Any Southerner with a drawl or a twang in the voice is subject to derision, particularly when we venture outside our region. Folks hear the accent and the conclusions come quickly, even if they’re unspoken: We’re stupid. We’re slow. We’re backward. That’s why the work of N.C. State professor Walt Wolfram matters so much. He’s made it his mission to preserve the languages and dialects of the South. Today, writer Laura Relyea presents a great celebration and fierce defense of our twangs.
I began to lose my Southern accent on U.S. Highway 74 in December 1995, strapped into the bucket seats of my parents’ turquoise minivan. We were moving from Charlotte, N.C., to Chicago. I was 10.
I had seen snow only once – a dusting and ice storm that struck the Southeast in the winter of ’92, an inch of powder that stuck to the ground for a day. Ice clung heavily to the branches of barren trees. My parents dressed my sister and me in several layers of clothing (we didn’t have much in the way of winter coats at the time) and sent us outside to play. We made snow angels. We threw snowballs. The whole world shut down that day. It was just Sarah and me, our cold, sniffly red noses outside, and then inside, hovered over hot cocoa, waiting for our faces to thaw.
When our parents told us we were moving to the suburbs of Chicago we could barely contain our excitement. Not only would we be city girls soon – but the thought of the endless snow fights and raillery that awaited us filled us with thrills. And sure, the Charlotte Hornets were great (Muggsy Bogues! Larry Johnson!) but the Chicago Bulls were even better (Michael Jordan!). Undoubtedly our move to Chicago would be a comparable step toward our own greatness.
Our father preceded us to the city in late November, and we followed him up in early December, just in time for Christmas.
The real shock of our move wasn’t the weather at all.
Within a day or two of our arrival my mother marched Sarah and me to the library to register for library cards. I held open the door for a woman who arrived alongside us, she breezed through without acknowledging my mother, my sister or me.
“Mah-ma,” I whispered, “she didn’t say thank you.” The woman turned on her heel and pointed her finger in my face. “I would never say thank you to a child.” She sneered at me – a puffy-faced kid with watering eyes.
The stage was set.
School started not long after. My teacher introduced me to the class, told them I was from Charlotte. The class was diverse: Filipino, African-American, Caucasian, Polish. But Southern? Not one, save me. The interrogations and accusations felt close to immediate, especially when I opened my mouth.
“She must be racist,” they said.
They called me stupid – slow. It didn’t matter I was in advanced classes or was nerdily bookish. It didn’t matter that a good number of my best friends in Charlotte had been black. Race wasn’t something that occurred to me on the red-clay playgrounds of Charlotte. In Chicago they wouldn’t let me forget it.
My Old Piedmont drawl pigeonholed me, and there was no relief in sight, until it occurred to me: Lose the accent.
And that’s precisely what I set about doing.
For months I didn’t speak in class unless called upon. Mostly I kept to myself and sat in the back, hovered over my textbooks, listening. At lunch I fumbled with my bubble packet of milk, ate my turkey sandwich and studied the way my classmates spoke: “ruff,” not roof; “pop,” not Coke or Co’ cola; “Mom,” not Mama. Each linguistic sacrifice pained me, but if I was going to make a life for myself in Chicago, I had to assimilate.
As an adult I’ve learned that being Southern isn’t just about a hometown or an accent – it’s a state of mind. It’s an assumption that the tea will be sweet; that the bulk of the year will be passed with a thin film of salt on your skin; that our histories come with a distinct sordidness that’s better to embrace and grow from than deny. But the truth remains: With the sacrifice of our language, we begin to sacrifice our culture and identity.
Now, when people ask me where my hometown is I am left perplexed. I could never quite get comfortable in the Midwest, though over time it grew on me. My longing for the Southeast was unerring, but I can’t claim it. After college graduation I came South, this time to Atlanta. I’ve been here now nearly seven years – longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere – but I’m still unsure if the region would call me one of its own. Why? Because I simply don’t sound the part.
But what would I have sounded like with my drawl? What does a North Carolinian sound like?
I began an odyssey to find the answer to that question. It led me on a direct path to a man named Walt Wolfram.
