Friday, March 14, 2003

If you don't have something nice to say

If you don't have something nice to say...

My own personal civil war has begun to be fought in earnest once again. This is the war between my tongue and my brain over hard vowel sounds.

I have an accent. My family has told me it's a lovely accent, really, the same as my grandparents and my mom and all of them. It's the accent of the white people on the Southern coast, different entirely from other Southern sounds to the discerning ear. It is not the accent of Delta Burke (North Georgia) or Gomer Pyle (North Carolina) or Al Gore (Middle Tennessee). It is not like any of the Black or Appalachian accents in the South at all either, but a slight variation on all of these things, perhaps indistinguishable to an outsider but all-important to the people I learned it from. Much like in England, in the South your tongue betrays your heritage and your class. My mother would be horrified, if, for example, I ever said "What time it is?", a common enough expression down here. She'd just get really, really angry. "What time is it? Did you grow up in a trailer? I don't think so."

Not that as a child I ever would have forgotten to conjugate the verb to be properly. I've always been very conscious of my grammar, especially after my parents transplanted me from Georgia to Nashville as a small child. Some Tennessee accents have always been harsh on my ear - the nasal push of the mountains and the twang of Nashville combine in the Ohio Valley, Kentucky, and rural Tennessee to make sounds that have never rolled around my inner ear in any comfortable way. Sometimes I'll be sitting in a bar in, say, Murfreesboro, and I'll actually wince as I hear someone ask the waitress to clear their "taayable".

Because you pick up the accents around you, I had to develop defenses as a kid to avoid picking up the Middle Tennessee nasal twang. I unconsciously began to police my vowel sounds, developing a flat, generic American accent more like the sounds I heard coming from newscasters than the backcountry sounds voiced by my teachers. And although people from other states could still hear the South in my sounds, I was often mistaken for a Yankee at new schools. I didn't sound like the other kids quite deliberately. I tried never to say ain't and fixin' too and I knew that because my accent was clean I was more accepted by people who were truly educated. Often people would compliment my mother on how well spoken I was. I started aiming for college at about age 10 this way.

Still, time wore away at my tongue. You can only spend so many years in a place before you pick up its ways, and Nashville worked on me. By the time I was ready to leave for Boston, ain't had creeped into my vocabulary as well as gonna, woulda, shoulda. My g's dropped a lot more leaving Tennessee than when I came in. Well, I knew it was gonna happen, I suppose.

While in Boston things got both better and worse for my accent. It was always a conversation starter - while people in Tennessee would still insist I had no accent to speak of, in New England it was readily apparent that I really did. I tried to police my accent the best I could. For the first time I could hear my own inflections because I was surrounded by people who spoke differently. I fluctuated between being embarrassed about being conspicuous in my speech to being proud of my exotic flavor. I never quite made peace with my ambivalence about how I sound. Too many negative stereotypes exist that are associated with sounding Southern - Cletus on the Simpsons, Gomer Pyle USMC, President Bush. Whenever a playwright for popular culture wants someone to sound stupid, my vowel sounds are attached. Long A's and extra syllables are a stereotypical shorthand for backwardness in everywhere - even in cartoons the dumbest Smurf sounded like he was from Alabama.

The sad thing is, of course, that even Shakespeare did this - he wrote the dumbest characters with a Scottish accent. Then the Scots moved to America, mostly to the South and to Appalachia, where their accent changed, but they still remained the butt of the joke…

Anyway, since I've moved back, my original accent, the one I learned to speak with, has fought its way back to the surface by degrees. My long open I's are back. No matter how much I practice throwing the "I" sound up onto my palate, the long open I comes out the second I'm not paying attention. My tongue refuses to pitch the I up without conscious effort, laying low and lazy on the bottom of my mouth when I's and O's come to pass.

I've always struggled with these two vowel sounds. Even when my accent was at its cleanest, Gosh once thought I said my sister was blind when I meant she was blonde. The word Iron has always given me such difficulty that I've often sacrificed playing my favorite piece in monopoly in favor of the thimble or wheelbarrow. Now that I'm out of Tennessee, "fixin' too" is gone, but a host of other colloquialisms have risen up in its place.

I have finished my education and I'm back in Atlanta where I belong, and now I have a strong temptation to quit fighting my accent. There is a general feeling in me that I should kick back, relax, and let the war against my tongue rest at last, to let the lazy vowels win. The sounds have always reappeared when I'm drunk or tired anyway - might as well let them on out for good, forever. I haven't decided yet weather or not to let this happen. I still think a flat, clean accent helps a person make it in the world. Still - I'm tired, and I never entirely mastered sounding like 60 minutes anyway. As long as I keep my grammar clean it should be OK - I hope -

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