“Where are you from again?” she asks. I smile. “Texas.” She leans forward to make her point clear to everyone there. “You don’t have an accent at all.” I shrug: I’ve had this conversation before. “It’s there. It comes out when I’m tired.” But she shakes her head. She doesn’t believe me. I don’t sound Texan enough.
The funny thing about accents is that we all have them, and we don’t generally know that we do. It’s only when we leave our homes and our regions that we realize how colorful our own accents are. I’m a five-year “Tex-Pat” and there are still phrases and pronunciations that bring out slightly bemused dumb-founded faces to my friends within earshot. (Latest discovery: Not all Americans know what a “come-to-Jesus-meeting” is.)
But why do we care? Why do I care that people don’t think I sound “Texan” enough? How do they even know what that sounds like?
Let’s take those backwards.
Why does everyone think they know what “Texan” (if it exists) sounds like? The short answer: George “Dubya” Bush. Make a man with a strong accent president, put him on TV, and you’ll broadcast to the world that this is what all us Texans sound like. It’s not. For one thing, some have speculated that Bush played up his accent when it was politically useful to do so. For another—Texas is a rather big state. I’ve ridden in a bus for 10 hours in one direction and never met the border. I’m from the northern half of the state, and I couldn’t tell you what the people of Brownsville down towards the very southern tip sound like.
That stereotyping isn’t uniquely Texan, obviously. Growing up, my idea of a New Yorker accent was embodied by Fran Drescher. Boston? That was everyone from Good Will Hunting. I’ve since lived in New York City. I never once met someone who sounded like their television alter ego. And yet, in the absence of knowing what others actually sound like, we—I—assume they sound like those caricatures we imagine them to be. Texans will forever, it seems, be twangy-tongued cowboys. (Full disclosure: I’ve never met a cowboy, but I’ve been to both the old and the new Cowboys stadiums.)
With those sorts of stereotypes, few of us ever match the twang-filled expectations others have for our accents. I shouldn’t be surprised then when I’m repeatedly told that I don’t have an accent, that I don’t sound “Texan” the way people think I should. And yet, I always respond that I do have an accent. It comes out when I’m tired. When I’m around my twangy brethren. When I don’t think anyone is listening.
There’s a linguistics theory that the south didn’t sound the way the south typically sounds now (that “southern drawl” stereotype) until after the Civil War. Some believe that nursing their pride in the midst of defeat, southerners began to develop a slightly different accent as a way to distinguish themselves from northerners, to retain a sort of irrevocable independence.
When I moved out of Texas five years ago, I took my accent with me. We don’t know we have accents until ours is suddenly the foreign one. My accent became what made me different—one piece of home I carried with me. Why do I care if strangers think I don’t sound Texan enough?
Because, what if I don’t? What if that linguistic thread that ties me back to my home state is coming loose? What if I go home again and suddenly my voice is the foreign one?
We don’t know that we have accents until ours is different. And yet, despite our best efforts to hold onto our home tongues, our ears adjust. Our voices mimic those around us. Our accents change. And suddenly that simple sentence (“You don’t have an accent at all.”) reveals so much more than that dinner conservation was meant to. It’s the back-and-forth, the give-and-take of coming to a new place, adjusting, finding a new home and somehow holding on to everything that made you you in the first place. “This is water,” says David Foster Wallace’s speech. Suddenly, for the first time, you realize that it is.
More on accents and culture:
—This recent Atlantic Cities piece on the evolving Philly accent
—This 2008 NPR piece on political candidates and “authentic” accents
—This 2012 ABC piece on how new demographics are changing the Texas drawl