Fear Not! An Accent Does Not a Southerner Make

SG | I recently read an essay by a nervous Southern transplant to California. I believe he was from Georgia. (I would love to link to it, though it’s been lost to the perpetual scroll of my browser window.) Said Southerner was doing quite a bit of hand-wringing over a perceived erosion in his accent. He had been gone some years, and he could hear local inflections and tone sneaking into his speech, taking over what had before linked him to home, set him apart, made him the genuine article. A Southerner in a foreign land.

Over the years I have given a fair bit of thought to my own accent. Out of college, I moved from Auburn, Alabama, to a little working class town at the far north end of the Chesapeake Bay. My roommates were from Idaho and Minnesota. My subtle Southern drawl was no match for their overpowering Upper Midwestern nasalizations. Within six months, my talk of “bowts” on the bay had shifted to a much more clipped “botes.”

A fair number of people would comment on my charming Southern accent once they learned I was from Alabama, but they were balanced by those who, likely more accurately, were shocked at a lack of accent. After a move to Colorado and a few more years removed from the South, my accent had effectively been neutralized. Like a 5 o’clock newscaster, my words were delivered with a dwindling amount of regional flair.

For a time, if I was a few beers in and watching an Auburn game, it would flare up. But in time even that vestigial bit of drawl would fade.

Now since our move to North Carolina, things have started to get back to normal — the other day I told my wife that I had “warshed” the car, for God’s sake, but don’t let that distract you from my point here: We are not our accents.

And let’s not kid ourselves — a Southerner would be betrayed by far more than an accent not five minutes into a conversation. Drawl or no, you can always spot a Southerner when they start talking about “Thanksgivin’.” Or how they’re fixin’ to do something. Or how that bucket of water just tumped right over. If you’re not sure of someone’s origin, point to a crawfish and ask innocently what it is. Not Southern: Crayfish. Southern: impassioned random words. Crawdad, crawdaddy, mudbug, ditch cricket, mudpuppy, etc. etc.

This comes down to a matter of dialect, not accent. That sounds fancy, and I’m not about to take credit for it. Josh Katz, an NC State grad and currently a graphics editor for The New York Times, drew inspiration from a Harvard study in creating a dialect map that shows just how telling regional word preferences can be. You likely posted it to your Facebook feed sometime around Christmas 2013 or early 2014.

It paints a beautiful picture of what I’m getting at here. Try the quiz, still posted online. Amazingly, accent or no, this New York Times graphical magic has pinned me as aligning most with folks from Mobile, Montgomery (where I grew up) and Greensboro (an hour from where I live now). My brother’s is strikingly similar. Turns out what we call the road running along a highway (service road, of course) speaks volumes more than whether or not we pronounce it funny.

So fear not, West Coast transplant. You cannot escape your Southern roots by merely slipping into California English. Before too long, someone will offer you a pecan. And then it will all start to unravel …

Author’s note: It’s pick-AHN. That’s the only way to say it.

Dialect Map Results



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