By Mike Steely
I was driving back from shopping recently and saw an Allstate billboard that said “Round here it’s Y’Allstate.” That got me to thinking about how our accents have changed over the years.
While we may be used to the local accents you don’t have to travel far outside Knox County to encounter different ways that words and phrases are spoken and used. Downtown Knoxville has a slightly different accent than Knox County and certainly different than folks visiting here from East Tennessee’s more rural counties.
I was born in a rural part of Tennessee known as “Crouches Creek.” The place now has a subdivision and a paved street and was annexed by the nearby town. My first years, until I was six years old, were spent learning the vernacular of my family and neighbors. My early childhood language was as country or Appalachian as could be.
I remember my cousins from Ohio and how different their accents were. For me, then, it was “Ohigh” and not “Ohio.” I had been “tongue tied” as a small child until my mom had my tongue “clipped” and I could speak better.
When I started school my family moved to a small courthouse town in Kentucky and the pronunciations of words and phrases were slightly different than rural Tennessee. I recall how the kids from the county spoke differently than those who grew up, as I did, in the town.
Words like “creek” were often “crick” and they said “ponder” instead of “think” and used words like “reckon” and “fetch.” Many of those words I remember from my early childhood, where “route” was pronounced “root.”
Years later when I moved my wife and two pre-teen boys back to near my grandma’s house I remember having to interpret what she said for my sons.
When my family moved from Kentucky to St. Petersburg, Fla., I found myself among a group of neighborhood teens who were originally from Ohio, Pennsylvania, or other northern states. The accents were totally different and I spent the first summer, before school, trying my best to drop my Appalachian accent.
I started my first summer in Florida as a kid with a slicked-back ducktail hairdo and black jeans and white shirt with rolled up sleeves and ended the summer in shorts and a Florida or Hawaiian Shirt, flip flops, and a Beach Boy haircut. Fitting in from one culture to another is challenging but important to a kid.
In my last year of high school in Florida I met my future wife, whose family had just moved there from Michigan. I heard a new accent and picked up some new words and how to say them.
After high school I joined the Coast Guard and my wife and I were stationed in North Carolina along the coast. The accent there was totally different than I had heard before, a mix between Southern and Outer Banks, which was a lot like Old English. Cars, for instance, were “cahs” and so forth.
While stationed in Washington, D. C., I heard all types of accents, domestic and foreign, and became accustomed to listening closely.
Years later we spent a year in Southern Louisiana and the English spoken there is actually “Franglish,” a mixture of Cajun French and Southern English. My brother, who has lived down there more than 50 years, has adopted the culture and the accent and I must admit I have problems understanding him sometimes.
In the 1980s I went to work for a publishing company headquartered in Ohio. One year the company was taking part in a bookseller’s convention in Atlanta and one of our salespeople wanted to “eat Southern.” I suggested Cracker Barrel and several of us drove to that restaurant. The fellow who wanted “Southern” food was from New Jersey and totally not accustomed to our culture.
He sat at the head of the long table and the waitress came to him first.
“What would you like, honey?” she asked.
He was taken aback, eventually gave her his order, and she moved on to the rest of us. He looked at me with a big smile on his face and I said, “I think she likes you.”
That was probably not proper to tease him like that but, when she brought the food she served him first and said, “Here you are, Sweetie.” His smile grew even wider.
When we were leaving the restaurant the New Jersey salesman left the waitress a $40 tip. I think he enjoyed visiting and witnessing our Southern culture.
Having been to New Jersey, New York and other New England states I can understand why he was so honored or taken aback by the waitress’s words; you just don’t hear anything like those pleasant greetings “up north or back east.”
The one phrase I picked up as a child which I still use is “Monday week.” I know it means, to me and some other Appalachians, the Monday after next. But to some people when Sunday, Monday or other days are followed by “week” they don’t understand it at all.
I suppose living in so many different states and cities has given me an ear for accents. Oddly enough, since I’ve lived in Knoxville the last 22 years, I’ve picked up the accent here. Seems I’ve done that no matter where I’ve lived. I’ve also noticed that national television networks have altered local accents and most of the nation now has the Mid-America accents that most broadcast and cable networks use.
Language continues to change, doesn’t it?