Fellow travelers from Willie Morris to Truman Capote have all discovered a delicious fact about New York City: a Southern accent goes real far up in here. People assume you’re a little slower, maybe they need to re-learn their manners and take care of you. My wife, a naturally cheerful person, has a “little-girl” timbre in ordinary speech, though she’s an excellent actress and can adjust it as needed. She stretched a few vowels and dropped a few Gs when she first moved up here from the Deep South, but even before she assimilated vocally, you mistook that for naivete at your peril, as dozens of people on the other side of the conference table have learned over the years.
This inclination to subtract a few IQ points when one encounters a Southerner is a attitude I call placism. A cultural background, a position in society, is inferred simply by an accident of geography, or physical location. It’s real, and it’s quite common, though you can’t truly understand it until you get out of the place(s) in question and look back. American expats in England face a national version of this same attribute – just because you’re a Yank doesn’t make you a preening cowboy — but personally I only know one of its manifestations: prejudice against Southerners. It’s not the way you look, but the way you sound, that makes people think they know things about you that aren’t so.
Let me be clear that I’m not talking about racism, a heinous, malefic and shameful prejudice which has no place in modern society. One’s accent doesn’t generally invite physical harm, at least not any more – we’ll have to ask contemporary first-generation Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Asian-Americans (more frequently the subject of racism because of physical attributes), Hispanic-Americans and the like, to make sure – but as members of each of those groups know, you can still be taunted, ignored, or patronized by people who think they’re superior to you simply because of the way you pronounce words. And, as with all prejudices, you’re judged well before you’re able to offer any individual characteristics.
I first encountered placism in person when I was twelve. I was in school in Jackson, Mississippi, having moved there from my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. Many Virginians, including my family, are descended from French Canadians who settled halfway down the Eastern seaboard. (Far fewer are the “FFVs,” or “First Families of Virginia,” direct descendants of Jamestown settlers, a point of snooty pride among the genealogically inclined, as with “Daughters of the American Revolution,” or “DAR.”) The accent is from Canada, Boston, New England – the word “house” comes out sounding more like “hoose” than “howse.” Canadian Peter Jennings, the great ABC anchorman, spoke this way, and at the time so did I.
When I arrived for the eighth grade and started talking, my new Mississippi classmates accused me of being a “Yankee,” their worst insult. (Only derisively, I must add, never threateningly. It was black people who had more serious things to worry about from Johnny Rebs in 1962.) My first reaction was, “I just told you I’m from Virginia. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, you dopes!” “Well, you sure sound like a Yankee! And what’s this about dopes?” Amazing: I was imputing personalities on severe Southern accents, just like they were doing to my “Yankee” speech. Not only was I a victim of placism, I was guilty of it too!
Americans are every bit as concerned with the perception of class as are (famously) the British, and in both countries, the evidence comes out of their mouths. Such comedians as Monty Python and Ricky Gervais follow a long music-hall tradition of making people howl by throwing in an “I fink” or two, or just saying “innit?” at sentence’s end. The coarse Cockney is as much a stereotype as the coddled Oxbridge fop, even if he’s as streetwise as Russell Brand’s character (or is he for real?) seems to be, and the accent tells the tale. How else did Henry Higgins think he could actually transform Eliza Doolittle by correcting her speech? Placism. If she didn’t sound right, she could wear all the fancy fashion in London, and she’s still just a flower girl.
Southerners – crackers, rednecks, hillbillies, whatever you want to call them — are the American Cockneys. There is a courtly, soft-spoken Southern accent that announces the cultured upper class; one such speaker is former president Jemmeh Cauduh. But when most people hear Southern speech, they’re thinking way downmarket: Jim Nabors dined out on this perception for years. His character of Gomer Pyle is an interesting one, because though his cornpone mannerisms are funny, Gomer’s moral compass is set in just the right place, and he baffles figures of authority, from Barney Fife all the way to his Marine DI, Sgt. Carter, with stubborn cheerfulness and allegiance to what’s right; in that sense, he’s actually a leader. Same for Jed Clampett and his clan: they’re not the Gumps, because they have more sense than that. But they’re immune to greed and venality (wouldn’t you be, whompin’ up your vittles in a Beverly Hills mansion with a see-ment pond?). Yet what they communicate to many Americans is, dumbasses. And that’s simply because of how they sound. Ever seen a heavily accented Southern college professor interviewed on TV and wonder: man, how’d she get there? You’re a placist, my brutha.
“I never met anybody from Mississippi before,” a book-publishing colleague told me one day. What else could I say: “And I never met anybody from Long Island!” What were we each expecting to see, or hear? I’m a firm believer in the notion that people are alike all over, but when I hear “youse” as the plural for “you,” a singsong voice that rises on the last word when stating a series (“I went to the bank, I picked up the kids, I went home, I turned on the tube…”), or the wonderful, all-purpose “Fuggeddabouddit!”, I know I’m in another land, and it’s my own placism that tells me so. People in the Deep South were secretly pleased (that’s how we roll: we talk about you behind your back, while up North they say it to your face) when Boston had its own school busing problems in the Sixties. See, we thought, you’re no more enlightened than we are! But it was only placism that made me feel schadenfreude regarding the denizens of Haavahd Yaahd; I had no idea what they thought individually, and there are irrational people everywhere. The Coens did Midwesterners no favors in FARGO, and we laughed at them. But what would you assume, instantly, if a stranger chimed in to your cocktail-party conversation with, “Yer darn tootin’!” These days I try to throttle back my gut reaction whenever I hear unfamiliar speech, and I’ll bet others with a wide circle of friends are doing the same. The South has lots to atone for, you bet. But lighten up, podnuh: we gave you Elvis!