The Accent

The High School from where I graduated – one of 75 or so people so honored in 1990 – was literally in the middle of a cow pasture. Like, literally. The land for the school – 10 acres or so – was purchased from the farmer at some point in the distant past, and they built a school there. At lunch, you would see cows hanging their heads over the barbed wire fence, hoping you would give them your apple. Cows love apples, and since these were Red Delicious apples, we did not. We figured somebody ought to eat them.

In any event, this isn’t a story about the apples. Rather, I tell you about where my school was located to let you know that I am the educational product of rural, southern America. And the South is not monolithic. North Carolina is the South, and Central Mississippi is the South, and neither of them is like the other, and neither of them is like Virginia or Central Georgia.

But all of those places have produced educated people. People with an accent like the one I have.

Well, not exactly like the one I have. The Central Mississippi accent that I hear all the time here is not quite like the Northern Mississippi accent I heard in the hills growing up, and neither of them sounds quite like a Charleston, SC accent, and nobody sounds like New Orleans.

There was a teacher in my high school who prided himself on his academic rigor. For a while, he taught our AP English class, and when that happened, Holy Hell but he declared himself the arbiter of the English language – not only grammar, which could be argued was in his bucket, but also diction.

He routinely made fun of our accents. Humiliation was his primary pedagogical technique. There were students who liked him – but they were generally the popular students. He seized on social insecurities and would call you out publicly for an error with glee. He routinely called me Hugh Hollowhead in class because I once froze when he asked me a question because I had been daydreaming. This gave the bullies in my world a new, previously unthought-of nickname to call me.

But I can forgive him that. What I haven’t managed to forgive him for was making me ashamed of my accent. He had me stand up and say “Nice White Rice” to the class, and then he mocked my pronunciation.

”They aren’t all the same sound, Hollowhead!”

Everybody laughed. Well, everybody but me.

I could have killed him right there. There was not an ounce of Christian compassion in my body for him at that moment. None.

But he was an advisor for the Beta Club. Taught the AP English class. Had a Master’s Degree. And all I had was the ghosts of working-class people who had lived in one place for 170 years. Everybody I loved talked just like I did. The people who taught me about Jesus, who baptized me, who raised me, who taught me to fish and how to make a cane whistle and how to drive a tractor all talked just like I did.

And for the record, I would later learn that, when William Faulkner gave his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, he talked like I did, too. If you listen to the recording, the rhythms of North Mississippi pervade that speech.

But I didn’t know that then. I just knew that this community that had always been safe for me now felt less so.

He wasn’t the last person to make fun of my accent. In college, it would happen. Eventually, I got something of a complex about it and began reading Time magazine into a tape recorder, over and over, trying to smooth out my diction. As Don Williams sang in Good Old Boys Like Me:

But I was smarter than most and I could choose

Learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news

In the business world, this was rewarded. When I began preaching, this also was rewarded. People do make judgments about us, based on the diction we use.

Imagine you are telling a joke, where one of the characters is stupid. What does he sound like?

That’s right. You made him sound Southern.

They won. I no longer have my accent. It’s gone. I mean, I have an accent, but it’s not the one I grew up with. It’s not mine. It’s studied, and while there is some Mississippi Hills in there, and a mixture of formal and informal usage, there is also some Piedmont North Carolina and some Tidewater Virginia and a little bit of whatever the people on the news sounded like when I was learning how to talk the way they wanted me to.

When I’m very tired, or if I’ve been drinking, or talking to someone from home, it comes back – but I don’t know how to make it happen. It’s just gone, another casualty of the insistence on our being homogenized and any difference stamped out. In the end, I guess we will be assimilated. But the first thing they took from me was my accent.

2 thoughts on “The Accent”

  1. I sympathize with your problems of having people give you a hard time because of your accent. I never had that trouble, but there were times when fellow students dealt with problems similar to that. There was a girl in my high school class who was very bright and outgoing, but she had a really bad stutter. I felt sympathy for her when she was unable to answer a question that she most definitely knew the answer for. Some years ago we had a high school reunion. As they were sending out invitations and giving info on the program, I noticed that my stuttering friend was listed as one of the 2 Masters of Ceremony. I kind of wondered how that was going to work out. On the night of the reunion, I was very surprised to hear her speaking quite clearly and with no stuttering whatsoever. I thought, “Yes, there’s some justice in the world, and she definitely earned the accolades that she got that night. Change of subject: I am ready to send off the newsletter — except for one thing, I still don’t have Pastor Jennifer’s front page letter. She has a lot going on right now with her husband fighting COVID and at the same time she’s trying to keep the children safe. I may do some looking tomorrow to see if I can find something that she might be willing to use instead of having to write something with all the stress in her household. There has been one time that she suggested using someone else’s article and it actually worked quite well. It was our March 2022 Issue, and Jennifer really liked Donna Frischknecht Jackson’s piece. Jackson is the editor of Presbyterians Today and the article was entitled “Seeing with our Hearts.” It was very well written and Donna was okay with us using it (with attribution, of course.) I didn’t know at the time, but there is a song in our hymnal on that same theme. We sang it all through Lent. It became one of my favorite songs. I’m not holding my breath right now, though, about being able to find a similar offering for the newsletter front page. I may do a little looking though, just in case.

  2. Jeez-Louise, that teacher was horrible! I went to school during the seventies in Phoenix and recall a teacher calling me Memphis, I felt a tinge of embarrassment but also looked at it with pride because there was only one other Southerner there that I knew of and we hung out together. So we were unique! Also I love accents and none more than the Southern one…. have to admit cringing when hearing my voice though…😏

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