Ann Arbor, Michigan
A Dialect Dialectic
By Sara McAdory-Kim
Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, I never thought much about being Southern. I groused with everyone else at the no-shoes and cousin-lover jokes on late night TV and grimaced at Nicolas Cage’s grating try at a Southern accent, but that was about it. Dressin’ was dressin’, pens were “pins,” Mississippi was home, and I couldn’t imagine anything different.
Not that I always fit in perfectly. One summer in my early teens, my family drove down to Biloxi, where my younger siblings and I spent the first day of vacation getting badly sunburned off Ship Island. The next day, while my brother and sister stayed at the hotel basking in aloe and cable television, I braved the pain to go with my parents to the Ohr Museum and afterward to a café, where the latticed wrought-iron chairs dug into my lobster-red legs.
“Can I have a soda, please?” I asked the lady behind the counter.
Her eyebrows lifted. “You mean a coke, sweetie? What kind of coke?” She took my money. “You must be from up North.”
I was pretty sure she didn’t mean Jackson.
In spite of slips like this, I never thought deeply about the distinctiveness of Southern speech until college. I was studying for a certificate in teaching English as a second language, and my “Intro to Linguistics” professor was prone to wax long on topics of interest to him. One of these was Southern American English, and I learned for the first time of unglided i's — the feature that makes Southern hi’s and bye’s so distinctive — and reflexive pronouns, like how I’m gonna go get me some sweet tea real quick. He explained double modals (“I might could come”), the nuanced difference between being “fixin’ to” and “goin’ to” do something, and how some Southerners had escaped the dreaded “cot-caught merger.”
We studied the International Phonetic Alphabet, symbols used by linguists to represent every sound in every language on earth, and on the quiz, a few points came from using it to spell our own names. I wrote “sɛɪɹə” — pronounced something like “Seh-eeh-ruh”; he gave me full credit and scrawled beside it, “Some people down here probably do say it that way.”
It was all obvious really — it was my mother tongue, after all — but it made so much more sense now.
The older I got, though, the more I distanced myself, unconsciously at first, from my Southern ways of talking, and after four years of college in Starkville, I distanced myself as much as possible from the South, too, relocating to Seoul, South Korea, to teach English. There, friends from Toronto and California complained about the city’s inconveniences while I marveled at the abundant shopping opportunities, the sci-fi-efficient subway system, the 20-odd bridges spanning the half-mile breadth of the Han River as it wound through the metropolis.
In my new city, I tacked g’s on to my gerunds, learned to glide my i’s, and was never fixin’ to do anything. Teaching — not teachin’ — phonics to Korean second graders, I had to first teach myself to say “pen” instead of “pin,” “men” instead of “min,” “ten” instead of “tin.” And I never said y’all.
“But you don’t sound like you’re from Mississippi,” new acquaintances would tell me, and while I didn’t take it as a compliment, I figured that was probably for the best.
My speech wasn’t the only thing that changed in Seoul. I learned to stay out past sunrise, ate kimchi and fish paste, referred to the temperature in Celsius, and joined a running club.
That’s how I met Adam. He was tall and loud, with the beginnings of a beer belly, and loved Rolling Rock and Mississippi State, where it turned out he had graduated a year before I had. He wore a seersucker jacket and tailored shirts with cufflinks; he owned a beer bong and knew the words to all the sports chants that my friends and I, whose college social lives had revolved around B movies, skinny dipping and an apartment we called Robot_House, never learned. He was the perfect Southern man.
We met at one of Seoul’s many early-morning 5K races and spent the day drinking beer and soju, vodka’s cheap Korean cousin, outside a convenience store, a legal and not uncommon pastime there. He nicknamed me Mississippi, and eventually we started dating.
Unlike me, Adam was unabashedly Mississippian, and his speech showed it. He had a way of throwing around sayings, some of dubious scruple, like “This ain’t my first rodeo” or “If you can’t take me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best,” and he taught me those sports chants: “Maroon, white, fight fight, Mississippi State, damn right!”
He was the clown of his close-knit group, cross-dressing in every shade of green for Seoul’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and drawling out sarcastic commentary on every situation. In the end, he broke up with me while wearing a Greenman Suit, but he also made me start rethinking my relationship with the South.
Things only got more complicated when I moved to London for grad school a year later. I lived in the gable of a dormitory in Bloomsbury, between Euston Station, where I bought a cheddar and onion pasty at the end of every journey, and Tavistock Square, where one of the 7/7 terrorists had blown up a double-decker in front of a statue of Gandhi.
In London, football was a 90-minute game played on a pitch. Brewed coffee was filter coffee, my broken faucet was a broken tap, and my shiny new Standard American accent was a liability.
“I was having a perfectly good time until these loud Americans came in and started shouting,” roared a fat and moustached English gentleman in a café across from the British Museum, when his newly arrived companion asked how he was.
I had been catching up with Matthew, a high school friend also studying in Europe, at the cafe, where we had stopped after a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone and a look at the mummies. We paused for an eye roll before continuing our conversation in the inside voices we’d been using all along. When we’d finished our coffee, though, I couldn’t resist raising my voice a little louder than necessary to suggest we “give this gentleman the peace and quiet he so obviously desires.”
When my year in London ended, I returned to Seoul, my mouth and my brain more confused than ever. “You’re American?” asked the middle-aged, New Zealand-educated Korean lady who hired me under the table to teach young adults at a prominent international trade organization there. “Your accent sounds British!”
Maybe my accent had received a British varnish, but y’all had been slowly creeping back into my vocabulary, too. I was tired of smiling politely and telling curious strangers that no, it’s not like “Mississippi Burning,” and yes, we do have air conditioners and dentists and National Merit Finalists.
Meanwhile, in London, much of my time had been spent reading about language and cultural identity, and while my academic arguments probably still sounded more credible to classmates in the crisp, clear Standard, all the reading I was doing about linguistic imperialism had made me realize what most Southerners seemed to know instinctively: I needed y’all. Y’all is part of my identity. Y’all is me.
As I embraced this idea, my mouth started filling with Southernisms again. I, unglided, was fixin’ to start droppin’ my g’s. Turn signals and shopping carts were out, and blinkers and buggies were back in my life.
Last year, I moved to Michigan with my husband, living in America for the first time in eight years. Y’all isn’t a big thing here, but I use it at every opportunity.
I still get accused of being British and receive “compliments” for not sounding Southern sometimes. But other times I get told what a great Southern accent I have. It seems like my mouth’s still confused, y’all — but I’m not.