Walt Wolfram doesn’t sound his part, either. He has spent the bulk of his career defending the Southern accent, but he’s from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“I’ve got this trick,” he says. “If I’m doing a talk for a group of Carolinians and one of them calls me out for my own accent, I tell them yes, I’m from Pittsburgh, but eight of my 12 grandchildren are born and raised North Carolinians – and hope to be lifelong residents – and I couldn’t be more proud of that. They usually applaud.” He laughs at himself, something he does often.
At first glance Wolfram is intimidating – a towering 6-feet-plus patriarch. But once he opens his mouth it’s clear that there are few men on earth more congenial and gregarious. I’d have never guessed he was 74 if he hadn’t told me; his energy is much younger than that.
“My father worked until he was 82, and it gave him a reason for living,” he says. “I figure I’ll follow suit. I don’t know what I would do with myself without my work.”
Wolfram grew up the son of two German immigrants – and as a result was no stranger to linguistic discrimination as he grew up. A German accent wasn’t exactly welcomed in the America of the 1940s and ’50s. As a result he rarely spoke German at home with his parents, opting instead to assimilate fully with English.
Wolfram’s original ambition was to become a missionary – a pursuit he followed through Wheaton College, where he got his bachelor’s in 1963. But at the Hartford Seminary Foundation, Wolfram’s path crossed with Roger Shuy, the man who would become his mentor.
His work within Shuy’s linguistic studies program took Wolfram to Detroit in 1966 where he studied African-American dialects of English. His time within the city would prove critical later in his career: When the Oakland Unified School District stirred up social controversy in late 1996 by passing legislation recognizing African-American English – commonly referred to as “ebonics” – as a legitimate language. Wolfram rose to the statute’s defense against much opposition, using findings from his endless research in the area to support it, citing the complex patterns and vocabulary of the dialects he and his fellow researchers had documented.
By then though, Wolfram had already moved to North Carolina, with his wife Marge. After teaching at Georgetown and the University of the District of Columbia, and working as the director of research for the Center for Applied Linguistics for 12 years, Wolfram joined the faculty of North Carolina State University as the William C. Friday Distinguished University Professor of English Linguistics in 1992. It was the move to the state that led him to the second love of his life: the state of North Carolina itself.
“I died and went to dialect heaven!” is a phrase you’re very likely to hear in conversation with Wolfram. He says it readily and often – in publications, presentations and interviews – because he means it.
In his two decades at N.C. State, Wolfram, his students and fellow members of the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP), which Wolfram founded, have collected more than 2,500 interviews with North Carolinians. These interviews have yielded multiple books, including Talkin’ Tarheel – the first book to ever incorporate over 100 audio recordings into an interactive text – 11 different documentary films exploring varieties of Southern English throughout the state and an endless number of articles. Wolfram himself has produced more than 20 books and 300 articles in his career.
As impressive as this all is, it may also sound pretty highfalutin and academic. But the real difference that the NCLLP has made has been within the communities themselves.
“Linguistic discrimination is the most socially acceptable form of discrimination in the United States,” Wolfram told me during our first phone interview this past July. His work is focused on debunking the misperceptions we make based on dialect – by educating and spreading their knowledge through the documentaries they make, by speaking publicly and developing museum and cultural center installations to help spread awareness.
But what makes North Carolina itself so transfixing to a linguist? First and foremost, Wolfram cites the endless diversity of the state – and not just ethnically, though the state is certainly not lacking in racial diversity. Geographically, the state has it all: mountain regions, plains and a vast coast. The state boasts ever-developing urban meccas in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh, as well as a vast number of small towns and rural areas. Socioeconomically, the state is robust and developing, with a wide range of active industries functioning within it – from the second largest banking capital in the United States in Charlotte, to the tobacco and textile industries scattered throughout its landscape.
“Along with the great diversity there’s a lot of state pride, and Southern pride,” Wolfram says. “The people who have lived here all their lives tend to love this state, which isn’t as characteristic of Northern states. North Carolinians have been coached into really treasuring their state – the vegetation, the cultural groups. We’re proud of our poets, our writers, our musicians. When you’re in a state that really likes itself, it’s easier to work within.”
