As we exited the Sondheim Theater on W. 43rd, the woman behind us called out, “Wait!” Thinking we’d dropped something, I turned around as she approached our friends, Jim and Lee. “Where are you from?” she asked. A little surprised by her comment, Jim hesitated. “I can tell from your accent, you’re not from here,” she accused. Ever the polite Southerner, even though he hasn’t lived in the South for almost thirty years, Jim told the woman he and his wife live in the Philadelphia area, but were originally from Arkansas. “I knew you were from the South!” she said triumphantly.
The following evening, we sat on the wrap-around porch of their lovely Victorian home in Swarthmore, sipping wine and discussing the previous day in New York. Lunch at Stella’s on Herald Square, the matinee performance of Beautiful, dinner at Sardi’s, and the woman who had accosted Jim about his accent.
“People seem to have the opinion that a southern accent is inversely proportional to intelligence,” said Jim—this from a man who has multiple degrees and interests as diverse as politics, music, woodworking, and gardening. In the 1990s, his wife, Lee, had been the first Democrat in two hundred years on the ballot for council seat in another Pennsylvania town. Although she won and held the office for two terms, she had been conscious of her southern accent and felt it could work against her.
On Labor Day, we visited Christ Church in downtown Philadelphia. Guides greet visitors and proudly recite the history of the church, built in 1695 and the house of worship for many of our Founding Fathers. Ben Franklin is buried there. Our docent asked where we were from. “We live in Philly,” Jim said, “and our friends Kathy and Edmund are visiting from New Orleans.” “Oh,” she said turning to me, “I had a visitor here from England just yesterday. She’s going down to New Orleans next. I told her she wouldn’t be able to understand a thing people said down there with that Cajun accent.”
I mustered up all the southern manners I could and through clenched teeth explained that people in New Orleans don’t have a Cajun accent; the Acadians had settled farther west in our state. She wasn’t deterred, insisting that Acadians had passed through New Orleans—I suppose dropping their accent off on the way west. I was offended, not only for myself but also for my fellow Louisianians, whether their accent be Cajun, north Louisiana, or one of the many varieties of a New Orleans dialect.
Off-hand comments from strangers about one’s speech are usually perceived as uncomplimentary. For this reason, I often try to “hide” my New Orleans accent, as if it is something to be ashamed of. My daughter-in-law once told me she had worked to overcome her Boston-Irish accent. Is this an auditory gentrification of our country—a characterless General American dialect? Regional accents season our language. They are the cayenne in gumbo, the sugar in sweet tea, the molasses in Boston baked beans. Perhaps it’s time to embrace the accent, not eliminate it, y’all.