Sometimes I love my accent like I love having a hole in my head. I've noticed that on trips yankeeward, at least one person will say the dreaded phrase:
"You have a southern accent! How cute!"
"Why…thank you." (Of course, in the way I speak, that comes out more like "Whaaaah, thaink yew." This is the point where I start to cringe.)
Groan. Ok, time to don my best educated-Arkansas accent. "I hate being asked to do this?"
…and you realize that you could have called their mother a three-eyed spawn of Satan and they wouldn't have heard a word you said. They just want to hear a 'Southern drawl.'
They never ask the good questions, such as, "Is there such a thing as a Southern accent?" If you've lived here for more than fifteen minutes, you know that the answer is actually "No." There are regional Southern accents just as there are regional Northern accents. Ask someone north of the Mason-Dixon if a Boston accent sounds like a Maine accent, they'll look at you like you're crazy.
(It's because you are, but that's another story.)
Southern accents are just as different. Listen closely, and you'll begin to pick up the midwestern twang that identifies Texas—and, to successively lesser degrees, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The stereotypical Southern accent that you're accustomed to hearing in movies is an overblown bastardization of the already-thick South Carolina and Georgia accents.
Think of the accent as a continuum: you have the South Carolina/Georgia drawl on one side of the South and the Texas twang on the other. The states in the middle are going to be somewhere in between, with an Alabama accent being close to a Georgia one but less pronounced. The further west you go, the less Georgia and more Texas you hear.
There are always exceptions, of course. Two come to mind.
Geographically, east Tennessee and southern Louisiana generally have to be thrown out of this equation. East Tennessee, buried in the crags of the Smokies, has such an unusual accent that it's attracted a lot of attention from linguists. It's its own little world.
Southern Louisiana—whether you want to call it Creole or Cajun, it's totally different, but we forgive them, because their food is fantastic.
The second exception: education. The general rule is that the more education someone receives, the less accented their speech becomes. I learned this firsthand when I went to college; I didn't want to be perceived as an idiotic redneck, so I made a conscious effort to sound educated—i.e., Midwestern.
Jeff did the same when he went to school, though it was less of a concerted effort on his part. When we auctioned the Sundance last week, Jeff spoke to one of the auctioneers beforehand, and the sudden strength of the accent that came out of his mouth nearly caused me to burst into laughter on the spot. I kid you not—that accent could peel paint!
Then I remembered what I sounded like after spending a week in Arkansas, and I couldn't laugh quite so much.
Even down here, there's the unspoken assumption that someone with a thick accent is neither too educated for their own good nor…how best to say it…'uppity'? While it's a good idea to sound as proper as possible at the bank or the store, an auctioneer is going to treat you a little more kindly if you sound 'local.'
People say that the South has its own rules, completely different from the rest of the world.
Sometimes I think they might just be right.