How I Got My Twang Back

Me, when my accent was at its height.
Me, when my accent was at its height.

I didn’t know I spoke with a dialect because everyone around me talked the same–choppy and fast without stopping between words, adding flourish with sayings:

Lord willin and the creek don’t rise.

You ain’t sugar; you won’t melt.

Ain’t seen you in a coons age.

In a world framed by metaphors, our speech was elaborate and gorgeous. Now, I wish I’d had the good sense to protect it.

When I signed up for high school theater, I was told to lose my dialect, so I started saying the g in words ending in ing. I learned to pronounce pen and pin differently. I mastered the flat, all-American accent used by newscasters and politicians and for a while, managed to contain it to the stage. When the curtain closed, my Appalachian twang sprung back, full force.

But mainstream English proved hard to control. It seeped into daily life, turning my war’sh into wash and grocery store buggies into carts. By the time I left for college, my beautiful mountain drawl had faded like fabric left in the sun, its pattern still visible though softened.

Then I spent four years surrounded by Northerners, the kind who wore Birkenstocks and quoted Margaret Mead. Though my college was in North Carolina, Yanks flocked to its progressive campus, bringing the even timbre of the hyper-educated with them.

This dull tone wore down whatever was left of my twang. It also changed what I heard back home. On the phone and during visits, mountain dialects popped. Someone would say hey, swee’dee or call me Maurk’ly’yn, and I’d smile. It was like being greeted with fireworks every time family called.

I’ve heard that some mountain folks erase their accents intentionally. A few years back, National Geographic explained it this way:

“Many young adults from the United States’ southern Appalachian Mountains . . . fear their distinct twang, nonstandard grammar, and obscure idioms will cause potential employers to conclude they are incapable of holding jobs.”

This never crossed my mind. My accent was virtually gone by the time I was doing white-collar work, so I doubt it hindered my career. Though maybe I was just passing. Like some people of color used to pass for white, I blended into the dominant culture.

In Boston, where I spent my 20s, I listened to rock and jazz, not bluegrass. I vacationed at the beach or abroad, not in the mountains. I wore button downs and khakis without owning a single pair of bibs. Once, a friend told colleagues that I was from the Appalachians. Their eyes got big, and one said, “No way. I’d always assumed he was a Kennedy or something.”

It’s no surprise my accent remained dormant until I headed south. Twelve years ago, I moved to D.C. A job was waiting and the promise of better weather, but mostly I wanted to be closer to family. On weekends, I drove to the mountains to hang with kin and for the first time in years, talk the way I was meant to talk.

As unconsciously as it faded, my native dialect returned. Ain’t and y’all eased back into my sentences, sounding softer than when I was a kid but still seasoned with a distinctive drawl. Their cadence felt natural, as if it had been inside me the whole time.

Now my accent comes and goes, depending on who’s talking to me, how many drinks I’ve had, and, especially, where I am. Driving west from D.C., it’s like I pick up a signal around Front Royal. My vowels get longer. Single consonant words begin breaking into two. By the time I reach the Shenandoah Valley, I talk about how everything looks migh’dy purdy, and as much as the mountain view around me, the twang in my own voice tells me that I’m home.

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This piece appeared in The Roanoke Times on June 21, 2015.

5 Comments

  • BB

    I was transplanted, kicking and screaming, at age seven from Clinchco, Va to Detroit when my father moved north for work. I had teachers trying to change the way I talked, kids making fun of me because they couldn’t understand me, and I learned how to talk “northern” real fast. But we went back to Va every summer and 2 or 3 days there and I had my accent back, like it never left. I’m 68 years old and still go back every summer and my accent still reverts back. There are also a few words in my vocabulary that I still have trouble with and my kids can’t help but laugh when they hear them. They think it’s cute 🙂

  • Cheryl Napier

    My story is opposite of those above. I lived in Pennsylvania until I was 13, I never heard of accents and had never met my southern relatives, or if I did I was too young to remember them speaking. At 13, my mother moved her 4 children to Kentucky. Oh my was that a culture shock 🙂 My mother never spoke southern as far as knew so realizing these people were related was just very confusing to this little yankee girl. When I started school, no one could understand me, nor could I understand them. I was asked constantly what country I came from. I know I attempted a few southern words to fit in but I guess we eventually blended in. As an adult I moved further south in Kentucky from Lexington and quickly realized I never knew southern at all! 🙂 It’s all good now, one daughter and 2 granddaughters speak very hill billy and one daughter and two grandsons don’t, it was all a matter of a 45 minute drive 🙂 Some people will still say to me at times, you aren’t from here are ya? Makes me smile but I hope 45 years in the south has made me a true southerner. It’s home.

  • Eunice Vincent

    I have only to speak one or two sentences to have someone ask me, “Where are you from?”. I have lived in Indiana for nearly 20 years now, and when I go back to KY or WV, their accents sound so sweet to me! I pray that I never l lose my “native tongue”, and that I can always remain delighted when someone asks me, “Where are you from?” !

  • Shirley Lee

    Never lived in Virginia past the age of 2 months. But I remember my mother saying “lord willing and the creek don’t rise” and “you’re neither sugar nor salt, you won’t melt”. Also, she hated misuse of “you all” or “y’all”. In her definition, “you all” was used when referring to a group of people . . . inviting a group, “you all come on over”. Inviting ONE, “you come on over.”

  • Bobbie Sue Fenton

    I wonder if some part of Appalachia settled here in South Mississippi, just above the coast. All folks talk like that around here if they aren’t from the city. Enjoyed your story.

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