Monday, July 17, 2006

Accentuating the positive

Happy Feminist has an interesting post about accents up. One of the commenters writes about the commenter's father leaving rural Georgia to get and education, changing his own accent and trying to show everyone how to talk.

While it's not something I would do, I can for Henry Higgins reasons understand why a father might want to teach his kids to talk like a New Englander rather than a southerner.

When my dad was a kid, he did the opposite, though. The ChaliceDad was a child prodigy opera singer. (You've heard of Amal and the Night Visitors? The ChaliceDad was Amal in a major ciy's production.) However, my dad was growing up in Texas and when he got into Interlochen in Michigan, he knew that no matter what, the other kids would hear his accent and think he was a hick.

So he decided to lay it on really thick. He bought himself some boots and a cowboy hat and made his accent even heavier before going. He was determined to be "that cowboy kid from Texas" and to hear my aunt tell the story, the sheer oddness of that at a snobby boarding school in Michigan made for a quick introduction to the campus and my Dad became very well-liked.

George W. Bush apparently did the same thing at his high school and my more liberal pals have been known to hold this up as an example of the man's phoniness. But in both my father and the president, laying the Texas on thick strikes me as the act of savvy young men who made the best of what must have felt like a bad situation. Would that I would have had the other kids so figured out in high school.

Added later: The Salon story about a man who saw an article on the Onion and wrote a blog post about it not realizing it was a joke, and is now claiming that this happened because he was raised in Germany and Germans have no sense of irony, is sort of a related issue.


Joel Monka said...

You're the first person I know to understand that about GW, CC- even his fans that I know (yes, he still has fans) don't quite get it. I guess one has to have been in the situation of trying to fit in to empathize. there are few motivations to a teen higher than trying to find one's place.

Being from Indiana, I have that unidentifiable middle-American accent that makes Hoosiers popular in the TV news industry-our only identifiers are a tendency to say "warshington", or "ant" rather than "aunt". I find the choice of words easier to place a person than the accent- for example, many hoosiers, especially older ones, call a green pepper a mango. Another major clue is playing Euchre- I've never known anyone born outside the tri-state area who knew how to play. Oh, and fried tenderloin sandwhiches; it's almost impossible to find one anywhere else in the country.

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued that GW's strategy actually worked. I was taunted a fair bit in my CT public schools for my Texan accent, and worked semi-successfully to squash it. The resulting mishmash of New England upbringing and deeply Southern roots has given me a speech pattern few folks can place. But I assume GW went to private schools which may have presented a very different environment. I was not infrequently challenged by other kids on my right to be on the honors track because of my Southern accent. Even one of my girlfriends made me repeat words over and over, chortling at how they sounded coming out of my mouth. I just don't think his strategy would've worked where I was.

Joel, it's interesting to me that you identify "Warshington" and "ant" as Hoosierisms. My entire family is Deep South and has been for many, many generations (until this one), and they all say "Warshington" and "ant." I managed (THANK GOD) to avoid "Warshington" but have always said "ant." So it's a Southern thing too, not just Midwestern.

I strongly agree that word choice is way better than accent for identification. After 30+ years in New England my parents have largely lost their Texan accents. But the vocabularly we use in the family, which fits in seemlessly when we're back in Texas for Christmas, makes many folks raise a puzzled eyebrow. It was word choice (plus eating habits and sports preferences) more than anything that made me realize Texan is an ethnic designation, not just a regional variation.

Anonymous said...

Call it political prejudice, but I'm surprised that Bush had such a heavy Texas accent that he would worry it would make him an outsider. Like me, he was born Up North and moved to Texas when he was two. Also like me, his parents did not have Texas accents. He left Texas to go to high school at Phillips Andover and college at Yale, whereas I didn't leave until college (and then went to a southern school). Yet my Texan-ness, as with Jeff Wilson's parents', was identifiable more from word choice than accent -- people were frequently surprised to discover that I was from Texas.

I also find it unlikely that Bush would have been much of an outsider in elite New England institutions, given his ancestry. The combination of pedigree and personality allows him to be an insider in both New Haven and Midland.

LaReinaCobre said...

A significant minority of folks in Oregon and Washington states say "Warsh" and "Warshington." I have no idea where that came from!

Anonymous said...

I say "ant" and "agg", but would never in a million years say "warsh". And I'm from San Francisco!
Did George W. ever have any real Texas accent at all? I've heard tapes of him speaking with a Connecticut accent, long ago. He sounded smarter....

Steven Rowe said...

As someone from the deepsouth (east), I've never heard Warshington. I hear equal amounts Ants and Aunts - but that seems to be cultural in this area.
Oddly enough, everyone in SC thinks my accent is from Ohio!

fausto said...

I think Bush's popularity at Andover had more to do with being a class clown than being a down-home country boy.

It's not like they didn't know who Bushes were.