On where I come from and why I (don’t) talk funny

The Blue Ridge Mountains - A beautiful place to be

I was born and raised in a southern U.S. state–not the deep South, but in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was, and still is, a very rural place. When people ask where I’m from, I never respond with a town or city; I respond with a region. The county where I grew up covered well over 450 square miles, but the population was well below 20,000. One high school for grades 8-12 served the entire county, and there were still only 1000 students. Drive a few hours north, and people don’t believe I’m from the same state because of my accent.

At least that’s the way it used to be.

Over the past few years, whether owing to the influence of science, academia, or living in progressively larger and less conservative cities, my accent began to neutralize. Without a conscious intent, the drawl has diminished to the point that few people now recognize it’s there. On a rare occasion, someone will pick up a hint of something different, though they’re nearly as likely to ask if I spent time in England growing up as they are to guess I’m from the South.

I haven’t cast aside the accent completely. When I’m talking with family or back in the South–where three letter words can take on 4 syllables–my Southern speech comes out in full force. But put me back in the lab, and the lilting drawl goes back into hiding. There are a few words that retain their unique Southern flair (such as my pronunciation of “naked”, which greatly amused a friend and former colleague). Or should you be so foolish as to incite the temper that those ginger strands hint at, that drawl is likely to find its way out.

For the most part, though, there are only small vestiges of my Southern accent in my everyday life. Before my accent became more neutral, it occasionally became a focus for attention from others–mostly good-natured teasing. But the attention made me uncomfortable, nonetheless. And sometimes it was accompanied by the implication that it was unusual for a Southern girl to become a scientist or simply to be smart, or the assumption that I was too timid or well-mannered to stand up for myself or anything at all.

In the United States at least, there is a distinct cultural stereotype associated with the South, especially the rural South. David Kroll recently caught Stephen Colbert in a slip of his Southern accent and posted this quote from 60 Minutes interview with Colbert:

At a very young age, I decided I was not gonna have a southern accent. Because people, when I was a kid watching TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that someone was stupid, you gave the character a southern accent.

Agent Pendergast, the protagonist of this and other novels, is one of the few smart Southern characters I've encountered in fiction. And it's OK, because he came from money.

In TV and even many books, portrayal of intelligence among Southerners is often reserved for the aristocracy. The rural Southerner is often painted as the bigoted village idiot with a deep Southern drawl chewing tobacco, listening to country music with NASCAR on in the background.

The stereotype takes on even more nuances for the girl from the rural South. I use girl, because it really doesn’t change from adolescence until she becomes the family matriarch. The Southern woman is demure, waiting for her husband or father to make decisions or form opinions for her, doing what she is told. She isn’t terribly interested in education. She’s polite to the extreme, not one to disagree often and certainly not with a man. In other words, she is weak and basically empty save for the edicts of Southern hospitality and the occasional baby.

If you were to ask my father, grandfather, brother, or husband, and they’d tell you a different story. Each has been husband, father, and/or son of a fierce Southern fem. The women of my family have been (mostly) punctual and polite, good cooks, hosts, and caregivers. But should you ever mistake our hospitality as a doormat, you could quickly learn just what a fiery spirit we possess. They were nurses and secretaries and are some of the strongest women I’ve ever known.  They taught me about resilience, doing what needs to be done, not letting others take advantage of me, going after my passion… In short, they taught me that to do what I set my mind too. Among those ladies, there was never a question, never a doubt that I had what it would take to follow a career in science.

All our lives are governed by unwritten rules, many of which we’re not even consciously aware. Still it makes me a little sad to think that I drop my Southern accent when I go to work, that I basically hide a part of my heritage without even intending too. It feels like a bit of a betrayal to my family, and particularly to those women who showed me so much. It also makes me more acutely aware of the stereotypes ingrained in my mind–and try harder to check those assumptions at the door.

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24 Responses to On where I come from and why I (don’t) talk funny

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  2. Andrew says:

    Don’t forget Brenda Leigh Johnson on The Closer – the ultimate strong woman who even takes advantage of people’s stereotypes about Southern women!

  3. BikeMonkey says:

    The most important thing here, naturally, is that you get to choose to pass…..

    • And that your “heritage” isn’t on the business end of slavery and jim crow and segregation.

      • biochembelle says:

        There is a lot of ugly history surrounding race in the South-and in the U.S. as a whole. Even without laws mandating it, segregation was put into practice in several places outside of the South.

        Desegregation of a Boston high school in 1974 reached a pitch that is generally only associated with the South. Much of the city remains segregated. It’s been said of the community I live in that the most common traffic offense is DWB-driving while black.

