The Folklore Project
By Leo Johnson
I’ve lived in California for about a year now. Counting that, I’ve spent probably eighteen months of my nearly 26 years outside the South. First Alabama, then Mississippi, then Louisiana, then Mississippi again, I’d called a few different Southern states my home. While each had its own sense of character, they were all unquestionably Southern. It’s an intangible aspect of the cities, people, and even scenery. There’s something about the South, both good and bad. From my small hometown of Jacksonville, Alabama, to Baton Rouge, to Gulfport and Biloxi, it didn’t matter where in the South I went, it was always the South. Though they might be a little different from place to place, there were still those drawls and twangs that made me feel at home.
Now that I’m in California, those drawls are mostly replaced with people saying “hella” way too much and accents that just sound so generally “American” that they’re not really accents at all. On my first proper trip into Sacramento, I ended up striking up a conversation with a guy while waiting at the train station. After a couple of minutes, he paused and said to me seriously, “You’ve got, like, a Texas voice, huh?” Now, anyone from the South knows someone from up in the mountains in Alabama and someone from Texas ain’t got the same sort of accent, but I guess they don’t know any better in California. My accent, despite years of trying to get rid of it and sound less Southern as a kid, is still deep enough to get plenty of attention from people I meet for the first time.
I use “ain’t” and “y’all” a bit more than I probably should. Food that’s started to go bad is “rurnt.” I get “peenched” on St. Patrick’s Day if I don’t wear green. When I’m tired, I sound a bit more like I’m “tarred.” You have to check the “ool” in your car, and when I talk about “horror” movies it sounds more like I’m talking about ladies of ill repute. The Drive-By Truckers’ “Ever South” sums it up:
Everyone takes notice of the drawls that leave our mouths
So, no matter where we are, we’re ever South
No matter how hard I tried to lose it as a kid, that accent had become my biggest defining characteristic out in California. It was just about the first thing everyone noticed about me and definitely the first thing they commented on.
After starting a new job and starting to make friends with some people, it has gotten to nearly “Absalom, Absalom!” levels of questions about the South and how things were there. These people are oddly fascinated with the idea of the South, a place that’s been both romanticized and demonized. To them, it’s equal parts carefree catfish noodlin’ and hardcore racism. By that same token, that’s exactly what I am to them initially, too. Due to my accent alone, I’m immediately whatever their conceptions of Southerners are, for better or worse. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that people in California have just as odd, if not more so, preconceived notions about the South as Southerners do about California. Whether it’s someone casually asking whether I’m racist, if everyone dresses like cowboys, or a number of other things, the South is nothing more than a collection of stereotypes.
My brother has lived outside the South for six or seven years now, losing a good chunk of his accent in the process. Where before it was all “y’alls” and “ain’ts” and “cain’ts,” there are now few of those and more “hellas” thrown in there. His twang isn’t quite as deep as it once was, and that drawl isn’t as slow as it used to be. Hearing him losing that accent, one of those things that has always sort of defined who we are and where we’re from, has made me wonder about my own. I’m sure that if I stay in California, or anywhere outside the South, for long enough, I’ll lose my own accent and start to sound more and more like those around me. It’s already starting to happen here, my accent getting a little softer, except for when I drink. But what does that mean for me as a Southerner? Am I less Southern for it? The idea of losing something that I came by naturally and has been part of who I perceive myself to be is a weird thing.
Since I left my hometown in Alabama, I’ve made multiple trips back. Even if I didn’t always like the place, I feel like it’s a big part of who I am and my history. A Southern accent feels the same way. If I lose it entirely, where does that leave me? Am I a Southerner who no longer has a claim to the South? The idea of losing that does not sit well with me, even with all the negatives of the South.