I spent some time this summer with relatives who live and/or grew up in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina. There are lots of things that stand out about my southern family and in-laws. They’re warm, funny, welcoming and interesting to talk to. They make pimento cheese, shrimp and grits, fudge, pound cake, and other deliciousness. But the first thing most of my Vermont friends would notice is obvious as soon as you walk into the room: it’s their southern accents.
They’re all a little bit different, of course. Alabama does not sound like Kentucky. North Carolina does not sound like Mississippi. But I love each and every one. When I land in an airport south of IAD and hear y’alls and ma’ams all around me it’s like a big, flashing “Welcome Home” sign and a marching band. It sounds like home.
I am aware that the southern accent doesn’t garner universal respect. I understand that when some people (from outside the Southeast) hear that accent, they immediately assume that the speaker isn’t very bright. Or is small-minded in some way. I don’t have proof of this, but you know what I mean, right? It’s the accent that people put on when they’re pretending to be ignorant or air headed. How annoying. To me, it’s actually much more representative of good things. My mother, her friends, and the fine art of entertaining. Some of my favorite professors, whose classes I would take just to listen to them talk. General attention to lovely manners and an afternoon cocktail. Who doesn’t like that? And to be fair, there are ignorant or prejudiced people all over. They’re just not as fun to do impressions of.
Sadly, I don’t have a southern accent. I realized this for the first time years ago when I called my brother at college and, without asking me who I was, one of his roommates called out “Hey, it’s your Yankee sister!” Yankee! I was stunned. And at that point I was only a year or two away from North Carolina and Virginia. By now, my stints in New York, DC and Vermont have erased almost every trace of the South from my voice, save the occasional “y’all” or a drawn out long I sound.
Now I live in a land of much crisper consonants and no multi-syllable pronunciations for one-syllable words. People say guys and wicked a lot. Sometimes even “Jeezum Crow.” I haven’t resorted to the Jeezum Crow yet, but I actually do find wicked to be helpful. As in: it is wicked cold out. (Which is usually is.) I’m a little sad about it, though. I’m sad that my son won’t grow up with a little southern in his own voice. To him, maybe it will just conjure up happy impressions of cousins and grandparents. And luckily for this Yankee sister, there’s always a sweet Southern drawl or two just a phone call away.