Ya’ll keep yo’ cotton-pickin’ hands offa mah twang!

 In Facing Reality, SHIFT

The fun thing about going back home is getting to relax into my accent. I can feel my jaw loosen a bit in preparation as we get closer to the Texas border, and “Ah” can feel the language of my youth bubbling upward. It’s always there, “ya’ know,” just below the surface, “fixin’ to” break loose with its drawls and colloquialisms.

It is at this time that my husband and children begin to discuss the various accents of all my siblings. Three of my sisters and my two brothers have lived much of their adult lives just over the border in New Mexico. Even though Texas is still detectable in their speech, it seems very toned down. My teenage daughter says the border must protect them from the full Texas talk. My California-born-and-raised husband finds their way of talking less of a culture shock than that of my sister who has always lived in Texas. He says he finds it hard to believe anyone can talk that way naturally. I have been careful to not share that with this sister, until now.

Every time we discuss accents, I am asked to tell the story again of how I almost did not get my teaching credential because of the way I used to talk. It is sadly a true story.

It was during my last semester at the University of Colorado that I had to pass a speech adequacy test as the final requirement for my teaching credential. As a Speech minor, I did not worry and was encouraged by my debate professor to use part of my latest speech to present for the exam. I did, I felt it went very well, and I failed.

I was stunned. That test could only be taken once a semester, and I had already signed a teaching contract in California for the next semester. With no credential, there would be no job. I appealed to my speech instructors who in turn pled my case with the judge who had failed me. The judge explained to her colleagues that she had faulted me for the “nasality” of my voice and my strong Texas accent. After much persuasion, she said she would pass me on one condition – that I would use a tape recorder to work on “improving” my speech. She told me I would never make a good teacher talking the way I did.

My teenager wants to know what accent has to do with ability to teach, and I assure her that I do not know. I wonder what all the students in Texas think of their teachers’ accents. In all honesty, I must report that I never used the tape recorder and have been reportedly a successful teacher for 30 years.

What I do find interesting is the apparent value judgments we make based on the way people talk. As an English teacher, I am careful to teach “standard versus nonstandard” language, rather than what is “good or bad.” How we talk is so much a part of who we are. Some of my students “axe” me questions that I “be” trying to answer on the power of language. We can more readily standardize the written than the oral. But then, what do we mean by standard? By that do we imply “correct”?

As illustrated by the cockneyed Liza Dolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, or the more familiar movie version, My Fair Lady, spoken language can hinder us if our society has decided what is acceptable. I think we are less into class distinction by accent in the U.S. Oh, we can pinpoint where someone “hails” from most of the time, but I’m hoping we don’t limit or advance someone’s future based on such an ingrained part of personal expression.

Some might point to some of our Texas-sounding Presidents as proof that we are more accepting in the good ole’ U.S.  But, on closer examination, we find that Texas-raised Lyndon Johnson was not actually elected and might have never made it to the While House were it not for the untimely death of Kennedy. And even though George Bush Senior settled in Midland, Texas (which is where my sister lives), don’t let his cowboy boots fool you. He actually hails from New England.

It should be an eye-opener to note how Ross Perot’s colloquial Texas twang was the brunt of many an editorial cartoon. Not that I was for Perot, but it could be our loss if we allow our preconceived notions about accent to influence whether or not we think the person can do the job. Fortunately for the Southern-born Abraham Lincoln – and America – most voters were not familiar with his spoken language, which was said to be very “back woodsy.”

Accent is one of those characteristics that points to a person’s uniqueness. I personally love to hear the wide variety of accents and vocabulary peculiarities across the country and around the world. What a thrill to hear someone talk in a way different from the familiar. I find it refreshing and hope we can squelch the desire to make everyone little carbon copies of ourselves, which is, after all, usually what we call “correct.”

Hmmmm. Well, bring on the cornbread and black-eyed peas ‘cuz Ahm a fixin’ to go down home! Ya’ll come.

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