I just learned that according to a recent survey of 3,000 job applicants, about half of Tennesseans alter, adapt or try to drop their Southern accents when applying for a job. Southern accents actually placed 4th altogether among people wanting to hide their accents behind “Western New England” (think Boston, John F. Kennedy and a fear of the letter “r” at least as strong as Southerner’s displeasure with pronouncing the “g” at the end of any word ending in –ing), the South Midland accent and New Jersey accent. Tennesseans were most likely among Southerners to drop the twang.
I remember when I was young not even realizing I had a southern accent for the longest time. Between "Dukes of Hazzard," "Hee-Haw" and "Dallas," it was easy to forget the world wasn’t entirely Dixie in the mid-'80s. Somewhere there is a VHS tape of a middle-school-aged me from the mid-'90s expressing my excitement at a Christmas gift with a twang that would make Gomer Pyle blush: “Golly, are all these for me!” It wasn’t really until I left the K-8 school at the county's edge and made it to the high school that it even hit me exactly how pronounced my accent was at the time. I won’t try to compare it to the feeling Adam and Eve had after eating the apple and realizing they were naked in the garden, but I still feel it has to be a similar, if muted, experience.
I think it was actually in part due to the fact that I wanted to be a writer. I guess I assumed writers were from California or New York and Chicago and had “big city” accents like the folks I would listen to on NPR or PBS. I did work quite hard through my later teen years on toning down the backwoods accent I was saddled with.
It wasn’t until sometime in my 20s that it hit me. Actually, the Southern accent was affixed to the voice of some of the greatest authors of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries! Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Hunter Thompson, Harper Lee, J.K. O’Toole, Truman Capote, Maya Angelou, and the list goes on. I recall once hearing that Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal or some other famous Yankee luminary of literature complained that Tom Wolfe had an unfair advantage in a debate due to the fact he was from below the Mason-Dixon line where we’ve been raised with a strong oral tradition.
I even speak Filipino with a pronounced southern accent, specifically a Tennessean one. I will never forget the time I was asking for directions at 7-11 “Alam niyo po ba saan ang (the place I was looking for).” The fellow behind me, Southerner as well, goes “You from Tennessee?” I’ve learned to embrace my Southern accent finally and think it’s a shame that in addition to so many other types of bigotry like racism, classism and sexism my fellow Southerners have to deal with “dialect discrimination.” That said, I reckon we’ll make it, y’all.
Standard reporter Philip Fairbanks can be reached at (931) 473-2191.