        Growing up, it never struck me as unusual that more than a third of the families between my house and the main road were black, or that our families were friendly. As they’ve gotten older, they’ve looked out for each other and each other’s families, with no consideration of race.

        None of this diminishes the racial conflict in the South. It’s something we need to remember, talk about, and learn from. There are still bigots in the South, but they’re also everywhere else.

        The history of the South doesn’t stop in 1950, and the country’s history of discrimination doesn’t stop at the Mason-Dixon line.

        • Dr. O says:

          Well said, Dr. Belle. :)

        • BikeMonkey says:

          My comment was not directed at external sources of discrimination. It was remarking on the fact that you are able to pass for other than the class you describe as suffering discrimination by modulating your accent. In contrast, I’m unfamiliar with tan folk who can modulate their skin tone or features so as to escape detection as “other”.
          I also note that most strongly identifiable regional accents in the US cause some degree of the village idiot effect. Jersey, Southie, New Hampsha, Minnesooooooootah…the list goes on. Perhaps you are overestimating the degree to which a specific regional accent is looked down upon.

          • biochembelle says:

            That particular comment was directed toward PhysioProf’s not yours-sorry for the mixup.

            Your point about being able to ‘pass’ is well-taken. However, the existence of other stereotypes doesn’t change any individual’s personal experience.

            As to your comment below, of course, I cannot speak to the level of discrimination on the basis of skin color that persists. But it is perhaps worth considering that in modern society, the boundaries for racial divides in the US are not so clearly defined by state lines.

        • BikeMonkey says:

          Oh and since you brought it up, this fake equivalence you-tooism rings exceptionally hollow. The length, breadth and institutional entrenchment of bigotry in the South, as well as the Confederacy fetish that continues strongly to this day, is entirely unlike the other regions of the country.

          The question is not whether there are bigots elsewhere but rather how many, how pervasive (I.e., how far do you have to move to escape them- a neighborhood, a city or three state lines?) and how institutional? And to point out the obvious, sorry my friend but as a pale person you are not really equipped to decide if the segregation of your youth is equivalent to that of the city you live in today.

          • biochembelle says:

            As for the Confederacy fetish, this is something I’ve never really understood. Those who embrace Confederate symbolism while claiming it has nothing to do with slavery and racism are either disingenuous or willfully ignorant of the history surrounding it.

  4. Namnezia says:

    My Mexican accent has pretty much faded in the 20 years or so I’ve lived in the US. But as soon as I start speaking English with someone with a hispanic accent it comes out in full force. There are also a few words that give it away on random occasions, and when I’ve had too much celebratory tequila…

    • biochembelle says:

      I recall chatting with scientist from India who had been living in the U.S. for decades, and s/he said something quite similar. I’m curious if it’s just general culture in the US or if it’s more specific to academia or certain fields.

  5. sylviamclain says:

    This is a great post – I am Southern too but I live in England (or as the folks back home would say Ang-land); when I first moved here my accent faded quite alot – largely I think because no one could understand me – so you just sort of change the way you say things. But then I moved back to Tennessee for a year; and that accent came stormin’ back -
    what was weird is that when I would talk to people at home, they thought I was English, which I found really embarrassing – when I told them ‘I am from here’ they didn’t believe me and I lost all my ‘country ‘cred’ – I didn’t like it – It just happens though when you move away – of course if you ask the English they will tell you I sound like a US southerner

  6. Bashir says:

    I don’t have much of a Southern accent. I’m from a deeper, though less rural area. I vary between a mild accent and none. I never really attached much to not using it or recall making an conscious decision about it. Code switching and the like is just something I’m used to. Mine also tends to come out if I am angry. If I’m actually upset I sound exactly like my mother, who is from the rural south. It’s kind of odd. I suppose she’s my model for lecturing people.

    I wrote something similar a little bit ago.
    http://jbashir.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/on-langauge/

    • biochembelle says:

      Bashir, thanks for sharing your post! My mother was the spitfire in our house, and I know I sound-and show some of her trademark withering looks-like her when I get fired up.

