Sunday, July 4, 2010

Talking Southern

Southerners have a strong aversion to being thought stupid or naïve. Nothing burns our bacon more than people assuming we are slow because of our accent. My wife and I were singled out because of our southern drawls several times while we were living in northern California,West Palm Beach and Columbus, Ohio.
West Palm is really a northern metropolis, even though geographically it is way down south. We used to joke that south Florida is the only place in the world from which one must travel north to get to the south. There are so many people inhabiting the area from the northeast that a truly southern accent stands out like grits at a clam bake.
My wife has a beautiful south Arkansas accent, having been raised in the oil country around Smackover. She is one of those rare southerners whose accent does not change no matter where she lives. Many southerners who move up north are verbal chameleons; they come back down here speaking with a strange accent after a few years—but not my wife.
She served as a receptionist in a West Palm Beach private school for a period of time. Once she answered the telephone and a man asked to speak with the principal. She told him he was out, but left word that if this particular individual called to give him a rather detailed message, which she began to deliver. The man interrupted and said, “Isn’t there anyone else there I can talk with?” My wife replied, “Sir, I know I have a southern accent, but I’m not stupid. This is the message you are to receive. . .” He let her finish and hung up.
In Berkeley one time I got a free hamburger for talking the way I do. The lady behind the counter in the burger place listened to my order and said, “Are you from Kentucky?” I said, “No, Arkansas.” She said, “That’s good enough for me—the burger is on the house.” She indicated she missed the way the old folks at home talked.
On another occasion in California, my wife discovered that the restaurants didn’t put much ice in their iced tea, so she learned to order an extra glass of ice to add to it. Once when she did that, the waitress said, “Are you from Texas?” My wife said, “No, why, is that the way Texans order their tea?” She replied, “No, that’s the way they say ‘ice’.”
Later, we were taking a little vacation, driving up to Port Angeles to ride the ferry across to British Columbia. We were having lobster in a nice restaurant in Oregon on the way. My lobster was gone before my baked potato was, so I started dipping hunks of potato into the melted butter provided. I said to my wife in my joking hillbilly voice, “Sugar, you better dip your ‘tater in that butter.” I guess I said it a little louder than I thought, because everyone around us stopped eating and looked our way, as if I were E. F. Hutton. We laughed about that one all the way to Victoria.
Overall, Ohio people are more tolerant of our kind of talk, maybe because the state abuts Kentucky and West Virginia. I got looked at funny two times up there, once when I ordered unsweet without saying tea, the way we do down here and another time when I put salt on my watermelon. Apparently that is not done in Yankeeland.

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