I am pretty sure I once heard Eudora Welty in a radio interview lamenting the disappearance of the regional dialect in America. Her theory: the insidious whitebread suburban-speak coming into our living rooms day and night via television had dealt a fatal blow to the subtleties that once defined us regionally, including our interpretation of spoken English. We were all beginning to sound the same. That interview was probably some time in the late 1990s, not long before her death.
If you are schooled in the reality television phenomenon known as Honey Boo Boo, first, I am so sorry. Second, you may guess that Ms. Welty was just wrong. We’ve still got regional accents. And if you are unfamiliar with the rural deep South, I can say that–yes–there really are people who sound like that.
Tennessee’s native sound varies widely from east to west. The late Robert Drake, a respected Southern writer and a friend, always insisted that the East Tennessee dialect (commonly known as “hill”) was not Southern; it was Appalachian, as East Tennessee is after all part of Appalachia. The tongue has a distinct twang to it. My mom grew up in East Tennessee but somehow emerged as an adult with much more of a West Tennessee drawl, maybe because we lived in Memphis for a couple of decades. She could imitate hill dialect to a fault, though, and I often pressed her to do this while I was growing up. I would illustrate it here if I could, but no vowels nor combination thereof quite do it justice.
My dad also grew up in East Tennessee, but much further south, close to the Georgia state line. His accent has its own nuance, and phrases which I once found embarrassing–“sweet” milk he liked to order when we ate out (cue proverbial eye roll), or “I’m fixin’ to go,” to indicate intention, I now find endearing.
I tried to “erase” my Southern accent in early adolescence because I was so self-conscious about it. In summer intensives at ballet school–a long way from my Memphis home–every night was a girly slumber party in somebody-or-other’s dorm room. The kids came from everywhere, but there were only a couple of us from the South. I recall being asked to say things, phrases, out loud, whereupon an entire room of pajamed thirteen-year-olds erupted in hysterical laughter. I laughed, too.
And then I went home to Memphis and tried deliberately to “repair” the way I spoke so that there would be less ridicule the next year. It was not that I was stupid, or spoke with bad grammar. But I am sure I sounded to these kids–who came from the two coasts, and from various points between–like a foreigner.
Now I embrace my Southern-ness. It does not even bother me, not one bit, that Handsome Chef Boyfriend teases me about it. He has been known, in fact, to tickle me in the ribs until I cannot breathe just so that he can hear me utter his favorite word, QUIT! Only that is not how it comes out. He would tell you it sounds like this: QUEEEEIT!
Since I have moved to Vermont, and work in Vermont, and have Vermont plates on my Subi, I am eager to hear a Real Vermont Accent. I have not yet figured it out, which has made me consider the idea that Ms. Welty’s earlier observation was perhaps correct. I may have gotten close once, when I arrived one morning at the really hipster building where I work in White River Junction and a food delivery person was talking to the staff in the kitchen at the equally hipster restaurant in the same building. It was shop talk, and I could not understand a single word being spoken. Had I not been in such a huge hurry I would have eavesdropped longer.
I am pretty sure the Native Americans who inhabited this part of the world had a pretty interesting dialect, if place names are any indication. In my daily commute I cross a river called the Ompomanoosuc; I call it the Oompa Loompa River because I can actually say Oompa Loompa.
When my teenager visited me during the holidays and we crossed the river, he tried sounding out the word a syllable at a time. I said, It’s called the Oompa Loompa River. No, he insisted, It’s the Om-Pom-Pa-Noo-Suc River. And you know, he continued, the Indians probably named it that just to piss off the white people.
But now I am on a quest to answer life’s eternal question: Does Vermont have its own dialect?
Inquiring Southern minds want to know.