  7. chall says:

    Having English as a second language make it hard to relate exactly to what you mean since I can’t pick out too many various accent of US American. However, I guess it is as with other dialects and accents in my first language where I know certain “key words” that will give away where you are from. and I do know the drawl…

    As for me, the last couple of years when I’ve lived in the South, my accent has changed. I still think that I have my nice British English I nurtured for so many years, only to realise that I change depending on who I talk to, but most of it has started to sound “American with a hit of southern” (ppl have said they think I come from the state…. ehh…). It’s very embarrassing sometimes, since I automatically get a similar accent “to be more understood”?…

    As for party trick while going back to native land – it’s wonderful. I only had to say “Happy New Years Y’all” like ten times for laughs and giggles ;)

    • biochembelle says:

      chall, one of the peculiar things I’m learning is that many (maybe even every) country seems to have a particular region and associated accent that’s classed as the “land of the village idiot”. One person on Twitter commented that she dropped here northern England accent for similar reasons, and I had a Spanish colleague who mentioned that other Spaniards considered people from his region stupid.

      • chall says:

        yes, probably need the “village idiot” or, like it is where I grew up “everyone mocks the people who live in the capital” (very distinguish dialect). I know how to make it more neutral, but that of course in itself points out that I am not from “certain parts where you are proud of your dialect” and thus the circle go again… ;) It’s seems to be a need to group together or rather “you are not like me” distinction?!

  8. I too am from the South and dropped my accent at an early age. Many of the same reasons I have read here applied to me also. While a child I went to the cotton fields with my Mon as she chopped or picked cotton. I developed a mixed up way of speaking. During teen years I moved to Hawaii and when I became upset my voice changed. My kids just assumed it was a Hawaiian “thing”. We have the Pidgen dialect over here. However one word always gave me away…..dollar. I never put the R on it. Finally while I worked as a tour guide I embraced my drawl. I would have all my Japanese tourist laughing with this phrase….”Su Me MaSin, Y’all” My Southern ways broke the ice and made me many friends on my Trolley. I do resent the way we are sometimes portrayed. I was raised a lady. Yes I could shoot, cook and fix the car but most never knew it. I was taught to be kind and respectful. I’m not stupid 3.87 GPA and my daughter has a higher one. I hate NASCAR. I much prefer a Samuel Clemens book. I do not dislike anyone because of their skin color. I was named after a black co-worker who chopped cotton with my Mom!

    • biochembelle says:

      Louise, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      I’m sure parts of the stereotype stem from deeply ingrained ideas and conflicts of decades (even century) past. Some continue to propagated by modern viewpoints. For instance, the South remains a stronghold of political and religious conservatism/fundamentalism, which many scientists and other academics associate with a lack of education/intelligence.

      Furthermore, I think many people equate education level with intelligence. If you don’t go to college, some assume it’s a lack of intelligence or desire for education instead of a need to work or lack of opportunity. Since starting grad school, for most folks I’ve encountered in chemistry and biology, typically both parents completed a Bachelor’s degree and at least one has a post-bac degree, and often some grandparents, siblings, etc. have similar training. I’m the first in my immediate family to complete a Bachelor’s degree, much less a graduate degree, which surprises many people.

  9. julier says:

    I moved to Alabama when I was 14. I never developed an accent, but I did develop an appreciation for the culture and the people. Not only did I find a lot of talented and intelligent people, but I also found regions of the south that are far more racially integrated than some areas of the north. I am willing to bet that the region where I did my PhD is one of the most culturally diverse in the nation.

    And you may be surprised to find that your accent is detectable to others from the South and that it may come out in odd situations. My husband only has an accent when he goes into an autoparts store – no matter what part of the country we are in. And my undergrad mentor always developed a strong southern accent when she was angry. We always knew when she was on the war path when she “went southern” on someone.

  10. Terrence says:

    I’ll get to the dialect issue in a moment. But what you spoke of regarding the development of “strong women” is a survival skill against a misogyny that I think is rooted in dominionism, or as the French called it; the ‘Ancien Régime.’ I think that were we to take a closer look at causes for misogyny, and prejudice for that matter, one would find the cause to stem from a generalized fear of losing control in yet another facet of one’s life. Therefore dominionism over another compensates for that loss of control. And where does the concept of dominionism originate? Conservative beliefs.

    In LiveScience.com, a study reported; “Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice,” the author of the study, Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario, concluded his discussion on it saying; “many anti-prejudice programs encourage participants to see things from another group’s point of view. That mental exercise may be too taxing for people of low IQ.” Frankly I draw a different conclusion, I believe that anyone can develop empathy; empathy is simply a matter of how one is socialized. Therefore this misogynist behavior and prejudice can, over time, be changed.

    That said, I grew up in Galveston. My father, who came from Kansas, was not about to allow any of his kids to develop that east Texas dialect that you may know best from Face The Nation’s Bob Schieffer or PBS’ Bill Moyers. However we are all products of where we grew up. Today when I get back down there, it does come out at times. However where I live now in New England, my dialect is viewed more as a product of some New England prep school than the public school I actually attended.

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