The Folklore Project
By Shawn Pitts
Most of the time, it’s amusing: the various reactions the Southern accent seems to provoke outside our region. Most of the time.
When a friend — a New Yorker, of all people — used to call our home, he sincerely hoped one of my children would answer the phone. When they did, he would do anything within his power to get them to say the word “yellow.”
“Hi Emily! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Sesame Street. I’ve forgotten, what color is Big Bird?” Or, “Hello Allie, I’m so glad to talk to you! Which crayon would you recommend for coloring the sun?” He just loved to hear them say, “yella.” Cute, right? If you’re 5 years old.
A grinning waiter in San Francisco once offered this zinger, “Let me guess, you must be from Sooouuuthern California.” He elongated the vowels in a poor imitation of our Tennessee drawls, but he was so obviously proud of that one I thought about ordering sweet tea with my dinner (it was conspicuously absent from the drink menu), just to enhance his experience and provide a better story for his friends. Only a Southerner would consider doing you that kind of courtesy, but the restaurant’s exceptional wine list won out in the end.
I am told by most folks that my accent isn’t all that thick, but it has even given me away in places like Cincinnati, Ohio, where another waiter gushed about the beauty and lyrical quality of my family’s speech, based on nothing more than ordering appetizers. I mean, come on, it’s Cincinnati. I could throw a biscuit into downtown Cincy from Kentucky, but if somebody adores the way you say, “We’ll have the antipasto plate,” it’s hard to be too offended, I suppose.
English-speaking Europeans are my favorites. With many of them, the palpable pride of detecting your region of origin from limited verbal exchange often gives way to cultural curiosity. I was barely able to get out the door for a pleasant excursion in the English countryside when a B&B owner discovered I was from Tennessee and knew a thing or two about American roots music. In those cases, the accent is a gateway to a little cultural ambassadorship, a role I tend to relish.
Only once, in all my travels, have I been put off by attention paid to my distinct Southernness. My lovely wife, Joanna, and I were out for a leisurely afternoon of window shopping and beach strolling on California’s Coronado Island, when we noticed a middle-aged couple with what seemed to be the same itinerary. At first we thought nothing of it, but as time passed, it became painfully obvious they were mirroring our every movement, and on several occasions even committed dreadfully awkward personal-space violations.
I’m not sure who first observed that those of us raised by genteel Southerner mothers will be polite practically to the point of homicide, but that thought crossed my mind when the couple brushed up against us for what must have been the fourth or fifth time. Here, I must say that I lay no claim to uncommon martial prowess, but I was raised in a culture where a certain willingness to kick ass was expected, if for no other reason than to defend the defenseless — or, perhaps more bewildering to Californians, to settle matters of honor.
And while I hadn’t exactly been slapped across the face with a glove, challenged to a duel, or had my mother insulted in public, I submit to you, good people of the jury, that my wife and I had been openly stalked for a half hour, or thereabouts, under the Pacific sun. So, in keeping with my upbringing, I did dutifully, and with forethought, wheel about on the couple in question and square up on the unsuspecting gentleman. I think I had in mind to blurt out some pithy phrase like, “If it’s go time, let’s go, Chester!” Or perhaps let out a rebel yell. But I never got that far.
They were clearly mortified the second I made eye contact, not by my intimidating bellicosity, but by their own tactlessness. He apologized immediately, noting they were aware of how it must seem. They were way ahead of me on that score. He quickly clarified, “We were just trying to stay close enough to hear your accent,” as if that explained everything. She added, “It’s so charming…”
What do you say to that? Aw, shucks? Yeehaw? Kiss my grits? We just smiled and nodded while they melted away — still patently embarrassed — into the crowd.
I can't say it made me angry; they were clearly harmless. But I do wonder how it might have played out on the streets of my hometown, if some good old boy followed them around and, when confronted, said, “Y’all talk like TV people.” I wonder if it occurred to them that “charming” might imply quaint or parochial? I wonder if they were simply embarrassed that they’d been caught, or comprehended the condescension in their attitudes or actions? I wonder if they would have behaved the same toward a couple with any other accent? I wonder why they felt it was acceptable to comment on ours? But mostly, I just like telling the story.
I’ve told it to countless Southerners. Every time I do, my friends nod knowingly with a good-natured chuckles, and tell stories of their own cultural misadventures, though mine is the only one, thus far, to involve dialect stalking. Most of us are not ashamed of our accents and actually take it as the compliment you intend when you bring it up. But word to the wise: Slipping up on a Southerner is likely to evince the darker side of the dialect, if not worse.
And trust me: Nobody wants that.