Sounding Southern means Sounding Different — by Mike Carter

The discussion of diversity in the South brought to mind a few experiences I have personally had. It goes without saying that people from different geographical areas in the United States, and the world for that matter, are different in many ways. Speaking in the distinctive Southern dialect, I am often set apart from my peers, students, friends, and professional in the United States and internationally.

My first recollection of being “different” was when I had to take a speech class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I had to record a passage given to me by the professor and turn it in to him for his evaluation. His response was recorded following my reading. The first word from his evaluation was the response of laughter. I did not have the newscaster voice for which he was looking. Afterwards, when people commented on my voice, I always responded by saying, you should have heard me before I took a speech class!

A couple of years after leaving the university, my wife and I had an exchange student visit us at Christmas. He said he thought he could speak English until he and I talked to one another. We communicated by writing. Some 25 years later we continue to communicate best by writing.

I attended a teachers’ conference at Harvard somewhere around 1994. I just wanted to say that I had attended Harvard. I was one of a group of fifty or so participants. I was the only one from the South. You might guess that I was somewhat of a novelty because of my dialect. While I was warned I wouldn’t be able to understand them from many in Chattanooga, they struggled to understand me. On the last day of the conference I arrived to the meeting about an hour early. To my surprise, there was another attendee there as well. I thought he was by himself. We started to talk.

After a few exchanges, he informed me that he had brought his wife to the last day activities. Further, he said that he had brought her for one reason and he hoped I would not be offended. I wasn’t sure about what he was talking. He explained that he loved my voice and wanted me to talk to his wife so she could hear it as well. I was not offended and gladly spoke to his wife for several minutes.

I suppose most of my experiences with my dialect occurred during my professional career as a teacher in Walker and Catoosa Counties in the state of Georgia. Both counties are located on the Tennessee / Georgia border. Until the late 1950s the area was considered rural with the primary economy farming. Education was viewed as a transitional tool to another lifestyle and a step in achieving the American Dream. Standard English for me, born in Spring City, Tennessee and living in the North Georgia area was using terms like Ya’ll for you all, extending the name Lynn, a one syllable word, into a long drawn out four syllable name based on the pace of my speech. Even my students took note of my slow drawl.

I cannot count or remember how many times my students would respond to me after they had asked me a question in their rendition of my voice! I was impressed that they could imitate my voice so well. Thinking about it, I believe my pattern of speech and pronunciation of words was mostly influenced by the speed of my delivery.
My experience in France showed me how truly diverse my Southern dialect was. I travelled there with a church group of young adults as more of a chaperone than anything else. I met a young lady named Alice. She was delightful! She spoke almost flawless English. One day I noticed she was staring intently into my face as we were talking about something. Finally, she told me that as hard as she was trying and hoping that I would not be mad that she could not understand a word I was saying! She could understand the other Americans. Not I!

Having shared these experiences, I have to confess that I am somewhat flattered by the attention I receive because of the way I speak. To my knowledge no one has defined me as a hillbilly or hick. Well, maybe my students! The others have been, believe it or not, envious of the Southern dialect with which I speak. They appreciate the slow drawl and the relaxed patience with which I speak. They like the fact that they are at ease with me although at times, it is hard for them to understand me.

While these experiences have been positive, I have found that most professionals look down on the way I speak and consider me and associate my language with level of education and being a country hick. It does not offend me. It makes me realize that regardless of one’s position in society, we have personal flaws and misunderstandings about others. I try my best to not judge a person by anything other than what is apparent in their heart and soul.

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