I’m from Western North Carolina, from a town in the foothills nestled up against the Appalachian (Appa-LATCH-un, the way I say it, but more on that later) Mountains. As a kid I played in the woods all day, picked up crawdads (maybe y’all call this critter a crawfish out West), ate collard greens and black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day and stood bemused every time my neighbor’s grandmother asked me and my playmate to “warsh” the dishes.
Where in the actual hell did that R come from? Then there was the perplexing issue of the missing letters in the “veg’ables” that same Maw-Maw would cook for us at dinner, or what I was supposed to do when I was told (before church, of course) that the seam in my stockings was sigogglin.
The old-timers would add T’s to the end of words that clearly didn’t end in t and placed A’s where I’s obviously went: “You heared me: I said git arosst that yard with the mower… or do I need to laht a fahr under your arse? I ain’t gonna tell you twicet.”
And we all knowed they wasn’t gonna tell us twicet.
Honestly, my accent’s never been strong, and, honestly, most of my family doesn’t speak this way. But I sure as hell grew up around this kind of language. My parents and grandparents all have stronger southern accents and dialects than I do, and their parents had stronger accents than them, and I realized at some point we’d all been pushed to smooth the kinks out of our voices.
According to folks who study such things, the stigma of sounding like a hillbilly began in the late 19th century after the U.S. Civil War. Authors created fictional illiterate characters whose broken grammar set the foundation for the negative stereotype of Appalachian residents that still exists today. Then you’ve got your Beverly Hillbillies and Karl from Sling Blade and Cletus Spunkler from The Simpsons and Forest Gump and you see where this all went.
From the Outer Banks to the mountains, North Carolinians are lucky to know so much about the history of our dialects thanks to sociolinguist Walk Wolfram. Wolfram’s masterwork on the subject, Talkin’ Tarheel, details the origins of our Southern sounds, the way these sounds are changing and why.
The Western North Carolina dialect developed from the first European settlers in the area, who moved first from Scotland to Ireland and then to the U.S. Then there were other linguistic influences around (like the native Lumbee tribe) that further created the hodgepodge of pronunciation, grammar and unique words and phrases found in the region.
It was common practice in 18th-century England to use words such as “heared” and “knowed,” as was the addition of the letter T to words like across and twice. Southerners often created their own words — like sigogglin to mean crooked — which, when you just stop and think about it for a second, really isn’t weird at all considering we all run around today using words like tweeting and twerking and fleek.
But North Carolina is one of the fastest growing states in the nation, with Charlotte the second largest financial center in the country. The Research Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill draws great minds from around the world to work at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and NC State, and you can’t say “Asheville” in Boulder without someone telling you they almost moved there instead. So things are changing and they’re changing fast.
And the pressure to soften Southern sounds and phrasing is strong, and nowhere is the pressure stronger than from the inside.
As a child, if I dared drop a G or an R, or slurred a word like library to the point that it sounded like li-berry, I’d have to quietly endure the white-hot scorn of my equally Southern-born, but better traveled (read: wealthier) cousins.
At about 12 years old, on the phone with a pen pal from Oklahoma, she mocked the way I said Appa-LATCH-un. No, she corrected, it’s Appa-LAY-shun.
But everyone around me says it the way I do…
“OK,” she said with a laugh that clearly implied pity, “whatever.”
I suddenly felt she had just pictured me shoeless, toothless and witless and there was no coming back from that. Caitlin Spunkler at your service.
But why are we so judgmental toward each other?
A study out of the University of Chicago found that stereotypes based on accents are learned in childhood. By around 10 years old, children begin to associate Northern-accented voices as being “smarter” and “in charge,” while those with Southern accents sound “nicer.”
Ultimately, as the research goes, Southern school children hear Northern accents at a young age on the news and in movies. As they grow up they begin to associate the Northern accent with intelligence and power. Northern children don’t hear Southern accents as much, and when they do it’s likely to be a character like Cletus.
In a way, maybe Southerners are subconsciously trained to devalue themselves, and there’s only one thing that can come from hate, and that’s more hate.
And maybe that’s part of the problem in the South.
The motto of North Carolina is “esse quam videri,” meaning “to be, rather than to seem.” The motto is an interpretation of a sentence in Cicero’s On Friendship: “Virtute enim ipsa non tam multi praediti esse quam videri volunt.”
“Fewer possess virtue than those who wish us to believe that they possess it.”
Perhaps if North Carolina, and the South as a whole, could get beyond the self-loathing, we could begin to create real change, to move forward with the rest of this country. Let’s stop electing politicians who hide behind fear and hate and call it religious conviction and virtue — let’s stop hating ourselves, stop hating others, and show that we possess real virtue.
We ain’t gotta smooth the kinks out of our voices — we’ve gotta smooth the kinks out of our collective consciousness.