I Speak the Language

“Ah can do south.” I drawled out the words, giving south two syllables, as it was meant to be spoken. I was responding to a comment that my accent was not so prevalent. (Sorry about the rhymes, it was an accident.)

Originally from West Tennessee, I spent the last…ah…few years in Louisville, Kentucky. My first day here, Bobby Kennedy was shot. You do the math.

I tend to match the speech of those I am with. My mother was a Northwesterner who married a Southern good ole boy and for a few years, our family bounced back and forth between Southern California and West Tennessee, so you could say I grew up “accent challenged.”

When I break out into Southern Drawl around my friends from Kentucky, it never fails to get at least a chuckle, but when I go home to West Tennessee, no one notices my speech. If you live in Louisville—pronounced Loo-uh-vul by the way—you hear it all. You can usually tell what part of Kentucky someone hails from, just by listening to them talk. Eastern Kentuckians, for instance, have a very distinctive accent.

I remember my first experience with the “native tongue” of Kentucky, when I overheard two neighbors talking about turning farty. Sounds like a bad word, but they were actually talking about the number that follows thirty-nine. It didn’t take long for me to settle in. Far miles down the road meant that something was 4 miles away. 1425 Elmwood Court was far-teen twenty-five Elmwood Cart. A small amount of translation was all it took.

When translating local colloquialisms to the written page, I tend to run into trouble. I like to know how a character pronounces words, but an editor usually doesn’t like to see it.

“Ah was comin’ acrost the Miz-sippy Rivah on a Sad-dy afternoon”, is a little difficult to read. It reads more easily as, “I was coming across the Mississippi River on a Saturday afternoon.” You still get the feel of the southern accent, but without all the interruptions.

Feelin’ fair t’ middlin’, Feeling fair to middling. Use colloquialisms with correct spelling and the reader doesn’t stumble, but they get the idea.

If it causes the tongue to stumble, or slows down the reader, it is usually unacceptable. A fellow writer and excellent teacher gave me very good advice. Limit the accent to the first time or two the character speaks and then let the reader take over. If you keep the same speech pattern, without supplying all those accents and broken words, the reader is aware of the difference and it makes for a smoother read.

There are definite exceptions to this rule. I can’t imagine reading the Grapes of Wrath any other way, but I guess if you are on par with Hemingway, you can get away with most anything.