You probably know, at least vaguely, the play or movie “My Fair Lady”. It concerns a woman in London who speaks with a lowerclass Cockney accent. Professor Henry Higgins brags that he can teach her to speak as he does, so that—speaking properly—she can present herself as a lady. Plenty of Americans agree with Professor Higgins, and they go slack-jawed with admiration to hear that educated British accent.
So let’s talk about language. As we do, I’ll listen to the sounds you make and decide whether or not you’re intelligent. That’s possible, don’t you think? I won’t even hold you to sounding upperclass British. We’ll never be that good. I won’t be listening for just any sounds, of course. I want to hear how you pronounce words. That’s a true indication of intelligence. Right?
A few days ago I happened to see a “news” article that included this key sentence: “A national lab in Tennessee has canceled a class that officials said was designed to help employees get rid of their Southern accents.” Get rid of their southern accents?
When I read this, I thought My God, here we are in the twenty-first century and we’ve still got this stupid bullshit about southern accents. As foolish as such a class is, the people offering it, or the pathetic, insecure schmucks who sign up for such classes, are right about one thing. They did not merely imagine that there are people who associate the sound of a southern accent with being dumb. Of course, only dumb people think an accent indicates intelligence—but that’s a hell of a lot of people.
Twenty years ago, or a hundred years, whatever it was, I used to discuss language with my freshman writing classes, as I believed that a broader awareness of language was a part of their education. I had a lesson I’d do where I ran through the history of the English language and how it has changed (such as seofon: seven; heorte: heart).
I always tried to allow time to use the history as a background to touch on contemporary dialects, one of which was this’n rat cheer (“this one right here” in case your dialect knowledge is deficient), southern English. The point I always wanted to make—and it’s a really hard sell, to almost everyone—is that every dialect is equally good. Other than linguists, no one thinks that.
It’s my impression that many languages, and certainly the big ones, have dialects that are considered Proper (actually, they’re considered PROPER), and if you don’t speak that dialect, you’re an uneducated dumbshit. At best. Even Professor Henry Higgins couldn’t help you. In Europe, that “proper” speech is based on the capital city (you know, the “King’s” English). A dialect is often a political issue, as when the dictator Franco in Spain declared that the Catalan language was merely bad Spanish and needed to be eradicated (in fact it’s a separate but related language). And of course “proper” speech sets apart social classes, with all the economic implications that carries.
Since most people with power speak the main dialect, even if they had to work to get there, it’s understandable why anyone would aspire to such speech, like the Cockney flower girl in “My Fair Lady”. We all want power. But it seems to me that in the south there is something more insidious at work. In the discussions that I had with my students, once when we talked about southern accents, one student said, “My mother has a real bad accent.”
He meant strong, of course, but described it as bad. Why? For the same reason that some people from the south will take a class to try to lose their accent. Even in the south, there are southerners who look down on southern speech. Many people in the south are insecure about how they’re perceived outside the south. Whence cometh this pathological insecurity? I’ve written about this in other places, and it’s too much to go into here, but the problem is not the idiots who judge a person by their accent. The problem is the person who feels insecure.
One thing I want to say is that if you’re afraid people think you’re stupid, don’t act stupid. Sometimes there’s a reason why people outside the south look at our region and think “You know…” As an excellent example, here in Georgia in the last few months, the legislature squealed and nearly wet their pants with excitement in the rush to make sure we have the right to carry a gun pretty much any goddamn place our feet can walk. At the same time, the members of that same legislature practically swore an oath that they would not expand availability to health care.
So these proud, loud morons—who, admittedly, we elected—by French kissing their guns instead of rationally governing the state created headlines to make Georgia look dumb and backward. They also happen to speak with a southern accent, but the accent is not to blame.