Social climbing

First, see mediastar‘s post on “acting white.” This is a comment on that thread that I thought I’d pull to the top here.
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What’s interesting is that the “diction” issue you describe, while having obvious implications for speakers of “black” dialects, also applies to a lot of white people. I grew up in a part of NC where the white dialect – at least, the white working-class dialect – is the same harsh mountain Southern that Tom Wolfe depicts in his last novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. And I’m telling you, I don’t care how brilliant you are, you cannot sound smart with that accent coming out of your mouth.

I taught myself to speak with a more neutral dialect, and am lucky that I’m natually pretty good at imitating what I hear. I was a debater in high school, and had a lot of exposure to people who could speak proper English (Websterian Ohioese, pretty much), and I realized early on that sounding like a hillbilly was going to really limit me. At the time, I was thinking it would cost me debate rounds, because my accent made me sound like a dummy in front of Yankee judges. I didn’t yet realize that this was also going to be a key to my ability to access opportunities in the professional world.

For years – over 15 years, maybe 20 – nobody ever guessed I was Southern. The most common guesses were Pennsylvania and Ohio, so I was hiding pretty well. Once I got into my PhD program at CU, I decided to let the Southern out a little bit – by that time I had learned the joys of letting people underestimate me, so occasionally playing the bumpkin was a form of intellectual gamesmanship on my part.

Unless I’m in a situation that calls for pro English (maybe a high-level business situation or voice production work, which I do from time to time), I now tend to sound a little Southern.

But, not the mountain dialect. That loses you points even with Southerners, because upper class whites in this region speak a more elegant dialect that’s informed by coastal accents. The way I sound now is more like that, and it’s by design. I don’t have to think about it anymore – after all these years I’ve learned to sort of intuitively adapt the dialect to the situation and audience.

Now I have a niece who will one day be heading off to Wake Forest, and she has the same Piedmont mountain working class mushmouth that I did. But she’s smart as a whip, and the only thing that should limit her in life is her own sense of what she wants to be. I don’t care what that is – doctor, lawyer, rocket scientist, or fry cook – so long as she’s happy, I’m good. But I want her career and opportunities to be a function of her choices, not other people’s prejudices. So at some point I’m going to have to talk to my sister about getting her a diction coach.

Is this uppity? Condesending? Well, no. It’s about wanting her to be judged on her ability, not on people’s preconceived biases. If you can’t speak a certain way, doors don’t open for you in the South (or anywhere else, for that matter). It’s the same as wearing ripped bib overalls and a tube top to an interview – the thread count in your shirt says nothing about your ability as a problem solver in a professional context, but interviews can be over before they start if you throw the wrong image walking through the door.

Right or wrong, it’s reality. One of the things I want to do now that I’m back in my hometown is to work with the Chamber or maybe one of the local schools (Forsyth Tech or WSSU would be the obvious choices) to develop a seminar on class climbing. I know things about the challenges of migrating up out of the working class. There are things you need to know that you have no way of knowing, and I’d like to help kids who are like I was learn some useful things about diction, style, comportment, etc. I always felt like there was rulebook, and everybody had a copy except me. And I was right.

I’d like to give smart working class kids looking to better themselves a glimpse inside the rulebook, if I can….

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6 comments

  1. Interesting post. I have always kept my southern accent, although I don’t sound like a hillbilly. When up North, I used to find my accent to be an advantage. My lovely wife is from Arkansas, and she has a very slight accent, much less than her folks.
    My son, on the other hand has had his accent change rapidly during the past couple of years. He’s starting to sound like Thurston Howell III. In fact, I call him Thurston just to get him going. Actually, he is getting that sort of William F. Buckley Jr. flat vowel accent which drives my lovely wife nuts, as she equates it with a Yankee accent.
    Living in Florida, I get to study a lot of accents due to the tourists. I swear that the worst accents are upper midwestern, and working class Jersey. Hearing them make me consider strapping on a vest of C-4 and blowing myself up.
    I’ve noticed that accents are starting to change in the South, being homogenized by the effects of 800 cable channels. A lot of suburban white kids also want to embrace the black Hip Hop Culture, and try to sound black. It’s really pitiful, really.
    I’ve also found that people will revert back to their original accents when either aroused, angry, or plain old drunk.
    There are two longstanding rulebooks for moving out of the working class, to at least the middle class. Both are etiquette books, one by Vanderbilt, one by Emily Post.
    In my lovely wife and my case, we’re in what my folks refer to as downward mobility. My wife’s folks think we’re in social free fall. My lovely wife and I just like to think we’re Bohemian Lite, and content in our little 1/4 acre of life.
    Have a happy Thanksgiving.
    Aloha,
    Jeff