Wolfram has made it his agenda to add language and dialect to that long list of things to love.
The geographic makeup of certain regions has caused a few gems, linguistic petri dishes, to develop over the centuries, especially in the state’s more remote areas – most specifically Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks and the Appalachian mountains, most specifically. These are places where the influence of Scots-Irish immigrants from the early 1800s can still be heard loud and clear.
It’s no surprise that it was interactions with N.C. State students from Appalachia which led to the founding of the founding of the NCLLP in the first place. Studies conducted by Stephany B. Dunstan as well as by Lauren Hall-Lew and Nola Stephens found that students from the region had to deal with a number of different reactions to their accents throughout their college experience. They were at times patronized and antagonized not only by their peers but also by faculty and university employees as well. Even within the safety of their own state they were presumed to be simple and slow – hicks or hillbillies. Wolfram made it his agenda to adjust people’s perceptions of the region, and there was no better way than by going straight to the source.
Many people, when they think of a “hillbilly,” might imagine someone much like Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton – a bona fide moonshining Appalachian native who often sported a limp fedora, a long beard that would make members of ZZ Top envious, overalls and flannel shirt. It’s true that during his time Popcorn became almost a living archetype of his region. He, along with multiple members of his community, are showcased in the NCLLP’s documentary “Mountain Talk.”
The mountains of western North Carolina brim with personality. It’s a place where you don’t carry a bag – you carry a poke; where anything lopsided is “sigogglin”; where red fox squirrels are “boomers”; and well-intentioned out-of-towners such as myself are “jaspers,” – so long as they don’t settle down there for half the year in retirement, else they be “halfbacks.”
Though the U.S. Geological Survey defines 13 Appalachian provinces across the states, culturally speaking the region ranges from northern Georgia as far north as Pennsylvania, encompassing West Virginia and everything between: portions of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky.
The word “hillbilly” made its debut in the modern American lexicon on April 23, 1900, in the New York Medical Journal, which defined it as “a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him” – not exactly a becoming portrait. These days most folks hear the word “hillbilly and immediately think of “Deliverance” and the eerie melody of “Dueling Banjos” or “The Beverly Hillbillies.” (In some social circles, we’re lucky enough to think of Andy Griffith.)
But Popcorn and the stars of NCLLP’s “Mountain Talk” and “The Queen Family” embrace the term. To them, it’s a badge of honor – a slight that’s emblematic of their way of life.
“We are 20 years behind the whole country. But I wouldn’t swap places with nobody. I feel much more comfortable here being 20 years behind everybody than I would be a-sittin’ in a lot of other places and being so miserable. You don’t like your neighbor. You don’t speak to your neighbor. You’re bitter with the world. Atlanta is a good example, or Raleigh. You drive down the street and everybody is wide open blowing their horns and don’t know nobody and don’t want to know nobody and don’t care about nobody. It’s quite a bit different up here.”
When I moved back to the South – to Atlanta – there were few things I hoped for more than the return of my Southern accent. But much to my chagrin, the twang and drawl I longed to hear was seldom found in the city – despite living in what’s considered to be “the Deep South.” A hard fact became clear to me: Native Atlantans might as well be unicorns. Wolfram assures me, it’s much the same case in the urban areas of North Carolina.
The day ‘y’all’ first resurfaced in my vocabulary was a triumphant one. It was a Saturday, and I was stuck in the traffic Atlanta is so notorious for; my temper was put to the test. Driving to the DeKalb Farmers Market was worse than swimming in cold waters upstream. After being cut off a handful of times I angrily wagged my finger in the air and shouted a few choice expletives. But amidst them, there it was, rolling off my tongue naturally: “all y’all.” My anger vanished immediately. I was overjoyed. The next thing I yelled was simply: “Oh my gosh! I said y’all! I said y’all!”
