Recently I returned from a vacation in the US: five days in North Carolina and three days in New York. Two good friends tied the knot during two consecutive weekends in September and I was determined to join the celebrations.
As soon as I stepped off the plane in Charlotte, North Carolina, my body was tired but sensed home immediately. I felt like a cozy blanket had been wrapped around me as I walked into that familiar oppressing humidity, scratched my mosquito bites, tasted southern-style biscuits and local craft beers, heard the friendly twang of the southern accents that I grew up with, and enjoyed the company of old friends. I’m loving my new life in Switzerland, but there’s really nothing like coming home.
“You don’t sound like yer from around hee-yer” was something I heard more often than I’d like to admit after new acquaintances and strangers found out I grew up in Concord, a town outside of Charlotte that I permanently left nine years ago.
After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from North Carolina State University, I went from the southern United States to southern Africa, where I spent two years working as a teacher in Lesotho. There, I learned to speak slowly and enunciate each word carefully so that people who didn’t speak English as their native language could understand me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now believe this marked the beginning of my southern accent fading away. After I left Africa, I went to New York for two years to get a Master’s degree. If a hint of southern speech was left after that, it adapted to New Yorkers’ efficient, no-nonsense way of communicating (that some southerners falsely characterize as “rude”) after that.
I’m told that my twang comes back occasionally if I have too many glasses of wine, or during/after talking to my grandmother or stepdad, who have the most colorful southern accents of all. Sometimes people in Europe ask me to mimic a southern accent out of curiosity, something that I now struggle with after being gone for so long. If they giggle, I defend it with pride, but mostly they are fascinated. I will never know what it sounds like to hear it for the first time, but I imagine that it must sound quite lovely, like music. I confess: I am ashamed that I was once ashamed of my southern style of speaking.
Here are just a few of the variations I hear when back in the South (many of which I once used myself). Do keep in mind that me spelling out the pronunciation will never really capture the full effect.
“pee-un” – pen or pin (pronounced the same)
“luttle” – little
“waah” – why
“bey-ud” – bed
“awl” – oil
“tawk” – talk
And of course, I’d like to think that everyone knows “y’all” (the plural of you), as in “how y’all doin’?” This is one of the few features of southern speech that I have managed to hold on to and actively use, even in Europe. I find it extremely useful when talking to a group of people – why would anyone use anything else?