My sister has two voices. I noticed this yesterday when we were in town. She has a voice for people she doesn’t know and another for her family. Her outside voice goes up an octave and softens. She smiles a lot in her outside voice and sounds friendly and inviting. Not that she’s not friendly at home, she just doesn’t make that sound.

I have two voices, too. Or more. I find my voice adapts to the people I’m with. When I talk to Dolly at the Food Lion or with Debra at the post office in Creston, NC, I slip back into my girlhood voice when I dropped hard consonants and spoke like a meandering stream. I remember my father would do the same when he was up on his weekend land in eastern Tennessee, the closest he could get to his boyhood home in West Virginia and still keep his job in Wake Forest, NC. He’d pull oil-stained coveralls up over his trousers, drive a rumbling truck, and talk with the locals like he belonged.

But, we didn’t belong there. My father left the mountains when he was in his twenties to go to college and never went back. Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” It’s true.

I always admired the people who carried their accents with them no matter what. 

There was the girl in high school who moved to my town from New Jersey, when her family relocated on account of the Research Triangle. She never let go of Hackensack. I would try her accent on for fun sometimes. 

The effort helped when I moved to New York for graduate school. Erasing North Carolina from my voice was a matter of survival then. Not just to avoid unwanted attention on the streets. There are walking targets everywhere in NYC, and no one really cares how you talk. After all, everybody has an accent. It’s more important to affect an attitude of impatience and crustiness. 

The survival I’m referring to is professional. 

Academics hate Southerners.  Maybe hate is too strong a word, but they see us as limited or narrow or backwoods. I’ve had colleagues erupt in raucous laughter over a “Southern joke” right in my face, as if anyone who says “y’all” spends weekends snake-handling or chewing tobacco and so what if they did? 

My colleagues, for all their handwringing over sensitivity, clearly missed the delicate nuance of different voices, the cacophony of accents that comprise the South.

My mother had a Southern accent. But hers came from Oklahoma. It was nothing like what was spoken in Wake Forest, where I grew up. And that lowlander accent is completely unlike what they speak up here in the mountains. 

Depending on which side of the state you’re from, which side of the mountain even, your accent will differ. 

“I got my own way of livin’ /But everything gets done /With a southern accent /Where I come from.” 

The late Tom Petty has a beautiful ballad called “Southern Accents.” He makes it plural.  He gets it. 

I suspect he had several voices, too.

Photo by Kenneth Baucum on Unsplash