Recently, a woman called me out on my East Texas accent. But here’s the thing: I don’t have an East Texas accent anymore.
To be clear, a Southern accent is not the same thing. I don’t really know how to describe why an East Texas accent is different, and I honestly can’t mimic it without overexaggerating. You just know it by how it sounds. To me, it sounds like home.
When I arrived on W&L’s campus two years ago, I didn’t sound like the majority of the other people from my home state. Most of the other Texans grew up in the metropolitan areas, and they sound like it. They might have driven through small towns or occasionally gone hunting in the rural areas of Texas, but that’s not the same thing.
I think people who aren’t from the Lone Star State assume that you can just lump us all together and categorize all Texans as the same. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t exhaust this point, but being from a major city like Dallas or Houston and being from Carthage is not the same thing. That’s because, stripped to their bare bones, Dallas and Houston are just metropolitan areas that you could find in any other state (okay, I’ll be fair – any other Southern state.) Sure, they’ve been decked out with all the Texas trappings: billowing flags featuring the Lone Star, bluebonnets, an annual rodeo – but that’s not my Texas.
During my freshman year of college, people pointed out things about the way I spoke that I had truly never noticed before. To my untrained ear, I merely sounded like the people I’d been surrounded by my entire life. Granted, I had definitely noticed when someone else in my community had a particularly pronounced accent. But did I think my own was that strong? Not really. Ironically, I think I was under the impression that I actually sounded sophisticated – after all, I made it a point to never use the word “ain’t.”
But back to my recent interaction with this woman. I had just met her and told her my first name. When she asked where I was from, I said, “I’m from a small town in East Texas,” and she responded, “And she has the accent to prove it.” I bristled just a bit. I couldn’t help it. At that point in the conversation, I’d venture to say this woman had heard me speak maybe 10 words – and for the record, “y’all” wasn’t even one of them. Could she really have picked up on my so-called “East Texas accent” in that limited amount of time, with that little dialogue? I don’t think so. (That same week, I had just had much lengthier, unrelated conversations with people who said, of their own volition, that I “didn’t sound like East Texas.”)
Maybe this woman’s comment wouldn’t have stung so much if she hadn’t delivered it so condescendingly. I can’t recreate the scene for you or describe her tone or inflection convincingly enough, but trust me, her response was condescending, to the point of being derogatory. I realize that this comes across as me being overly sensitive, but this isn’t really about this woman’s isolated comment. This is really about how her comment helped me realize one of my most significant underlying insecurities.
I gradually lost my accent at some point between my first and second year of college. Don’t get the wrong idea. I did not spend hours and hours re-training myself on pronunciation each night. But I would listen to how I spoke with a more critical ear. I would interrupt myself with a “whoa!” anytime I started to say anything with a particularly strong twang. Then I would start the sentence over again, speaking exaggeratedly clearly. I can’t remember exactly when my parents started noticing, or when I began picking up on the differences in how we sounded.
I’ll be honest. It hurts when my younger sisters say, even jokingly, “You don’t sound like us anymore.” Because they’re right – I don’t. They were overjoyed when I found out I was going to be spending last summer interning in Austin – “Now we can work on getting your accent back!” My sisters are still young enough that they don’t understand the segmented Texas that I’ve come to know – if they did, they would have known that Austin was the last place where I could have allowed myself to slip back into my East Texas ways.
I smile and shrug. I laugh it off. I blame it on my journalism major – although I gravitate toward print/digital journalism, the department trains us in broadcast, too. You have to know how to articulate your words clearly and understandably on camera, right? But if I’m being completely honest, that’s not really why I lost my accent.
I vividly recall an episode where I volunteered to read aloud from a short story for my Creative Writing: Fiction class during fall term of my freshman year. This wasn’t my own story – it was a published one that we were reading as an example for class. The story was about a farmer, and the section I had naively volunteered to read included dialogue from this farmer, talking about a range of farm-related topics like his pigs and his tractor and his barn. My East Texas accent was still very heavy then. You can imagine how the dialogue sounded.
When I finished reading, there were mumbles and small coughing laughs from the rest of the class. One girl murmured something along the lines of: “It just sounds so real when she reads it!” Despite what I sounded like, I could clearly read the subtext of their murmured comments: “She sounds like she belongs on a farm.”
This was not a freshman seminar – this was a class filled with a range of upperclassmen, and I had a hard enough time finding the courage to speak up as it was. I might have smiled good-naturedly. I might have acted like I thought it was funny, too. But I can promise you that I did not find it funny at all. I was absolutely mortified. I don’t think I spoke for the rest of that class period. If you want to know why I lost my accent, that experience was one of the major contributing reasons.
Can you honestly say that you don’t automatically make assumptions about how “smart” someone is, based on how they talk? Be honest. It’s okay – I’ve realized I’m guilty of it, too. And it makes me ashamed of myself, especially because I am a product of my father – a man who has lived in East Texas his entire life and is continually scolded by my mother for using the word “ain’t.” But my father is so much more than that – he’s a man who was a first-generation college graduate, was accepted to and entered veterinary school after completing only two years of undergrad, has taught himself through reading countless books to understand the stock market, and who knows the Bible backwards and forwards. This is a reminder for myself, too: don’t ever make the mistake of judging someone’s intelligence based on what they sound like. You’ll miss out on some of the best people in this world if you do.
I definitely still have a Southern accent, no questions asked. And I even still say some things funnily, perhaps in what could be called the “East Texas way.” I continue to pronounce museum as “myoo-zim” (rather than “myoo-zeum”) and lawyer as “lah-yer” rather than “loi-yer.” And it will take something pretty earth-shattering for me to ever strike “y’all” from my vocabulary – like I recently tweeted, I can still throw three “y’all’s” in one sentence in a pinch. But I can’t “do an East Texas accent” on command. I can hear myself slip back into my accent on certain words or phrases, just a bit, when I spend any extended amount of time at home – but never enough to where anyone says: “Hey, you sounded like the old Sutton just then!” Honestly, I don’t think I ever will sound like the old Sutton again. And there’s good and bad in that.
This is what I’m coming to understand: no matter what I sound like when I speak, I’ll always be an East Texas girl at my roots. I will always have grown up living “out in the country,” surrounded by pastureland and neighbors who never fail to wave when navigating their vehicle past mine on our narrow, poorly paved county roads. I’ll always have grown up in a community without a shopping mall, where I can still remember the dark days before the Wal-Mart finally upgraded to being open 24-hours, and where the local two-screen movie theater was converted into a church while I was still in high school. I’ll always have been taught by teachers and preachers who speak a little slower and with a bit more of a drawl, yet are some of the most insightful and intelligent people I’ve met. I’ll always have lived all of that for the first 18 years of my life, and that has shaped me irrevocably. Whether that shaping shows itself through my speech patterns or simply the way that I conduct myself when speaking, I’m proud if someone walks away from a conversation with me and says: “Now that is an East Texas girl.”