Last week’s linguistic link was for my husband’s side of the family, but the one he pointed out to me today — A push to restore pride in the way Appalachians speak, Washington Post, July 13, 2015 — hits me where I live. Well, where I grew up, at any rate.
And I’ll confess that the story taps into some personal guilt, in terms of my own erstwhile rejection and belittling of my linguistic heritage.
The native accent of the area where I grew up certainly would fall into the group of Appalachian accents described by this story. When I was in 7th grade, I participated in an exchange program with a school for the gifted in Michigan, and the kids there poked fun at the way those of us from Virginia spoke. Moreover, the pop culture I knew from television seemed to agree with them that people who talked like that — like me — were dumb. And I bought into that fiction, at least to a degree. I purged myself of my native accent.
But that was just part of the story; I cringe now, remembering how as a kid I insisted I must have been adopted, that I couldn’t really have been born there, that my real family must be from (and I don’t know how I latched onto this) the “Upper East Side” (my claims predated, though admittedly not by much, The Jeffersons). And even as a freshman at Harvard, with a subscription to my hometown newspaper from relatives who thoughtfully wanted to help keep me grounded and in touch with my roots, I would post local news items on my dorm room door as a way of poking fun at the speech and the customs I’d left behind. Though it wasn’t my intent to be insulting, I recognized only later that these things must have been hurtful to my family, and I’ve always regretted that.
In the abstract, I’m not particularly “proud” of being southern, but on the other hand I’m not particularly “ashamed” of it either; I had no say in where I was born, or what my ancestors may or may not have done, fighting on both sides of the Civil War, so I had little direct connection, other than genealogical, to any of the good or bad things we associate with the historic “South.” On the other hand, I’ve long been mystified at (and often openly opposed) the symbols of and yearning for the antebellum south that have pervaded that part of Virginia no less than in South Carolina or Georgia, for much the same reasons (i.e., why does anyone born in the south today feel such a personal connection to a place and a philosophy of nearly two centuries ago?). But history aside, I do regret that I wasn’t more accepting of the accent and speech patterns of my Virginia and West Virginia ancestors, and that I changed my own speech in order to try to fit in better to the world outside it, rather than trying to change the world to understand that one’s native intelligence isn’t related to one’s native accent.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more comfortable myself with that understanding. But at this point, with my current accent and speech patterns informed and shaped over many years by television, my years in New England and Washington, DC, and my habit of speaking very quickly, the Appalachian accent I divested myself of isn’t one I could ever again truly fall into naturally or comfortably. But I no longer police it, though I once did fairly stridently; when I’m tired, or especially when I’m visiting my Virginia family, or talking to them on the phone, the echoes clearly are there.