Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On talking with a Southern accent (Video)

My wife says I do-up my Southern accent when I talk to people from my hometown and downplay it when I'm talking to everyone else.

Ah reckon ah do.

Actually, I'm capable of talking so that my wife can't even understand me -- and I don't mean because I'm talking about SEC football or eschatological theories. It's because I'm from Alabama and she's from Connecticut.

She can understand about every third or fourth word our auto mechanic says. My friend The Chemist, who is originally from Hong Kong, has the same problem with him. But I've been around people with such thick accents my whole life, so I think nothing of it. I hear they put captions up for that show Swamp People, but most of my friends who watch it don't need them.

I think I eased out of my thicker accent when I got a job in Birmingham 15 years ago. My wife says I have a "Birmingham accent" when I'm at work, but lay it on thicker at home now that I've moved back to my hometown and commute.

I did, in fact, noticed myself slipping in some thicker drawl in the office when I first moved back. I think I've got the two accents properly separated now.

The thicker one came in handy when I was moving my now-wife here a few years back and our rental truck starting giving trouble. We were in a far more rural area than my hometown, so the accents were huge. I think my wife would've benefited from Swamp People captioning that night.

I know a guy who has a "walking accent." Don't know how to explain it other than he shifts heavily from one side to the other when he walks. Interestingly, I catch myself throwing this walking style on, too, when I fear I'll be taken for a "city slicker." And if I open my mouth, I make sure I sound like Larry the Cable Guy.

I get self-conscious in places like New York City, but a friend of mine has no such worries. I ordered a sausage dog from a street vendor once and my friend followed right behind me asking for a saw-sij dawg. Even though I'd just ordered a sausage dog with my accent, the guy couldn't understand him.

I had the same problem in college when I was working in a grocery store. A woman with a northern accent came in and asked, I thought, where the raisins were.

"No," she told me. "Ace."

"Ace?" I asked.


"Ace bandages?"

"No. Ayyyyyce."

I only figured it out because when I looked up in puzzlement I spied the ice machine.

When she tells this story it probably ends with, "And then the guy says, 'Ohhh ... OSS!"

It's not just a Birmingham accent and a home accent I have either. There are word choices. In Birmingham you eat dinner as the third meal of the day. Back home, dinner is eaten at noon.

I found this out the hard way when I was in college in Birmingham. I made the mistake of calling lunch "dinner" to a classmate who laughed her head off. I quickly switched dinner to the third meal, but then friends at home laughed at me. Since then I've never eaten dinner. I eat breakfast, lunch and supper. You can make fun of me for saying supper if you want, but you'll always know what I mean by it.

Of course, not all Southern accents are the same. There's the Scarlett O'Hara and the Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel. Miss Scarlett has the plantation oh-nah drawl; Cletus has the hillbilly twang.

But sometimes there are just plain personal accents. I worked with a guy who's gruff tone was so hard to understand he'd have to spell his name to people over the phone. Bad part: His name was Jay. So when he spelled it J-A-Y, they still couldn't understand him. You can't spell Jay without a J. If they couldn't understand "Jay" how were they going to understand "J"?

When he called out-of-state I always feared the person on the other end of the line was going to assume that's how everyone here talks.

Oh, well. Tuh-morah is uh-nuth-huh day!

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