When people ask me where I’m from, I often respond by saying, “I’m from the Air Force”. As a military brat, I bounced around a lot and mainly grew up on or around Air Force bases. I didn’t develop a strong attachment to any one place. I didn’t feel like I was “from” Nebraska – where I was born at Offutt Air Force Base. Nor did I feel like I was from any of the other bases we stopped at along the way.
People sometimes ask me where I’m from because they can’t place my accent. It’s an Air Force accent and, as such, it’s fairly neutral. Since the early 19th century, however, my family has lived in Texas, which certainly has a unique accent and a number of Spanish/Indian/Anglo/Texas regionalisms. You’re probably from Texas if you know who’s in the hoosegow. Or who the original Travis was. Or what a Comanche moon is.
I’ve lived in Colorado since the mid-seventies and I’ve always assumed that my Texan-ness was thoroughly washed away. After all, I never lived in Texas so I must have inherited any Texanisms in my vocabulary from my parents and grandparents. Since they’re long gone, I assumed my Texansims were, too. I thought I spoke more like a Coloradan than a Texan.
It turns out that I was wrong. It’s not my accent that gives me away as a son of the south. Rather, it’s my word choice. Even after all these years, I still use regional words to describe people, things, and activities.
I discovered this by taking a quiz on regional dialects in the New York Times. (You can find it here). The quiz asks 25 questions about the words you use and how you pronounce them. For instance, one question is “What do you call a sweetened carbonated beverage?” Is it a coke, a pop, a soda, etc.? A question on pronunciation is: “How do you pronounce cot and caught?” Do you pronounce them the same way or differently?
I took the quiz and – much to my surprise – found out that I speak more like a person from east Texas or west Louisiana than like a person from Colorado. I was struck by the result and so I passed the quiz along to my online students, who are scattered all over the country. The students who took the quiz said it was spot on and could easily distinguish a Utahn from an Indianan from a Mississippian.
Regional accents may have evolved to help us identify who is like us and who is not. Who’s a friend and who’s a stranger? Who can be trusted and who needs to prove themselves? We’re so mobile in the United States (and we watch so much TV) that I thought most regionalisms had disappeared. It’s interesting to find that they haven’t. I wonder how that affects our politics, communication, and commerce.
It’s a topic worth studying and I hope you’ll take the quiz and let me know the results. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s been a real pleasure visiting for a spell and I hope I’ll see y’all again in the by and by. Oh, and be sure to bring your Momma and Daddy. I’d like to sit with them for a spell.