Perhaps you heard something of the furor evoked down here a couple of years ago when it was reported that a speech pathologist in Chattanooga, one Beverly Inman-Ebel, was conducting a class for those who wished to shed their Southern accents. (That’s how the news stories put it. One could as well say, of course, that they wanted to acquire a Northern—or, as it’s known in the speech biz, a “standard American”—accent.) On investigation, it turned out that Ms. Inman-Ebel’s course was just one of many; such courses were available in several other Southern cities.
Alas, despite ridicule and abuse from regional chauvinists like me, the abomination continues to spread, showing how irresistible is even a bad idea whose time has come. Now my own university has gotten into the act: Our department of “speech communication” offered such a course last fall. When I ventured to inquire whether the taxpayers of North Carolina knew that their money was being spent to deracinate their children, the department’s chairman tried gamely to put the best face on it. She offered the pragmatic argument that actors and media personalities and businessfolk need to be able to speak in “standard American.” (A friend observes that it’s too bad our alumnus Andy Griffith didn’t take such a course. No telling what he might have amounted to if he could speak properly.)
People should take these courses, in other words, for the same reason that people teach them: because there’s a mess of pottage in it. Or, if “mess” is on the list of condemned Southernisms, we can say: because it will help them make a buck. My colleague the chairman did not venture to say whether it is right that there are occupations where this is so, or whether students should be encouraged to enter them. She just offered it as a fact of life.
And, unfortunately, she’s correct. Some non-Southerners—prospective employers, customers, clients, and voters among them—simply find Southern accents unpleasant. Billie Sue Knittel of Atlanta, for example, enrolled in a lose-your-accent course taught by an Ohio migrant named Shelly Friedman, and told a UPI reporter that the Yankee dentist she works for made her do it. “I talked too Southern for him.” This jerk didn’t want her answering his phone until she clipped her vowels and pronounced her terminal “g’s.”
But at least he gave her a job in the first place. It was revealed a few years ago that some Congresspersons had specified “no Southern accent” as a criterion for hiring folks to work in their offices. You know, some Southerners find non-Southern speech ugly, too: In a 1971 survey, about one white North Carolinian in eight and one black in six agreed that “I don’t like to hear a person with a Northern accent.” Chacun a son gout, and perhaps someone’s entitled to i have his phone answered in whatever accent he prefers. But recall that these are the same legislators who pass federal anti-discrimination laws.
And there’s more to this than aesthetics. Apparently some believe that slow speech indicates slow thought—or so we might conclude from laboratory studies showing that the average non-Southern college sophomore assumes a Southern speaker to be less bright than a non-Southern one, even when the two are saying exactly the same thing. Since college sophomores occasionally grow up to be employers, their prejudices are of more than academic interest, and it may make sense to take them into account.
While it may be canny to cater to somebody else’s bigotry, though, it’s a risky business. If you come to accept his standards for your own, it can be downright degrading. Maybe the miserable wretches who engage the services of speech pathologists know what they’re doing, in a sense. But maybe black folks who invest in skin-lightener or hair-straightener do, too. When it comes to regional accents, I side with Atlanta journalist Lewis Grizzard, who wrote that “if you are going to classes to lose your Southern accent you are turning your back on your heritage and I hope you wind up working behind the counter of a convenience store with three Iranians and a former Shiite holy man.”
So what can we do about it? Well, Mike Royko inadvertently suggested an answer, in a column written at just about the same time that Ms. Inman-Ebel’s sinister activities were being exposed. Royko wondered idly why it is that Joseph William Namath of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, has a Southern accent and was known for a time as “Joe Willie” Namath. He speculated that since Namath’s longtime occupation “involved being chased and fallen upon by gigantic linemen, most of whom seem to be either black or white Southerners,” perhaps “Namath thought that if he talked like them, they wouldn’t fall on him as hard.”
Royko also noted the prevalence of Southern speech patterns in popular music, pointing to the career of Bob Dylan, a Jewish boy from Minnesota who did all right once he learned to sound like an Okie, and to the delightful spectacle of English rock singers bawling, “C’mawnn all you peepuhhlll, let’s git togayder.” (Royko’s attempt to reproduce a Southern accent as rendered by English rockers may not be entirely satisfactory, but you get the idea.)
Finally, Royko wrote, a co-worker of his affected “Yuppabilly dialect” because he discovered that he could impress more females in singles bars if he spoke with a drawl. It provided him with a more “rakish, macho, good old boy personality than did his Yale background.”
Now, frankly, I find Royko’s picture of big-city MBA’s in Tony Lama boots saying “Mah place or yores?” about as pathetic as that of Billie Sue Knittel trying to enunciate. But the basic point remains. When Southerners are good at something—football, singin’, picking up women—they don’t have to shed their accents. If anybody’s at a disadvantage, it’s those who don’t drawl. Shelly Friedman’s course is for the Billie Sues of this world. You don’t see Ted Turner signing up for it. And I look forward to the episode of Dallas in which J.R. Ewing meets Beverly Inman-Ebel.
The best solution for us all would be pluralism. Why should all radio announcers sound as if they come from Iowa? Why should Shakespeare sound less strange in “standard American” than in a Southern accent that’s probably closer to the Elizabethan anyway? But if pluralism isn’t realistic—if non-Southerners continue to give Southerners a hard time about their accents—Southerners’ only alternative may be to take over. Then we could set up courses to teach Yankees how to talk right.
Late News Flash: The Wall Street Journal reports that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has prohibited “job discrimination because of a person’s accent or manner of speaking.” The story goes on to say that “an employer must show a nondiscriminatory reason for denying a job because of a person’s foreign accent or manner of speech.” I can hardly wait for the first test case.