LEARNING TO SPEAK SOUTHERN
By Lissa Brown
“Just keep your mouth shut,” my friend, Jo, told me. That was the first piece of advice I received about getting along in my new southern home. She was a native North Carolinian and was trying to be helpful as I headed to retirement in southern Appalachia.
“You think I can’t pass?” I answered, my mind racing all the while about how I could affect a southern accent that would mask my New Jersey speech.
“No way,” she chirped. “You’re about as southern as this,” she laughed, pointing to the Wall Street Journal that lay on the granite counter with yesterday’s mail.
“But I’m actually half southern,” I protested. “My father was from Richmond, Virginia, and a speech professor I had in college told me there were traces of the Virginia Piedmont in my speech.”
“Take my word for it. You’ll be better off if you keep quiet and don’t let anybody know you’re from New Joisey,” she said, mimicking that awful pronunciation that only people from certain parts of Brooklyn use.
I’d stopped to spend the night at her Lynchburg, Virginia home as I drove to North Carolina, figuring she could give me some helpful hints about becoming a North Carolinian.
Of course I didn’t follow her advice. I’d lived in the Washington, DC area for nearly 20 years after leaving New Jersey, and I thought I’d done a pretty good job of learning to say ‘y’all’ instead of ‘you all’. Now, all I had to do was learn a few phrases like ‘Bless your heart’ with the proper intonation and ‘I’m fixin’ to…’ and I was sure I could fit into my new home in the far northwestern corner of North Carolina.
Once I’d traded ‘Hi’ for ‘Hey’ I tried out my newly acquired southern speak with strangers in parking lots, gas stations (oops, make that filling stations) and a variety of local shops. I listened carefully to the local West Jefferson radio station for new phrases and pronunciations while I munched on my morning bowl of Special K. Incidentally, there are no grits in my pantry. Privately I can admit they make me gag. Publicly, when offered them, I plead the need to diet.
This syllable thing is a challenge, I admit. Five years later, I still have to muster all my powers of concentration to insert extra syllables into things. When I look at that thing on my table that I turn on and off to get light, I think lamp, a quick, one syllable word I’ve known all my life. Now I’m trying to get used to saying lay-ump so my neighbors will understand me.
I thought I’d reached a reasonable accommodation with the language about six months after moving to West Jefferson. I was getting to the point where I rarely needed to ask people to repeat themselves and was receiving far fewer puzzled looks when I spoke.
One afternoon when I was doing laundry I looked out the window and saw a truck coming up the driveway. I didn’t recognize it or the two men who got out and started toward my door. “Hey,” I said, opening the door. Two “Heys” came back. So far, so good.
“Kin I bar yer par?” one of the men asked. I hadn’t the faintest idea what he’d just said. One thing I’ve learned about talking with people I can’t understand is that if I just stand there and look dumb, they’ll offer hints. So, that’s what I did. I just stood there with ‘dumb Yankee’ written all over my face. Sure enough, he repeated the question, but that time he reached for an extension cord in the back of the truck and pointed to the outlet on the outside of the house. I got it!
“Sure,” I replied. “You can borrow our power.” Whew! That was a tough one, but I’m an avid puzzle fan so I’m pretty good at picking up clues. I never thought it would come in handy in everyday conversation, but it’s a good tool to have at my disposal.
For the first couple of years I was often greeted with, “Y’all aren’t from around here, are ya?” whenever I spoke to someone. I enjoyed toying with them by responding, “Oh yes, I live in Ashe County.” I knew they were trying to figure out where I was really from but were too polite to ask. They would usually wait a few seconds and then try again. “Well, where were you from before that?” Then I would confess to moving here from Maryland. I don’t mention my home state unless I am really pressed. “But I got here as fast as I could,” I’d add. That was sure to bring a smile.
I picked that lifesaving line up from a mountain friend who offered that bit of wisdom when another mountain person was describing me as a ‘foreigner’. “But she got here as fast as she could,” my friend said, winking at me. “That’s right.” I chimed in, grateful for the rescue.
Perhaps one of the most challenging things I’ve had to confront in my southern home is the custom of speaking to strangers. I was raised never to speak to strangers, and to avoid eye contact with them on the street. I’m sure northern urbanites were trained that way as a matter of safety. As a young girl, I recall my mother instructing me to run the other way if a stranger started to speak to me, particularly if they were in a car.
One of my early lessons in the North Carolina mountain town where I lived when I first moved here was that I needed to talk with everyone. For example, it was considered rude to go into a store and request what I wanted without first asking the clerk behind the counter how they were, and exchanging a few words about something. Anything would do. It could be the weather, the local school sports teams, peeling paint on my house. It didn’t matter. Conversation was a requirement, even if you were in a hurry. Of course, people there were rarely in a hurry. There always seemed to be time to chat.
Now, if I’m honest, I admit I really don’t care much, if at all, about the health of the clerk in the convenience store attached to the gas, no, filling station. See I’m improving. And I suspect she doesn’t care about my health either. But it’s required to ask.
In my native New Jersey directness was valued and expected. Since everyone was in a rush all of the time, it was considered a waste of time and words to beat around the bush. People there say what they mean.
We didn’t have expressions like ‘Bless your heart’ that covered every situation from genuinely pitying someone because they were mentally challenged, to wishing they would drop dead. I have learned that there is a nuance in that expression that can vary by the slightest degree, depending on the intonation of the speaker. When someone blesses my heart I listen carefully to determine whether they’re praising me, or commenting on some shortcoming they’ve observed.
Non-verbal communication takes some time to understand as well. I had to ask advice about the appropriate response when a man I don’t know tips his hat to me. “Just smile slightly and nod,” my hairdresser said.
I was completely baffled by the raised finger that drivers on our rural roads use. At first, I was offended, thinking it was the same gesture I’d seen in cities where I’d lived before moving south. Then, upon closer inspection I realized they were using their index finger. I couldn’t tell much from the expression on their faces as they raised a finger to me. It was usually benign. Finally, I asked a neighbor who explained, it’s a friendly way of saying; ‘Howdy’, and now I welcome it when I’m driving on a lonely mountain road. I regularly offer it to other drivers and notice more men do it than women. I’m not sure of the reason for that.
Every now and then I take great delight in accosting an unsuspecting tourist with a New York accent. With my best faux southern accent I say, “Y’all aren’t from around here, are ya?” They look at me strangely and then I follow it up with, “I bet yis (That’s plural for ‘you.’) are from New Yawk.” I laugh, and then they laugh, and we usually get into a conversation about how funny southerners talk.
Lissa Brown’s essays have appeared in several anthologies, including Oil and Water and Other Things That Don’t Mix, Queer Girls in Class: Lesbian Teachers and Students Tell Their Classroom Stories, and Bedpan Banter: Medical Stories of Humor and Inspiration. Writing as Leslie Brunetsky, she is the award-winning author of Real Country: From the Fast Track to Appalachia. Contact her at LJBMAU.skybest.com