The joy of a bad Southern accent
Y'all come set a spell and mind y'manners, you hear?
Say it with me now: y’all. Let it roll off your tongue like a lazy river current. Ease into the “y,” let the “a” float, feel the double-l drift off into the air. It’s a good word, right? Emblematic of the South, a word that manages to encompass both community and familiarity, it’s the high-water mark of the Southern dialect. Like barbecue, college football, rock n’ roll and gothic literature, “y’all” is one of those things the South does so well, the rest of the country is always trying to catch up.
The thing about a Southern accent is that it’s a tricky beast. It’s like smoking ribs or disagreeing with your grandmother, something that only local-knowledge experts ought to attempt. Because otherwise, you get the verbal highway pileup that is Brian Kelly, newly minted football coach of the Louisiana State University Tigers, who belly-flopped his way through his first introduction to his new fanbase:
Brian Kelly spent the first 25 years of his life in Massachusetts. He spent the next 35 years of his working life in the Midwest. None of this makes him a bad person.1 But it makes him about as Southern as a lobster roll.
So when he says “it’s a great naht to be a Tahgur,” and “I’m here with my fayumilee,” well, he’s like a cosplayer trying to squeeze into an Iron Man suit that’s three sizes too small. We get what you were trying to do, buddy, but sometimes trying and failing is much worse than not trying at all.
A Southern accent seems easy enough, right? Lengthen your vowels, inflate your “r”s, slow everything from 45rpm to 332, wrap it all around some nonsense country simile, and boom, y’all’s just sittin’ pretty as a full-belly porch dawg in the afternoon sunshine. How hard could it be?
You can hear it clearly in the rallying cries of this weekend’s two college football behemoths. If you try to say “Roll Tide” or “Go Dawgs” in a proper clipped upper Ohio Valley newscaster accent, well, you may as well be talking in an old-timey nasal wartime “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea!” voice. The double-l in “Roll” unfurls to run straight into the consonant “T,” and the “i” in “Tide” is pronounced “ah,” not “eye.” The “d” at the end is barely a speed bump.
As for “Dawgs”? Come on, that pronunciation’s literally spelled out for you. Say “Go Dogs!” to a Georgia fan and they’ll cock their head in confusion like you’re meowing at them.
Repeating words in a Southern tinge is one thing. Going out and attempting to form your own independent sentences? Brother, that’s when trouble comes for you. Linguistically, anyone who attempts to do a white Southern accent tends to travel one of many well-worn paths:
The Southern aristocrat, a.k.a. Foghorn Leghorn. See above.
The Southern lawyer clad in a seersucker suit, probably sweating in the Mississippi sun. (“Now I’m just a simple country lawyer, but perhaps you could explain how it is that your fingerprints ended up on the murder weapon…”)
The Southern sheriff, walking up to your ve-hicle with mirrored sunglasses. (“Son, you know your taillight’s broken? We don’t cotton to lawbreakers in this county…”)
The Southern ingenue/hellcat, a la Scarlett O’Hara / Blanche DuBois / Daisy Duke. Don’t be fooled by the gentle lilt of her vowels; she’s ten steps ahead of you.
The Southern cracker-ass cracker, best known as the “Deliverance” dialect. (Make a hack “banjo” reference at your peril, you jokester you.)
The Southern slow-witted dumbass preaching corny wisdom, a.k.a. “the full Gump.” Worst thing to happen to the Southern accent since Boss Hogg.
Kelly pretty much sampled from the whole buffet here, settling somewhere between Leghorn and Gump, with a light dusting of Bill Clinton. What’s ridiculous is that he not only thought it was a good idea to pander to his new fanbase this way, he thought he was pulling it off! (For the record, if he wins at LSU, they won’t care if he communicates entirely through chicken-clucks.)
Granted, the sound of the Southern accent can summon up whole passel of problematic jackassery. Not everyone who has a Southern accent is an illiterate cousin-marrying racist, but, well, a whole lot of illiterate cousin-marrying racists say “y’all.” It’s one of the many ongoing frustrations of loving the South, the fact that so many people drawling out their vowels have been responsible for some of the worst crimes ever inflicted on this nation. And no, I’m not talking about Nicolas Cage’s accent in “Con Air,” though that was pretty bad too:
True Southern accents, like any distinct regional dialects, are rapidly vanishing. Hell, I’ve lived in the South almost my whole life and I don’t have much of an accent. (Thanks, TV.) The more interconnected we become, the more we learn to form our words from faraway voices. The more we file off the edges of our accents, the more we lose a distinctive element of our shared identity. It’s a damn shame, y’all.
But y’all keep on trying the Southern accent. It’s all in good fun. And then come on down and listen to it in its native habitat. All y’all3 are welcome.
P.S. Speaking of that college football game this weekend: I went long on the rapidly-growing rivalry between Georgia and Alabama, if you’re so inclined. Go Dawgs and Roll Tide, indeed.
This has been issue #48 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party!
The way he treats programs, fans, and players? Way different story there, buddy.
Dated reference. Don’t care.
We’ll save the discussion about the subtle differences between “y’all” and “all y’all” for the spring semester.