Sunday, February 5, 2012

On 'phthongs, stereotypes and a song



On an average week, I read about 20 truly interesting stories (and maybe 100 less-than-interesting stories); it's the most-enjoyable aspect of my job. Those who follow me on Twitter know that the bulk of my tweets link to several of those items and sundry pieces that appeal to industries and their insiders.

And then the weekend arrives. I get to read for pleasure. I found this story (accompanying video above) from the Austin American-Statesman. It was featured in today's edition of The Dallas Morning News. The gist: Texans no longer sound like Texans because so many of us are from different states (particularly those in the North) and countries.

Growing up, not sounding like a Texan was a goal. Thinking about it now, there were several factors at play. First, as a young singer, I worked every day on performing with clear, intelligible, proper vowels. True Texas accents have vowels that dance, mosey and draaaaaawl (see the American-Statesman's graphic on monophthongs and diphthongs). Those types of vowels are not desirable in most musical styles (save those "good ol' songs" that glamorize swervin' like George Jones).

Second, both my parents aren't native Texans; my sister and I learned their mostly Midwestern-derived versions of the language. Third, I consumed a lot of broadcast TV at an early age (my father was in the biz), and most broadcast journalists speak without accents (at least they're trained to minimize their accents).

Finally — and I hate to say it — but Texas/Southern accents sounded uneducated to my ear; so I figured if I sounded like a Texan, people would think I was not intelligent. I know that's really terrible. I have incredibly intelligent friends who have very thick accents, so I know it's not true. However, TV and movies have perpetuated this stereotype in a lazy way to establish characters as dumb.

There are so many excellent examples of "stupid" Southern characters, but there are too many great examples from one of my all-time favorite movies — "Raising Arizona" — that I just have to share:

Dot & Glen  |  Gale and Evelle Snoats (They blow up in funny shapes?)  |  Nathan Huffheinz Arizona

And even if the characters aren't dumb, they often sound ridiculous, as New York magazine (of all publications!) points out in its fun 11 Mediocre Southern Accents slideshow ("I don't want your lahhhhhhfe"). Classic!

All that being the case, there have been times when I embraced the Southern accent and words, especially when I've lived outside of Texas. When I lived in Northern Illinois — where "you guys" and "pop" were the norm — I steadfastly said "y'all" and "Coke."

Bottom line, there's nothing wrong with sounding Southern, Northern, etc. We should all appreciate our cultures — from the way we dress and sound to the food we eat and values we hold. But don't take it from me. Take it from Johnny Cash (by way of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers). What a badass.

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