  2. What’s interesting is that the “diction” issue you describe, while having obvious implications for speakers of “black” dialects, also applies to a lot of white people. I grew up in a part of NC where the white dialect – at least, the white working-class dialect –

    :sigh:
    One of my Pet Peeves: what Americans claim to be “dialects” are only accents, minor pronounciation differences.
    I’ve heard real dialects of a standard national language. Barely. Intelligible. “Words pronounced differently,” isn’t merely the only difference. It’s just the beginning. It’s the only thing in the dialect remaining that’s similar to the standard language. Other words have syllables changed, rearranged, or just flat-out dropped.
    Then there’s the dialect’s separate vocabularly. I’m not talking about “tea” meaning “iced tea with sugar.” Or the other 3-4 words wtih minor gradiations of meaning between US regions. No. I’m talking 1/3-1/2 of the words not existing outside of the dialect. “Speaking a dialect” means learning a whole new vocabulary.
    Then there’s grammar changes. Dialects have variations (as in: more than 3, many more) on the grammar of the Standard. Some are minor. Some are totally new.
    No. America doesn’t have dialects. It has regional variations.
    The closest the US came to dialects was the early 20th century, before the advent of radio. More recently, in the 70’s, “Jive” was close, was on its way to becoming a dialect. But, as in the early 20th century, it was washed away. Even the much-maligned “black english” of this country sits more in the grey area between “variation” and “dialect”. Well, at least these days it does; that ever-present TeeVee pressure again, eroding away the differences.
    (Well, there are two exceptions to my assertion. John McWhorter points out two American Dialects: Gullah, and Hawaiian.)
    No, “dialects of English” always evoke, for me, the British Isles.
    Say you’re in Cornwall, and you ask someone to convey a message to someone else. If you received this response:
    “Aw baint gwine for tell ee.”
    …would you recognize that as a dialect of English?
    Could you even tell the differences between:
    “Tha mun come one naight ter th’ cottage, afore tha goos; sholl ter?”
    “No lang efterhin the yung son niffert the haill o his portion for siller…”
    “Ded um diggy ar no?”
    or identify the dialect(s) to which they belong? (with thanks to John McWhorter)
    I suppose I should also toss in the dialects of the former British colonies. McWhorter tells the story of a professor of his in grad school (I think). The two of them ran into a fellow from the professor’s home country, someplace in the south Carribean. As they rode the elevator, the professor and his fellow-countryman grew more and more unintelligible. When they stepped out, McWhorter asked his professor, “What language was that?” “What do you mean, ‘What language?!?’,” came the reply, “We were speaking English the whole time!” Specifically, the professor was speaking his nation’s dialect of English. And McWhorter, a student of languages and budding linguist, couldn’t recognize a word of it.
    That’s a dialect.

  3. I know this seems apropos of nothing, but I went back to this when a friend referenced this over a mention of last year’s Thanksgiving posts.
    My sister had a Southern accent that was unnoticed by anyone – with the exception of a few breakout words like “crowns” – until she went hiking out West. Everyone thought she was from Georgia.
    This apparently embarassed her to the point that she talks like a Californian now. (Her vowels haven’t slid together as far as, say, Keanu Reeves’ have, because Valspeak will get her presumed ignorant almost as easily as Appalachian.)

  4. It’s now some months later, and I’m more convinced than ever. Of course, my sister – the niece in question’s mother – has to be persuaded that what I’m doing is something other than downing her for being a hillbilly.
    *sigh*

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