I’ve learned recently that my natural mode of speech is not simply “southern” or “country.” I’m not speaking incorrectly, as I have been told from time to time. As it turns out, I am speaking a dialect called the South Midland dialect, a subset of Southern American English. This didn’t seem like a terribly useful piece of information at first, but this mundane revelation brought my speech habits into sharper focus. It sounded so…legitimate. My words weren’t simply lazy or backwards as I’d always been lead to believe. The more I thought about it, I realized that how I speak has always had a lot to do with how I saw myself. It has always mattered more than I thought.
When I joined the workforce, I quickly began to feel that my job was easier when I made an effort to speak to out of state clients very differently than I spoke to OK or TX clients. When I received a call from a northern or coastal area code, I spoke with more rounded vowels. I spoke more quickly. I didn’t flatten out my mouth. I chose different words. I tried to speak very cleanly with no hint of my natural accent. When I worked to neutralize my “Oklahoma twang,” these clients understood me more easily. They also spoke to me…differently. I felt like “part of the team” more often, and I liked that. I assumed that they simply appreciated my efforts to communicate more like they did, but I never gave it much thought beyond that.
My newfound interest in the subject lead me to an article on Scientific American’s blog. The article, written by R. Douglas Fields, cites a study in which accent attitudes are measured in young children of different ages. Essentially, by the age of 5, Northern children already identify Northern dialects with attributes such as “smarter,” and “in charge.” Southern children don’t seem to have a bias. Astoundingly, when asked which dialect sounded “American,” the Northern children chose the Northern dialect, while the Southern children still showed no preference. The authors of the study suggest that Southerners do not categorize the Northern dialects as foreign because they hear Northern accents on the national news, on television, and in other media. Northern children, however, are rarely exposed to Southern speech, so it remains unfamiliar to them. The cycle sustains itself as these children grow to reach adulthood. Asked the same questions, 10 year old children in BOTH groups associated the Northern dialect speaker with being “smarter” and “in charge.” Both Northern and Southern adults rate southern dialects lowest in “correctness.” To see the full article, click the link below:
This result was a surprise to me. I had always felt proud of my home, but I wondered… Why had I really been altering my dialect when speaking to Northern clients? Was I really just tailoring my communication to their tastes? Had they really reacted differently, or had my confidence simply increased because I felt I sounded smarter? Perhaps a little of both? I honestly couldn’t tell. I grew up surrounded by wildly creative and intelligent Southern people. I was familiar with the stereotype and had always rejected the idea that an accent indicated intelligence or education… or so I thought. By the time I reached the end of the article, I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach. I wondered if I had deluded myself into believing that altering my speech was “convenient” for others. It was my way of “accommodating their communication patterns,” and saying “We’re alike, we should work together.” I started to become unsettled by the idea that it wasn’t any of those things. After all, I hadn’t been trying to sound more like them. I had been trying to sound less like me. Maybe, instead of indicating “I’m like you, we should do business,” I was really just trying to say, “I’m not like them…I’m not stupid.”
It was a crushing realization. How could it be that in spite of all my best efforts, and intellectual and experiential understanding to the contrary, I had also grown to equate my own dialect with lesser intelligence? The worst thing about it was that I had, in my own way, been perpetuating the stereotype without realizing it. I had been, for many of my clients, their first ever exposure to a person from my region. They might have encountered an intelligent, hard-working, skilled counterpart with a Southern dialect. They might have gone home to report, “those people speak differently, but they’re just like us.” Instead, they encountered yet another slick, sterile-speaking whiz kid; someone surprisingly different from the dumb hicks they might have expected. “She must be from someplace else,” I imagined them saying to one another on the flight home.
A more important question surfaced. “What does it mean,” I wondered,”to be unconsciously embarrassed about something so integral to my identity?” The thought was blinding. “My language is part of who I am. Am I embarrassed to be who I am? Why? How long has this been going on?”
“Honey, don’t say y’all. It sounds common. Say ‘you all.'” – Grandmother
“Jessica, try to speak correctly. Open your mouth when you talk.” – First Grade Teacher
“Are you from the country?” – 2nd Grade Classmates
“Why do you talk like that?” – Cousins from out of state
“Do I sound very smart when I talk like this?” – 4th Grade Teacher, speaking with heavy dialect.
“Nooooooooooooo!” – Response from entire 4th Grade class to previous question.
“Roooouuuunnnd out your vowels when you sing. You don’t want to sing like a bunch of rednecks, do you?” – High School Choir Teacher
“George W. Bush sounds like an idiot every time he talks. It doesn’t even matter what he says, he sounds stupid.” – High School Friends during 2004 election
Oh. I guess it wasn’t all that surprising after all. It was frustrating to consider the irony in the fact that nearly every time I had been made aware of our natural dialect, it was because another person from my region had pointed it out in a negative way. I must have learned very early on, just like the children in the study, that speaking our dialect was a handicap. I didn’t learn it from “outsiders,” but from others who had worked hard to erase their regional speech characteristics, just as I had done.
How might we have felt about ourselves if, instead of being told to “speak clearly,” we had heard adults, teachers, speak the same way we did? If we had heard the dialect from those in charge, might we have started to see ourselves as more likely to be “in charge” someday? If, instead of hearing “you don’t want to sound like a redneck, do you?” we had learned new things from respected authority figures speaking our dialect, might we have associated it with learning, education, and intelligence?
The point is, our dialect is ours. It comes from our home, and the people who live here. It isn’t incorrect. It isn’t lazy. It comes from our unique history, as American English evolved from the dialects and languages of those who settled in our area. In our age of decreased verbal communication and increased texting, memes, and emoticons, it is a valuable cultural touchstone. It should never have become a source of inferiority or embarrassment. If anything, it should be a source of pride for us and for our children. It isn’t a reminder of what we are not. It is part of who we are; an intelligent, hard-working, capable, creative, and widely enlightened American people. Perhaps instead of doing our best to sound “educated,” we should give our children some positive examples. Maybe they will be reminded of their own positive attributes when they speak instead of negative stereotypes. They will be able to say, “No, I’m not speaking ‘redneck.’ I’m speaking South Midland Southern American English. What about you?”