Sure – any Yankee or non-native could say y’all. In fact, many of them do. But that’s beside the point. For that one, shining moment, I felt like I had reclaimed a part of myself that had been sitting in the back of my closet covered in cobwebs since 1995. Despite the fact that twangs are few and far between in the urban sprawl of Atlanta, for one joyous moment I had mine again. As for instinctively omitting my R’s and gliding around my I’s, it’s still a work in progress.
Atlanta is not alone in growing estranged from its dialect. The change can be felt even in the region’s more remote areas. Language is ever-evolving – and the changes are speeding up exponentially over the past century. It seems that with every development comes a cultural sacrifice. The major highway systems connect us, but have had a momentous impact on the disappearance of the small town. The introduction of the air conditioner in 1902 may have cooled our brows, but it also took us off of our porches and indoors, not to mention acclimating the environment enough for Northerners/Yankees to migrate down with much more comfort.
At what point is accommodation a sacrifice?
Though it would take a lot for the Southern accent to disappear completely, the combination of the negative stereotypes that accompany a strong twang, along with the influx of non-natives from all over the world to urban areas, is causing the language to change rapidly. Few have articulated this as well as Martha Pearl Villas, a Charlottean cooking show host.
A century ago, less than 15 percent of North Carolina could be considered “urban,” whereas today more than 60 percent of North Carolina’s residents live in urban areas. And though saying “y’all” has never been trendier, there’s no use denying what’s been made clear – the more urban our populations become, the more we lose our drawls.
“Everyone has an instinct to celebrate where they’re from, where they were raised,” says Wolfram. “We’ve got this need to come from good places. Southern dialect is part of that heritage – our society is so discriminatory that it’s disguised that fact.”
On a sunny September day in Raleigh, I met with Walt in his office at N.C. State prior to a talk he was giving, reviewing his work in Appalachia. Walt’s office is impeccably professorial – shining mahogany furniture, plants and books everywhere, a hint of coffee in the air. Students milled in and out as we spoke, gathering research items from his bookshelves, popping in to discuss their findings. They’re devoted to him and their work, it’s immediately clear. A number of his students would spend a portion of the next week at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, conducting interviews and spreading the awareness of their work, and rallying folks to share their stories of being misunderstood or judged for how they sound.
“It happens every time I give a talk,” Wolfram tells me. “People come up afterward to tell me about their own accents, or the way they’ve been mistreated.” He tells me the first step in correcting this discrimination is raising awareness. “As one of my colleagues has said, language prejudice is the last prejudice that is completely tolerated in our society – and it leaves the back door to discrimination wide open.
“We’re so tolerant of language prejudice – people can manifest other kinds of prejudice by picking on the language. Northerners who don’t like Southern speech basically don’t like Southerners, and their speech is an emblem of that. Or in some cases, I had a black friend in Washington, D.C., who hated Southern speech, and the reason she hated it was because she had grown up in the South and experienced a lot of prejudice. Southern speech was sort of the symbol of that. In a sense, voice projects other behavioral traits. It’s a precursive thing where one thing triggers another. ”
The scope of the North Carolina Language and Life Project, and Wolfram’s work, is expanding. Currently his students are being dispatched all around the country – Detroit, Atlanta and everywhere in between – conducting sociolinguistic studies within African-American communities. It’s their philosophy that, especially in the current racial environment, this work isn’t just significant – it’s critical. Walt’s work in supporting the Oakland Unified School District was just the beginning. To this day, ill-founded assumptions are made about intellect and social value based only on the sound of one’s voice. Wolfram and his colleagues are doing everything within their power to change that: talk by talk, recording by recording, presentation by presentation.
Multiple languages are lost every year.
The fight to salvage what’s left of an endangered language can be quite the uphill battle. Few examples of this are quite as harrowing as that of the Wampanoag and Cherokee communities that remain in the Southeast.
Being repeatedly cast out of their home country throughout the colonization of North America, then all but completely displaced with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, certainly took an irreparable cultural toll on both the Cherokee and Wamaponaug.
The NCLLP’s most recent documentary, “First Language,” documents the Eastern Cherokees’ efforts to retain their language despite the dwindling numbers of fluent speakers in their ranks.
