt of the Irish or the rich brogue of the Scottish folk? The British sounds from posh Londoners to a jaunty Cockney are musical as well. And then there are the Australians who have their own quirky way of speaking. And what about the foreigners who speak English with an adorable accent. Although sometimes unintelligible I have to admire them for trying. Hey! Who am I to criticize? I can’t speak their language! I am thinking of Gerard Depardieu (Green Card), Jean Reno (French Kiss, Godzilla, etc) and Juliette Binoche (Chocolat) and the classic Maurice Chevalier who so sweetly sang “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”. And the Latin lovers like Antonio Banderas and Andy Garcia – well, their accents just make them all the cuter, right? I mean, who didn’t love Ricky Ricardo when he was “ splainin’ somethin’ “ to Lucy? As a child I played around with accents occasionally but aside from my fake British accent it was pretty hard to convince myself that I was French or Italian when I was unable to launch into the real thing.
As we all may have learned from Professor Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady fame even among accents there are countless variations from gross to subtle that label folks down to the very county or region they come from. And so it is all over the United States. From California to New York, Maine to Mississippi, Florida to Washington state accents range across the spectrum from barely any to quite noticeable. For sure, not everyone from the same place even sounds the same. Two people from the same place might sound very different based on a number of factors. Also various places that historically have been more culturally isolated may have stronger, more recognizable accents like Ocracoke Island’s High Tiders.
Specifically North Carolina is one of the most linguistically diverse states in North America. There’s Appalachia, the Outer Banks, the Coastal Plains and the North Carolina Piedmont – not to mention the incredibly unique lingo of the Lumbee Tribe. Lots of folks from Raleigh seem to have no accent to speak of and yet 20 miles in any direction from there you will find significant accent differences.
I remember when I was in middle school and a family moved to Zebulon (North Carolina) from upstate New York. They had a girl named Patty who was in my grade and we gathered around her like hungry birds to a feeder at recess, asking her questions just to hear her talk. Most of the time we only understood about half of what she was saying. She talked so fast I was still on the first word when she was at the end of the sentence. Looking back I imagine poor Patty had similar difficulty trying to figure out what her classmates were saying. Years later I served on the Swimming Pool Board with her mother who complained about the “damn Yankees” that were moving into town. The rest of us were stunned into a moment of silence which I broke with this question, “Well, Carol, what do you think you are?” She sighed loudly and lamented, “I’m like a man without a country! When I go up North to visit they tease me about my Southern accent. And I’ve lived here for 30 years and I’ll never be FROM here.” We all laughed but I could understand how that might be frustrating. I am certain that she’d had to slow her speech – if for no other reason than self-preservation! But, bless her heart, there was no way anyone around here would say she had a Southern accent.
My parents were both Southerners but from very different parts of the South land. My daddy was from Zebulon, which is 20 miles east of Raleigh. My mama was from Harrisonburg, Virginia which is in the western part of the state and lies smack in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley. Both Southerners but their accents were not the same and some words they pronounced very differently. For example, the word “pecan”. My daddy pronounced as “pee – can” (accent on the first syllable) but my mama said “pe – kahn” (accent on the second syllable).
Whenever I went to visit my cousins in the Shenandoah, their friends would ask where I was from and most of them guessed “Alabama” or “Georgia”. They all got a kick out of my accent and acted like they didn’t have one!
I enjoy all the folks I know from other regions of the United States who have moved here and embrace Southern culture – especially when they adopt Southern expressions like “y’all” and “bless your heart”! I need to start collecting specific expressions to share with them so they can fit right in. For example, here in the South we…..
- “mash” the gas – meaning we accelerate, put on some speed
- “reckon” aka imagine, believe, or suppose
- might be “fixin’ to” – meaning we’re about to do something but maybe not right away
- go “over yonder” – which is a distant direction that could be any direction and its distance is further measured by “way over yonder”
- get “mad as a wet settin’ hen” – which is pretty mad and you’d better get out of the way
- “carry” people places – which does not mean literally. It means that you provide transportation.
- “pitch a hissy fit” aka having a temper tantrum
- “act ugly” – which does not have a thing to do with outward appearance but rather to denote a person who is behaving badly
- say “yessir” “no sir” and “yes m’am” “no m’am” which, by the way, is POLITE – not sarcastic, as some of my Northern friends used to think (before I enlightened them).
When I gather a complete list I’ll let y’all know. Until then I will continue to delight in listening to the many voices around me. I don’t have the ear to be a linguist but I have enough hearing to enjoy the music.