Waddya mean I'm funny? You mean the way I talk?
-- Joe Pesci in Goodfellas
You don't know me. You don't know where I was born. You barely know what I look like. (Let me just say that small picture in the newspaper does not do me justice!) You certainly don't know what I sound like. All you can do is read me. (Full disclosure: My column is sometimes edited for more coherent content in order to present its discerning readers with a more enjoyable reading experience.) But if you could hear me speak, I believe an educated consensus of neutral listeners would conclude I have a noticeable accent -- specifically, a Southern accent.
I was born this way. My father was from North Carolina and my mother from Florida. I have lived in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas. It seems that whatever Southern accent was prevalent in those states, I simply added it to my discourse. For you non-Southerners reading this, perhaps the most noticeable way in which a Southerner talks is the speed. Southerners are typically more laid back, and that is reflected in our speech, which has drawn-out vowel sounds. We tend to drop the "R" sound and sounds softer to the ear as syllables are drawn out. While some say the accent sounds lyrical, others sometimes relate it to being uneducated, backwards or just plain ignorant.
When I began traveling regularly up north for Walmart, that was the beginning of a question that would be posed to me at least five times a day, every day. Whether I was ordering a cup of coffee or meeting city officials on my travels, I knew it was coming the minute I opened my mouth: Hey, where are you from? Sometimes it would be more personal: You sound funny! Say something else. Once a waitress corralled two other employees in an Albany, N.Y., diner and said, "You got to hear this guy! Hey, say more funny stuff to us."
Typically, I would say "Arkansas" -- which would usually be followed with a nodding sincerity by my questioner. Having been properly labeled, categorized and now filed, our business could continue. Sometimes my answer would be received with a smirk or mocking smile. "How do you live there?" more than one would ask. Based on the response, I would sometimes go on the offensive. "Where are you from? Your accent is funny, what is that?" While working in the New York City metro area for an extended period, I became so tired of the question I would respond either "I'm from Buffalo," which I found most New Yorkers consider to be the country, or I would shrug my shoulders and say earnestly, "I wish I knew."
Over time I adjusted. I would try to speak more clearly and specifically. I tried to stop using expressions like 'git on with it" and "Aah cain't do that rite now." Unfortunately, it would show up on occasions like when I was on a conference call with two Manhattan attorneys. One asked if I had gotten a document out to them, and I replied sweetly, "No, but I'm fixin' to do it." The speaker phone erupted with laughter. (Which is where one origin of the phrase "damn Yankees" comes from, if I'm not mistaken!)
My wife is originally from Brazil, and now it is her turn at bat with that question here in the South. Like me, sometimes it is asked genuinely, sometimes not so much. We need to realize the question can be distasteful to some people, especially if asked by a stranger, and there's a reason why: It's personal. It can make people on the receiving end feel like they really don't belong; they are the "other." Fortunately, this question is becoming less and less popular.
Saturday I was leaving the gym when a man followed me out. "Hey, where is your wife from?" he asked. Without batting an eye, I responded: "From Heaven. She is my angel." Years of experience on this question has taught me honesty is the best policy.
NAN Our Town on 10/31/2019