“Where are you from?” We get this question all the time. It’s a staple of ice-breakers and small talk. But this question can carry layers of meaning that go way beyond the basics.
I’m from Kentucky. Specifically central/northern Kentucky. I always joke and say that the small rural town I grew up in is “Between Nowhere and Nowhere Else.” Actually, it’s a beautiful place, right along the Ohio River. Twenty years ago, it was obvious where I was from—I sounded like I was from Kentucky. I had a deep twang, picked up from living around others like me for my whole life up to that point. And I spoke loudly and proudly, southern idioms, “ain’t nevers,” and all. (True story: I majored in English, but I didn’t know that holler was actually spelled and pronounced hollow until I was nineteen and a freshman in college.)
It was when I got to college that I had my first experiences with people treating me differently because of how I spoke. I was with others like me—first-gen Appalachian kids, odds stacked against us; and others not like me—northern kids who ended up in my school because it had open enrollment and they had already messed up somewhere else, much to their middle-class parents’ chagrin.
How we talk affects how people see us, obviously. And when one bumps up against negative perceptions of their speech, one can learn to alter it.
“You sound like you just fell off a hay truck, Ellie Mae,” was a typical bit of classroom and lunch line bullying I got from these Northerners. I figured I could take it—I had been picked on my whole life at that point, but for being poor and “too smart” (I got a perfect score on the language section of the ACT, graduated 5th in my class, and was on a first-name basis with every librarian in town); now, it was for being poor and “sounding stupid.” But I wasn’t ready for the concrete effects of this bias against my language—I actually had people start speaking more slowly and loudly to me, once they heard my accent, as if I was somehow impaired; I didn’t get part-time jobs I applied for and wondered why; I had professors talk down to me in class.
How we talk affects how people see us, obviously. And when one bumps up against negative perceptions of their speech, one can learn to alter it. There’s a name for it—“code switching”—and it happens a lot in our country. Appalachians do it, African Americans do it, lots of people do it. Many of us get the message early and often that if you don’t sound like the Americans on television (who mainly sound like they’re from somewhere in O-hi-o, unless they’re a caricature of a Brooklyn cop or southern “hillbilly,” etc.), there is something wrong with you—at best you might be uneducated; at worst you might be a criminal. Most of us are neither, but try explaining that in your home tongue.
I started mimicking the Ohio boys and East Coast girls around me. And soon enough, the bullying for sounding like a “redneck” stopped. I was treated better by professors. I got my first job in publishing. I was speaking the “Queen’s English,” and being rewarded for it. But I felt something of who I was get lost. I missed colorful expressions like “fine as frog hair,” replaced with boring counterpoints like “OK”—the lyricism and character of my grandparents’ voices started to fade away, lost in a sea of carefully enunciated syllables.
I was speaking the “Queen’s English,” and being rewarded for it. But I felt something of who I was get lost. I missed colorful expressions like “fine as frog hair,” replaced with boring counterpoints like “OK”—the lyricism and character of my grandparents’ voices started to fade away, lost in a sea of carefully enunciated syllables.
By the time I was in my 30s and moved to New York, people actually didn’t think it so obvious when I said where I was born and raised. “Really? You don’t sound like it.”
I once even had the experience of being told I was “faking” my southern accent when I got mad and sounded like I used to, that young girl from the “holler.” You see, I still can’t entirely cover my accent—when I am tired or angry, I just can’t change the code. My brain can only function at a basic level then. Code switching takes too much work. In fact, my fiancé knows how tired or angry I am by what I sound like—a character from Friends—green light, all is well. Loretta Lynn? Duck and cover! Which when I reflect on it, makes me very sad. Why shouldn’t I be able to sound like I’m from where I’m from all the time, and still be treated well, understood, and accepted?
I hope to someday live in a world where our accents are respected and appreciated, not merely tolerated, or worse, used as yet another peg to hang the hat of prejudice on.
Here at Jason’s Connection, one of our driving forces is “being a voice of the Other”—whatever the “Other” may be—another race, another faith, another culture, another orientation, another gender, another experience of ability or disability. We work every day to make the world a place that is a little more open, a little more tolerant of all of us, whoever and however we are. I hope to someday live in a world where our accents are respected and appreciated, not merely tolerated, or worse, used as yet another peg to hang the hat of prejudice on. I hope that by talking a little about how I talk, we can start a conversation (all puns intended), and open our minds to hearing something different.
Ericka McIntyre is the Content Director of Jason’s Connection, and a freelance writer and editor. She loves art, books, music, good causes, and using what she knows about media to help people live better lives.