Thursday, November 08, 2007

Where'd my accent go?

As most of you may remember, I'm a southern boy by birth (and grace of God, as they saying goes). I was in Louisiana full time until the age of 12, after which I did 5 years in Jersey for boarding school, 4 years in Minnesota for college, then 10 more in the the South, followed by a move to Hawaii 3 years ago. So basically 12 years not in the South and then, how old am I, 22 years as a Southerner, including the pivotal first bunch.

However, I have no Southern accent anymore. One of my current phonetics profs has remarked that he'd put me on display as an example of accent reduction or some such. Essentially, unless you are a phonetics prof and know some tale-tell signs of what to look for, I've got the official standard accent now.** Where'd my Southernness go?

The basic answer is clear. I lost it when I went to school in Jersey. I remember being teased for my yankee accent at home within a year of attending the school in Jersey. I never consciously chose to not be southern in the way I talk, but unconsciously it seems I did. I just immediately started talking like my friends in Jersey. (OK, not really. I never once said "yous guys", never bought a bowling shirt, or an old Camaro, but you get the idea ;) ). This is a pretty common phenomenon.

One of the earliest studies that kicked off the field of sociolinguistics was a study of pronouncing the sound [r] in NYC by a man named William Labov. He had noticed that certain people in New York pronounced an [r] when it was at the end of a syllable and others did not. He had an idea that it was based partly on social class. So he did a neat little experiment. He chose three department stores that would be visited by people of different social classes - Saks 5th Avenue for upper class, Macy's for middle, and S. Klein for lower. Does S. Klein still exist, my NY readers? He then went around asking clerks where some item was that he knew was on the fourth floor, since the word "fourth" has an [r], in standard American dialect, at the end of a syllable. He also thought that pronouncing or dropping the [r] might depend on how carefully and formally people spoke. And so he would ask one time and they would answer naturally; then he asked again as if he couldn't hear, and they would speak it nice and formally for him.

I don't remember anymore who dropped the [r] and who didn't, but I do remember that the classes behaved differently. The upper and lower class people did whatever they did, r-wise, no matter how casual or how formal they were speaking. The word was what it was. But the middle class folk would say it the lower-class way when speaking casually and then the upper class way when speaking formally. They would switch to the high status way of speaking when they were thinking about it. Labov attributed this to the middle class aspirations of being upper class one day.

That was all in the late 60s. I am sure things have changed, and as always it's never as simple as you would like. The middle class doesn't always speak like the upper class to look good. On other tasks the classes would behave differently,

However, it still reminds me of my lost Southern accent. Even though I never chose to stop using it, I sometimes wonder if I'm some sort of poser talking the way I do in order to fit in with all those people who look down on accents. (See robin's comment on my accent post below, or that people talk in a southern accent to sound uneducated or stupid.)

My first way of speaking is still inside my head, hiding back there. Every once in a while, some strange vowel will come flying out, and then I catch myself and speak properly again. Bizarrely, I can't pretend to have a southern accent now, I can't fake it, but N tells me that when I speak to my father on the phone, then and only then I do.

You know how when you are a teen, you find yourself acting like all your friends, but when you grow up into a full, independent adult, you can only shake your head at yourself? I sometimes wonder if the day is coming when my first way of speaking will return. And I will just talk properly, the Southern way, :) no matter what***.

** My accent isn't completely gone. You just have to know what to listen for. One vestige is that "pin" and "pen" are pronounced identically for me. Similarly, the first part of "center" is the same as "sin". There's also another slight vowel difference. The "a" in anthropology is not quite the same "a" as in "had", which it should be according to Standard American English. The "a" in anthro is almost, but not quite, the same as the "e" in "bet".

*** There are actually several Southern accents. Which is why many a Hollywood actor sounds idiotic when they are trying to be Southern, but they sound like someone sipping lemonade at Tera in Gone with the Wind, while their charactor is an army instructor in Mississippi.


Sammy Jankis said...

Another great topic! I find myself becoming very self-conscious when I speak in public, speak to people on the phone from other regions of the country, or speak to people in professional settings that aren't southern. I always feel like I'm going to come across as a bumbling bumpkin from Bunkie (no offense to Bunkieites). I can manage a decent standard accent most of the time, but if I get excited or aggravated when speaking to someone I will generally get a comment or have someone imitate a word I said with twang.

Another interesting social experiment is when I play a video game over XBox Live and am talking directly to other players. If I am calm when speaking, I never hear anything. If I get frustrated or excited about something that is going on in the game and say something, the people I'm playing with will often spend the rest of the game making fun of my accent or repeating the word/phrase I said over and over. Nothing so humiliating as being a 34 year old with three college degrees and getting mocked mercilessly by a 10 year old punk. :-)

bunnygirl said...