“In the beginning there were only – I’ll say 1,200 – of our people escaped The Trail of Tears removal. All of those people spoke the Cherokee language in those days – all 1,200 of them. Today we have 14,000, and only 200 speak the language,” says Jerry Wolfe, Beloved Man of the Eastern Cherokee. His numbers are all estimates, but they’re accurate.
“I think we might be it,” says Cynthia Grant, a fluent Cherokee speaker and community language supervisor at the Kituwah Preservation & Education Center. The Eastern Cherokees are working hard to preserve their languages. Educational programming that happens there, as well as at the Atse Kituwah Immersion Academy, aims to get Cherokee children speaking the language at a young enough age that they can grow up comfortably within it, and pass the along to generations to follow. They also aim to instill the children with the a strong sense of cultural pride.
“Many Indians in America do not have their own language,” Grant says in Cherokee at the onset of “First Language.” “They have lost it all. I heard about one group of Indians – one woman was the only speaker, but she had a dog. She taught her dog the language and the dog understood. Is that what is going to happen to us?”
Just a few generations ago, Cherokee was the predominant language used in the community. But in the ’50s and ’60s, things changed.
“When I started school I did not speak English, I only spoke Cherokee,” says one tribe member. “The keeper of the school would punish us if we did not speak English. If we spoke Cherokee he would paddle us.” Dozens of stories just like this can be heard throughout the film – speaking their own language was banned in the schoolyard. And in just a few generations the population of fluent Cherokee dwindled to less than 300.
Teaching the next generation of Cherokee is no small challenge, especially when the bulk of them come from homes without native speakers – but the community persists hopefully. A similar Lazarus story is taking place in the Wampanoag community, whose language hadn’t been spoken fluently for a century – until now.
We’re sitting in Walt’s office discussing linguistic profiling, such as this example: A white couple makes an inquiry to an apartment complex and schedules a showing, a black couple calls a few minutes later and suddenly, there are no vacancies. And this isn’t just an issue for Southerners. What about the Middle Eastern immigrant who takes a phone interview and doesn’t get the job?
The whole country needs an attitude adjustment. We need to actively think about the judgements we make when we hear someone. We need to really hear one another.
“My feeling is that it’s a social cause,” Wolfram says. “My feeling is that if what I do academically has implications for social and linguistic inequality then I have an obligation to address those.” Wolfram coined a term for this – linguistic gratuity – some time ago. It’s a philosophy that he’s acted upon every step of his life. In some ways, he’s become both a linguist and the missionary that he set out to become in the ’60s, but instead of spreading the good word, he’s spreading the goodness of speech.
The NCLLP’s research with Appalachian students led to N.C. State incorporating anti-linguistic discrimination curriculum into its orientation programming. It’s taught to students, employees and faculty annually. Since its introduction the program has also been picked up by North Carolinian public schools, encouraging students to think of their speech patterns as their cultural identity –something to take pride in.
Here, the late Bill Friday – who was at the helm of the University of North Carolina system for 30 years – discusses the importance of Southern drawl.
With work on the NCLLP’s forthcoming documentary series, “Talking Black in America,” Wolfram is using a three-year grant to take up the cause of speaking in defense of Black English. His goals are to work with his videographers and develop a series of five or six documentaries on the subject – exploring as many aspects of the culture as possible. His students are recording political figures as well as rap competitions. They’re interviewing people on the street and elbowing their way to African-American celebrities with a story and experience to share.
“I really feel like it’s necessary to get this message out on a national level,” Wolfram says.
He’s right – linguistic discrimination is universal: It’s what I experienced in moving to Chicago; it’s what he experienced growing up as the son of German immigrants; it’s what most ESL people undergo as they acclimate to our culture; it’s what the Cherokee and Wamaponaug endured when they were taught to believe their native tongue was somehow inferior to English.
My own Southern accent may never come back fully. But Walt Wolfram and the NCLLP led me to realize is that my language is mine. Just like any other part of me, it is the sum of my experiences. It will only continue to evolve.
I’ll simply stake my claim in the red clay I call home and hope to be bettered by its influence – to celebrate the sounds around me, all of them.