By Ben Grimes
Volume XXXVII, Issue 1, February 21, 2014
My first day at Amherst College, I stood among a group of freshman and introduced myself with the standard personal facts. My name is Ben, I’m from Kentucky, I live in James. And when I said I was from Kentucky, there was a round of soft laughter and smiles. I was a little confused by this response, but I ignored it and focused instead on my primary goal for the week: having the same “I’m not so sure about Val food” conversation with as many people as possible. However, the same thing happened several more times during orientation—people would laugh when I got to the word Kentucky. What was funny about Kentucky?
Coming to college was one of my first experiences in the North, and I was unsure how locals would perceive Kentucky. I wondered how I came across to the other freshmen, who seemed almost overwhelmingly from New England and California. I asked a few people, “Do I have an accent?” and was met with an uncomfortable laugh and a “yeah, a little bit.” The same way you might react when someone asks “Do I have anything in my teeth?” and then flashes you a smile that looks like they just raked leaves with their teeth.
Years later, after gaining a little more perspective, I thought back to these first few interactions and arrived at what I believe to be the explanation for why people laughed at the word ‘Kentucky.’ Laughter has been explained as the accumulation and release of tension. I think when these other freshman heard me talk, the foreign or misplaced sound of a slight accent created some amount of tension. When I said I was from Kentucky, it confirmed their suspicions and allowed them to joyfully release that tension in a display of unbridled laughter. For me, this was a fairly harmless encounter, but it may bear further implications about the presence of Southern accents in academic institutions. Why did a Southern accent create tension in the first place? This is Amherst! We love diversity!
While I always appreciate getting some laughs, I wasn’t so hot on the Kentucky stuff. I was not creating a punch line so much as being the punch line. I got tired of drawing attention to myself by pronouncing words a certain way and receiving strange looks when I introduced myself as “Bin.” Out of convenience I started pronouncing it the Northern way, “Behn,” though it made me feel like some brutally polite, comb-over wearing church boy.
Over time, my accent faded—both consciously and unconsciously. I started pronouncing the vestigial ‘g’s in words ending in ‘ing,’ I smoothed out the extra syllables I used to squeeze into words, and I stopped doing that great thing Southerners do where they’ll choose a syllable and let it slide all over the place. Now, the tension gone, when I introduce myself as being from Kentucky, I am usually met with a surprised “Wow! How random?”
After discussing this experience with other Kentuckians, I realized my accent neutralization had as much to do with attending a top academic institution as with living in the North. Highly academic environments do not tend to be nurturing places for these accents, simply because it is difficult for students and professors to equate a Southern accent with intelligence. And that, I believe, is largely due to the limited exposure the rest of the world has to this dialect. Beyond the occasional congressman caught in a sex scandal, the entertainment and broadcasting industries lack Southern voices. Actors who grew up in Kentucky—George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Lawrence, Ashley Judd—don’t sound like they’re from Kentucky. Each has dropped their drawl to make it in the mainstream just like Kentuckians lucky enough to attend top schools.
There is, however, one place where Southern accents can be easily heard: on shitty reality shows. The backwoods lifestyle featured in many of these programs is responsible for a large portion of Southern media representation. These shows exceed Southern stereotypes, featuring gator wrestling, moonshine brewing, duck hunting, and generally anything that involves wearing camo. And while for some of us it is fun to watch these shows and use laughter to distance ourselves from these characters, it also gives people the wrong impression about the South. Kentucky is nothing like the expectations of curious Northerners who question me after watching these shows. I always wear shoes in public, and so does everyone I know. I don’t make moonshine in my basement, though I would love to know how just as much as you. I’ve never even been in a pawnshop. And while I don’t own a tractor, the people that do certainly don’t drive them to school. I honestly cannot believe how many times I’ve heard people joke about Southerners driving a tractor to school. It’s not that funny!
So what are the effects of this limited exposure? Does the neutralization of accents in all venues except ones that are intended to fulfill stereotypes have repercussions? Is it problematic that, for some, the most prominent Southern voice in their minds is the woman who had a legendary meltdown on Trading Spouses? For me, yes. Why? Because, to quote the woman herself, that’s “darksided.” When you hear someone speak with a Southern accent, your first thought should not be “they sound like that meth addict that got beat up on Cops last night.” That only makes it more difficult for Southern accents to become accepted in academic discourse.
When I studied abroad for a semester and was around people who couldn’t distinguish between American dialects, my southern affections naturally returned. And now, with more perspective, I feel ridiculous that I ever intentionally changed the way I spoke. An accent does not indicate intelligence any more than buying Brooks Brothers clothing indicates good style, so let’s not treat it that way. This is not a call to action—our campus is already juggling an inordinate amount of social justice initiatives as is. Just maybe next time you hear someone say ‘y’all’ you don’t need to say something about it. Just let it go.