If you were in the company of people with Southern accents, would it return?

Some of us experience a sort of "accent drift," unconsciously adapting to the speech of the people around us.

I sometimes worry people will think I do it deliberately, but I swear I don't make any conscious effort to mimic my northern cousins' Boston accent or the Hispanic accent of New Mexico or the Texas/Southern accent of whites or even the Southern Black accent. Whoever is nearby, I invariably find myself talking like they do.

I also tend to mentally switch over to Spanish when I'm around people speaking Spanish or speaking heavily accented English. Once again, this isn't intentional and what makes it even more odd is that English is my first language, not Spanish.

To me, the great mystery of accents isn't how they get lost or change but how some people can hold onto them so tenaciously!

Robin S. said...

Hi paca,

I laugh when I hear Southern done in films. There are so many variations of a Southern accent- I think of the difference between the twangers and the drawlers, and then expand from there.

My pronunciation of "pin" and "pen" are identical, as you mentioned. What my husband (who posseses a 'proper' British accent)
laughs at is my pronunciation of:
tar, tower and tire - they all sound like 'tar'.

I notice accents quite a bit when we are in Britain. I can pick many of them out now. Even county to county - they have distinctive accents that key people in to class and education level.

I can turn off my accent, but I really have to think about it. And even then, once I relax, it comes, as they say, shinng through. I'm, for example, an inveterate "g dropper" - driving = drivin', etc.

Church Lady said...

I agree with sammy--another great topic!!

When I travel with my family, people can never pin down where I'm from. Even hotel workers overseas, who have a lot of experience listening to different accents. I think it's a combination of being around people from different countries half the year, and trying to articulate syllables clearly (for my two children who occassionally stutter).

A southern Paca is a cute Paca.

I was hoping Robin would stop by. Now *she* has the best accent ever!!!

Church Lady said...

Oh, Bunnygirl, there's a funny thread in "Breathing Lessons" where the female MC inadvertently picks up the speech patterns/accents of the person she's talking to. It's quite hysterical!

pacatrue said...


Let's see. Bunnygirl, yeah, I actually agree with you on the accent-intransigence question, but perhaps that's because I am a language / accent mimic, too. When speaking to someone in a different accent than me, I can hear myself thinking in that accent in my head. It's most obvious for an Australian or Brit accent that's really different. However, while I'm pretty flawless in my head, my tongue's not trained to produce it, so when the new accent comes spilling out of my mouth, I can easily get things wrong, and people think I am making fun of them. Instead, it's something that's just hard to turn off.

The abilities of people to pick up an accent or even new languages is largely a mystery. It has nothing to do with education. It might be personality or, well, we don't know. Some people visit a country and are speaking the language in months. Others never pick up more than a few poorly spoken words. Most second language learners get to an intermediate level or so and then drop out or never progress, but a few people seem to keep progressing and become almost fluent. If you solve the problem, let me know, because there are a bunch of journals who desparately want to know.

Sammy, I hear you. I don't have to go through what you do much because my accent is so gone. As for the 10 year old punks, they'll make fun of anything, so....

Robin, I know your dialect. At least, I know how tire, tower, and tar all sound the same. Tower is clearly one syllable! (And actually people even in standard dialect go back and forth on whether or not tire is one syllable or two, so the words aren't as far apart as they might seem. Is your husband an [r] dropper at the ends of syllables?

Do I speak in a Southern accent when with Southerners? You know, maybe some, but it might have to do with social situation more than anything else. If I'm in a local catfish joint or something, I am more likely to than if I am doing something more formal even if both are in the South.

Robin S. said...

Hey paca,

I just opened the bedroom door and asked my husband John to say "stopper", because I've had a glass of Pinot Grigiot and I couldn't think whether he REALLY drops r's - or whether my brain had been making it all up for 10 years. (OK- I'm a person who can't handle much alcohol.)

Anway- yeah, he's a g dropper.

Stopper is "stohp'-ah".

Now, I ask you, why does his r droppin' sound so good, and yet, my g droppin' sounds so, ya know, Kentucky-fied?

Yeah, yeah, you told me already - it's the "dialect might is right briaged", isn't it??!!!

Oh, and thanks, CL! You sweetie (paca you really do need to have lunch with us when you're over this way. You can laugh at MY accent, and be impressed by CL's- as it's newscast all the way - she's so freakin' lucky.)

Robin S. said...

That was "dialect might is right BRIGADE" -sorry- I suck at dirnking and thinking.

Sammy Jankis said...

Robin, you said drinking and thinking in that last post, but I heard it as drinkin and thinkin. :-)

Robin S. said...

sammy- you're right!!!