Having grown up in the South, I never considered that some people might have thought I “talked funny.” Now, I knew plenty of people from “up North” that definitely talked funny – but not me.
It was only as I began working, while a teen, at a theme park, where a polyglot of languages and dialects were mangled together, that I really internalized my “southern voice.” When I started my first job, my transition from my native drawl to the generic tone one might hear over the TV sped along until today it’s fairly difficult, aside from the rare idiom that might occasionally escape, to discern what part of the country I grew up in.
However, moving back to Arkansas I notice I’m beginning to find my “southern voice” again. Not so much in my dialect or delivery of speech, but in the patterns, feelings, and nuance in what I say. For example, in Orlando if I told someone “bless your heart” or “I’m fixin’ to go to the store”, most people would look at me like I had pickles growing out of my ears.
But here in Conway, AR, people would know that when I say “bless your heart” I could either mean (a) I sympathize with your plight or (b) you’re an idiot and simply can’t help yourself. And of course when you say you’re “fixin'” to do something, it means that you’re preparing to do something… it might be a minute or a couple of hours in the future, but in some way you’re about to do something you’re not doing now.
But the southern voice is more than what and how we say things. It’s a state of being. Southern hospitality wouldn’t be as hospitable without the cadence and delivery of the people here south of the Mason-Dixon.
Of course, the slow cadence and drawl is used for pejorative affect in just about every movie and TV show. Usually quite poorly.
Hearing Brad Pitt, for example, try to do a Tennessee accent in “Inglourious Basterds” is painful to the native ear. There are tons of examples, so I’ll save you some time and simply point you here (ironically, Julia Roberts is from Georgia and Reese Witherspoon is from Nashville – so I guess you really can’t ever go home again).
Hearing Strother Martin do it, however, in “Cool Hand Luke” or “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” rings pretty darn true. Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side” is surprisingly authentic. I bet Billy Bob Thornton probably sounds that way quoting Shakespeare or requesting a pack of cigs.
It’s not just how the words are formed. It’s how they are said. And the feeling behind them. The slow and steady speed of delivery. The… I guess the word is comfort behind them.
Finding myself again in the South, I’m still re-adjusting to the fact that when someone asks me at a cafe if I’m “waiting for someone”, they don’t mean “I’m trying to turn this table – are you going to order already!” but may mean “can I help you?” (which happened my first week in Conway when a worker brought me a free appetizer while I waited for my appointment, just because I was sitting there). Or if I’m short a few dollars getting a haircut, it’s “today this one is on me – catch me next time.” Or when anyone comes up to you to start talking, they don’t “want” anything – they’re just being friendly. It’s OK to make eye contact – even encouraged.
Contrary to what Neil Young said, the South is not all screaming and bullwhips cracking. Or cotton and little shacks. Or banjos playing in the dark. Well, OK… maybe South Carolina…
But we do have a distinctive, and caring voice, that I didn’t realize until quite recently that I have been longing for, for far too long.
I’m ready to get my twang on. Y’all come see us.