When I was four, my parents divorced and mum and I went to live with my Gaga (maternal grandmother). I had been born in Mississippi and grew up in Tennessee, and my accent was as thick as the narrator in 1980s Dukes of Hazzard. Light bulb was pronounced “lat bub”, common expletives were ‘shucks’ and ‘I’ll be John Brown’, and I had the loudest, goofiest laugh you’ve ever heard in a kid.
Everyone I encountered in that tiny backwater Southern town sounded exactly like me (or vice versa, I suppose). On TV and in my rapidly growing repertoire of books, I heard and read familiar British incantation and verbal pacing, which matches the Old South fairly well (anthropologically speaking, Southern US is the original English accent; it hasn’t evolved in a few centuries here much, like it has overseas). So if I didn’t sound Southern, I sounded/spelled British-English. No one batted an eye, least of all my family.
All this changed when my mum began dating her physics teacher when I was about seven years old, who in another year would become my stepfather. Although he had been born in the home of the Grand Ol’ Opry here in TN, he was mortified at what he termed “hick talk” and rapidly set to work fixing it.
He was relentless. Obnoxious and annoying and downright cruel about correcting our spoken words and intonation. Imagine someone interrupting you every 10-30 seconds by mimicking a loud buzzing noise like you hear on gameshows and snapping the ‘correct’ way to say what you just said. I was told repeatedly that I would never be taken seriously if I spoke like a ‘redneck’, that I would never get a job and never get married and never get anywhere in life if I sounded like that. He was just as aggressive with my mum as he was me, but of course I’m only speaking from my perspective as a young child here.
He tailored mum and I’s speech to have a “neutral” Midwestern American accent, and I lived in terror of straying from it. He constantly made fun of my Gaga for her Southern speech (and still does to this day) with loud mocking mimicry and snide laughter. He will still correct my speech and grammar if I slip up- I just turned 32 and I have a Bachelor’s Degree in a subject I adore. Since I live in the same town and move in similar’ish circles as he, I cannot relax my speech until I move away.
I have so much borrowed shame and guilt for how I talk, I can’t even express it properly with the written word. I’m paranoid someone will hear me slip up and think, “He sounds like a fucking moron, goddamn hicks don’t know shit”. I’m terrified I will be judged based on how I speak, rather than my decades of research and degrees and knowledge.
And I’ve had it. I’m sick of being ashamed of who I am.
Maybe I can’t do this in person yet, but I’m here to say THERES NOTHING WRONG WITH HOW I TALK. I can laugh and snort as loud as I like, I can use gratuitous amounts of Southern euphemisms, I can stress my I’s and E’s and call it a “warsh machine” and “hose pipe” and add unnecessary R’s to random vocabulary because I’m fucking Southern and darn proud of it.