Our worst fear as Southerners in a northern place is that we will be judged and put down because of our accents. We say something brilliant about the newest exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They only hear: “My name’s For—rest. For—-rest Gump.” But this has not been my experience. Since we moved from North Carolina to New York City a year ago, no one has made much ado about my southern accent. Maybe my accent is not deep enough for this. Maybe I’ve traveled so much and talked with so many people from so many other places that my accent has been cosmopolitanized into submission, tamed by contact with other wild and exotic species. I love a good deep southern accent and certainly make no judgements about the character or education of the person when I hear one. Its a beautiful and familiar sound that draws me. If I hear someone talking in such a way, I might adjust my course and follow along for a block just to keep in radio contact with it if I happen to be walking with no particular place to go.
Some days when I leave my apartment, all I hear is radio gaga, the sounds of people speaking words that make no sense at all to me. This is likely because they are speaking in German, French, Italian, Russian, Cantonese, Vietnamese or some other language.
Though I took French for two years in high school and college, I experience it as white noise except for a few simple words. Whatever French I knew is lost. If you don’t use it, you will surely lose it. And if you never really knew it to start with, it’s a lot easier to misplace. I never had a firm grasp of the French language. It was always like holding a hamster that struggled hard in my hands to get away. If I had not had the good fortune to sit in close proximity to the lovely and effortlessly bilingual Jamie Morris during high school, my grades in the subject would have been so abysmal it’s hard to imagine how I would have attended college. She served as compassionate translator. “Now she is saying to take out your pencil and start taking the test,” Jamie would say about our teacher. “But, of course, she’s saying it in French.” Oh crap, I thought. I’m in way over my head here.
My mom took French in college. She spent a summer overseas staying with a French family and studying at the Sorbonne. She must have imagined herself to be quite the sophisticate, worldly and wise, to be studying for a Master’s degree on the French bank and roaming the streets of Paris by day. At night, she came home, and the family’s four-year-old son routinely corrected her French with glee. Ego safely subdued. Back in North Carolina, my dad made winding milk deliveries in the mountains around Asheville as a summer job and thought with envy of all the Frenchmen making passes at his pretty, sophisticated, bilingual girlfriend studying a continent away.
I like the sound of some languages. I am not fond of the sound of others. French and Italian are impossibly pretty and smooth as if the people speaking these languages are describing a great work of art. Spanish is animated and vivid and present in the moment. Asian languages seem overburdened with vowels to my uneducated ear so that it all sounds like a soft series of mild questions or suggestions you may or may not need to follow. Germans and Russians bark out so many consonants that everything they say sounds like an order that needs to be carried out immediately. Don’t these people have any fun, I wonder to myself. But this is because I know nothing about what they are saying. They are surely having lots of fun. I am an Idiot Abroad in my own country. (Idiot Abroad is a show my son and I love, by the way.) They are surely talking about lots of fun stuff that I simply cannot understand.
Rarely do I encounter a stereotypical New York accent. A hard Brooklyn accent. Or a Long Island accent. Here and there you come upon them like strange sea creatures you always thought would inhabit the waters. These accents have been overfished possibly. Or more likely watered down through the years. As we all listen to Mid-western television newscasters and mingle with other voices, the distinctness is disappearing from our voices. It’s a lot harder to place us, our hometown, our village, our neighborhood from the sound of our voice. The professor from My Fair Lady Henry Higgins would be stumped and disturbed by these changes. I feel it’s a net gain and a loss at once. Maybe we understand each other a little better, but the ubiquitous “Fuhgeddaboudit” is an endangered species except in parts of New Jersey.
I am a student of sound and a longtime lover of radios. My own voice is like a weak AM radio signal broadcast from several states away. When someone must be summoned to the dinner table or called to task for a sin, and my wife and I are a few rooms from the potential diner or culprit, I look at her. Her voice carries. Mine dies harmlessly at our bedroom door whether the door is open or shut. I don’t hear my voice in my head as high pitched, but when I order fast food at a drive-through and complete my order the conversation ends with an almost invariable, “Thank you ma’am.” I make a small groan while the rest of my family giggles quietly. I have sometimes resorted to the deepest bass voice I can conjure up when ordering so that it probably sounds to the fast food worker listening to my broadcast through their speaker like an Italian opera singer wants a chicken McNugget. Placido Domingo wants to know how much it will cost to supersize that combo.