Western accent?

There’s a fantastic discussion of red state politics on the wellRED podcast interview of Sarah Smarsh by the three hosts of the show. At the 46:00 point in the podcast, the group discusses how they all deliberately chose not to lose their respective accents. Smarsh says as part of journalism school, she needed to learn how to make her voice more “neutral” (a.k.a. “General American” as it’s referred to on Wikipedia). For the three guys (Trae Crowder, Drew Morgan and Corey Ryan Forrester), I can understand the handwringing. Listening to them, even though I find myself agreeing with much of what they say, I have to be mindful of potential bias when I hear their accents.

With Smarsh, it’s different. She grew up in Kansas, which is culturally/linguistically not much different from where I grew up (all over the U.S. west), where my mom grew up (midway between Omaha and Kansas City), and where much of my extended family still is (Kansas City area). As my mom would point out, modern newscasters (of the day) treated the Nebraska accent as a “neutral” accent — and many TV celebrities like Johnny Carson and David Letterman benefited from their upbringing in neutral accent territory.

It may be that my western upbringing is the reason why I don’t detect an appreciable accent, but others would. The only regional aspects of my younger accent that I’m aware of dropping is referring to carbonated beverage as “pop” (I say “soda” now) and treating “pen” and “pin” as homophones (not anymore). Given how minor the changes to my speech have been since moving to the west coast (living in either Seattle or San Francisco since 1993), I haven’t considered my accent to have changed much since I was young.

In the past few years, I’ve gotten more comfortable speaking warmly of my humble-ish upbringing. Further more, I’ve happily adopted “y’all” in spite of not growing up using the phrase. Some of my fondest memories of my dad were of his cowboy-culture way of talking, which wasn’t that different than the cattle cop highlighted on Planet Money a few years ago. Whenever something would splash all over the place, Dad frequently said it “splattered like a cow pissing on a rock”. He implored me to be more mindful by telling me to “get your head out of your ass”. He frequently claimed that many politicians were “crookeder than a dog’s hind leg”. I’ve carried some of his cowboy-isms forward, but I don’t have the same cowboy cred that he did. Plus, I’m prouder of the fact that I was occasionally able to beat Mom at Scrabble in her prime, and pretty sure that anyone reading this would have had about as tough of a time doing it as I did, no matter how much of a smartypants you think you are.

Listening to Smarsh talk about the assumptions that people seemed to make about her that she ascribed to her accent, it makes me wonder: am I deaf to her accent because of my similar upbringing? Do I have a “western” or “midwestern” accent that might have caused the kinds of discrimination they discuss in this show? Have I just been luckier than Smarsh, or am I just blind to being treated like I just fell off the turnip truck?

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