Thursday, April 22, 2010

If I Drop My Gs, Start Runnin'

Yesterday, Farmchick, the fabulous writer behind It's a Smalltown Life, sent me a link to an article about research showing that migraines can change one's accent- it's called Foreign Accent Syndrome and is a medical condition believed to result from brain injury. She was worried that I might be in danger of losing my Smalltownland accent via the ongoing headache, but she shouldn't have feared- I've never really sounded local. I've had more than one linguistics professor fail to guess, based on my accent, from whence I hail. The last linguist who failed to correctly place my accent added quickly, after I revealed that I grew up twenty miles from the junior college he attended, "Oh, your parents have college degrees and one or both of them has an advanced or professional degree." Nice save, and luckily for him, true.

My maternal grandmother, who was born and raised in northwestern Kentucky in a town near Owensboro, sounded as if she hailed from Mississippi. Case in point: my first name is Mary, usually pronounced by most people as if it rhymes with 'airy'...according to my grandmother, the Alabamian who is the president of the college where I work, and various friends from the Deep South, it's pronounced may'-ree. My paternal grandmother was from Texas, which became absolutely apparent in her voice when she was tired or irritated.

Daddy was a Navy brat who'd lived in seven states by the time he graduated from high school, and who clung like mad to the neutral accent he picked up in Arizona, where he was born. Mom has a lilting Southern inflection that grants two syllables to that cured meat made from a hog's leg, ha-yum. She was teased over that when she waitressed at a New Hampshire resort in college. For a few years between my high school graduation and until she had a heart attack three years ago, her accent faded. It's returned in force since her health declined.

The one thing to keep in mind about my accent is, however, that the increasingly Southern it becomes, much like my grandmothers before me, I am either a) exhausted or b) mad as hell. I once explained it as, "The more I begin to sound like Dixie Carter, the faster and further you'd better run!" My colleagues on faculty council can readily confirm this, as will our provost, who is a Mississippian- I can remember the broad grin on his face the first time I lost my temper and started channelling Julia Sugarbaker in his presence.

Sometimes when I teach at our campuses closer to Smalltownland, I'll ask the students to try to place my accent. They almost always fail, guessing like most that I'm from the states immediately across the Ohio River to our north. I quickly change gears, drop into my local accent, and tell them, "Oh, no, y'all, I'm from twenty miles that way," pointing in the direction of Smalltownland. If it's the right time of year, too, I leave them with the traditional local farewell:

"Y'all drive safe, and watch for the deer!"

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