My name is Arden Anderson. I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, and I have an accent.
Arden: I am Tennessean, born and raised, and for the most part, I love my home. I grew up backpacking through the lush forests of Tennessee wilderness. I vacationed in cabins that perched on foggy Appalachian mountaintops. Over time, I even developed a serious appreciation for bluegrass and two-step dancing, and would go with my friends to the veteran’s bar once a week for two-step Tuesday.
[bluegrass music begins]
The Southern drawl and Tennessee twang reign supreme where I am from, and my entire family lives in the South. When we all get together for reunions or day trips, you can hear the drawn-out, lazy syllables, and the occasional “bless your heart,” or “I’ll be damned.” So you can imagine my surprise when I introduced myself to my journalism professor for the first time and she told me that I didn’t have a Southern accent! That encounter developed into questions I had about my accent and my family. Why did my accent change when I was in Evanston? Was I eventually going to lose my Southern accent? Would I no longer sound like the rest of my family?
When I am in Nashville and around my family, my accent promptly reveals itself, and it’s deeper than most of my hometown friends’. This is because my mom, Kristen, filled my childhood with split vowels and substituted consonants.
Kristen: East Tennessee can have a more Appalachia kind of nasal ton. It’s a lot more kind of in the back of your throat. Kind of more like “you-uns.”
The East Tennessee accent that I grew up with is rooted in small Appalachian communities in rural Tennessee, while the Appalachian mountains themselves stretch all the way from the southern tip of New York state to northern Alabama. The mountains create the perfect isolation for a very specific type of dialect, which combines with some Southern traditions to create my mom’s accent.
My mother was strongly influenced by her family as she grew up on the border of these mountains. She took trips to her dad’s family farm in Dickson, Tennessee every summer. The farmhouse there had a stand-up piano, an outhouse, and an entire wall of Reader’s Digest condensed books. My mom spent hours thumbing through the well-worn pages, getting her first introduction to the classic literature that she loves today.
When I’m home, I sound like my mom. I quickly rejoin the world that pronounces economics, “E”-conomics, and where “wire” rhymes with “car” or “star.” However, when I’m in Evanston, I sound different. Subconsciously, I pronounce my words with more deliberation. I don’t say “pi-yun” for pen, or “scho-ool” for “school.”
Confused why this was happening, I reached out to Dr. Erin Leddon, Associate Professor of Instruction in the Department of Linguistics and the program in cognitive science. She says that the difference in my accent might be because of my subconscious need to conform to those around me, whether that’s at school or at home.
Professor Leddon explained to me that I might be “shifting” my accent to highlight my affiliation with a particular group, whether that was here in Evanston or at home in Nashville.
To me, this made total sense. My mind was altering the way I sounded in order to conform to the group I was with. I began to understand the true effect geographic or social mobilization can have on accents. Even my mom thinks her accent has changed since she moved to Nashville over twenty years ago.
Kristen: You know, I don't feel like I sound particularly East Tennessee anymore. I've kept a tonal flux, but a lot of that dropping of hard D's and T's and all that. A lot of that's gone. I think it's because of education, and I think it's the proximity we have here in Nashville. It's still in the South, but we have a lot of folks here from different places.
From what I can tell, my mom’s thoughts about her accent are definitely true. In the nineties, my mom was in her early twenties and still living in Knoxville. She recorded a message for one of her best friends who was getting married. It was primarily recorded on a VHS tape, and eventually made its way into my mother and I’s text messages.
My mom’s laugh is still the same, and she’s still just as pretty as she was when that video was recorded, but her speech is different. Now, she sounds older, more confident, and her accent is much more Nashvillian. She speaks more slowly now, although we might attribute the quicker pace in the video to the fact that she’s a little camera-shy. She sounds more typically “southern” than East Tennessean now.
Kristen: Hi Amy, Hi John. Um, Amy, as you know, you and I have been the gruesome twosome since, oh, about the seventh, eighth grade. John, you now have my hat for that title. You may now officially call yourself “gruesome,” and you two are the new gruesome twosome. So, happy marriage, and I love you both, and… this is the end of my part.
My exploration of this idea, that my accent could change based on where I am, or that my mom’s accent could be different than when she was a child, led me to one final question that I asked my mother in our interview.
Arden: Do you mourn at all the loss of accents in your own family?
Kristen: No. A, because it comes back out when I'm with you. And b, I guess for me that piece of connection is, is one piece of a larger relationship, right? If we've lost that piece of connection, just because you don't sound just like me, you still have the shape of my eyes and you still smile like me and we still, you know, have a lot of things in common. So, I don’t— I don’t mourn the loss of that.
In its essence, an accent is a connection. We change the way we sound subconsciously. We want to fit in and relate to others, including our own families. My mother’s childhood in Appalachia influences her speech the same way my childhood in Nashville does mine.
However, my mom’s right. Even if my Southern accent fades a bit, or changes like hers has, my connection to her does not have to. We’ll always have camping trips, our joint obsession with Gilmore Girls and our love of cooking. The memories of her peach cobbler or the smell of the Christmas tree in our living room will never go away. My connection to my mother, my family and my home extends far beyond the way that I speak. My family is ingrained within my heart if it won’t always be in my vocal cords. For now, though, I’m proud of my accent, my family and where I come from.
Thumbnail graphic by Olivia Abeyta.