How covid-19 gave me back my Southern accent

(Tara Jacoby for The Washington Post)

Tracy Moore is a writer in Los Angeles.

After a year of stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles, I wasn’t surprised that my habits took a notable turn for the odd. I’ve taken up rock tumbling and rewatched every Harrison Ford thriller. But what I could not see coming was the gradual return of my long-lost Southern accent. I’ll be talking normally, and then, like a meddling neighbor, a drawl will walk right through the door and help itself to a cup of sugar.

I haven’t had a detectable Southern drawl for decades. How did this happen?

I grew up in Byrdstown, Tenn., a rural town in Appalachia with fewer than 1,000 people. We picked green beans in the morning; we broke and cleaned them in the afternoon. We repainted barns. And most days we helped do the warsh, as my aunt would say.

Thanks to reruns of “Hee Haw” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” I put it together early on that people who sounded like me were not regarded as sophisticated. But warsh was an outlier even in Byrdstown — as I learned when I said the word in school and my classmates and teacher snickered.

Everyone claims to like Southern accents these days, but what they mean is an anachronistic upper-class affectation, where people lose the letters “g” and “r” on the back side of words. What they don’t mean is an Appalachian dialect, where an “r” shows up in places it’s got no business being. I would learn that superfluous consonant in warsh is called the Intrusive R by linguists — even the operative word, intrusive, suggests an infection.

I spent a lifetime reshaping my speech. It took some doing — the flat “i,” as in “Ahm nihhhnteen,” took years to tamp down, and resurfaced whenever I had a couple of beers. I made sure warsh didn’t stick, but the shame did, and it got me both ways: ashamed I had ever sounded so country in the first place, and ashamed I’d lacked the courage to stay true to it. Still, I don’t believe for a second I’d have made it as a journalist any other way.

My efforts to de-twang paid off. Aside from a few missteps — never ask people if they “got their picture made” — I could sound reasonably intelligent in Los Angeles as long as I masked the tells. Don’t say law-yer, say loy-er. Don’t ask HR when you’ll be getting your in-surance, as opposed to in-sur-ance, unless you want to be asked if you’ll be square-dancing your way to lunch. I’ve been in this accent-protection program for decades, and I no longer notice the effort.

Then came the pandemic, and with it, the lilt.

To find the culprit, I asked Morgan Sonderegger, associate professor of linguistics at McGill University, and he told me that I can safely blame the coronavirus. Isolation thwarted the frequent chitchat with people of more culturally acceptable accents that made it easier for me to push the drawl down. Without it, I was a sitting duck.

It also turns out millions of other people have dropped their Southern accent to avoid the perception of dimwittedness. Appalachian English is particularly stigmatized, Sonderegger agreed, but how any of us sounds is a complex interaction of social environment and motivation. In other words, we all code-switch; it’s just that for some groups (immigrants, Black Americans, rural Southern Whites), it comes with higher stakes.

It’s possible my pandemic TV consumption could be contributing to the reemergence of my drawl. Recently, I’ve taken comfort in Southern-flavored pop culture, binge-watching “Ozark” and the entirety of “Southern Charm.” While watching the documentary “Hillbilly,” I stumbled across Silas House, an Appalachian novelist who has perhaps the most beautiful Kentucky drawl in existence. I was taken aback: All this time he’d kept his accent and made no apology for it. Maybe when self-isolation finally comes to an end, I thought, I could lose the apology instead of the accent.

Can we ever really remake ourselves? I’m beginning to wonder. It often seems to be that, as we age, we become just like ourselves, only more so. And the longer I’m away from the South, the more it intrudes on my psyche. It’s getting harder to fight, and I don’t have much fight left.

Recently, I nearly said, “That dog won’t hunt” to shoot down a bad idea in a professional conversation, and it took everything in me to reprogram my brain to find a more acceptable phrase. Perhaps being back in the world will make it easier, but the odds are good that the next time my drawl walks in unannounced, I’ll just invite her in to set awhile and visit. Maybe we’ll even get our picture made.

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