Appalachian code switching

Last week NPR started an interesting conversation on Twitter by asking if public radio voices are “too white” and if those white-sounding public radio voices are limiting the audience, shutting out people who don’t necessarily choose to listen to people who don’t sound like them.

The discussion grew out of an African-American professor and hiphop artist who did some radio work and noticed that he talked differently for radio, and was considering why. From what I could tell from the Twitter discussion, folks of other ethnicities weighed in, and then people started talking about how public radio voice isn’t just white, it’s a sort of standard, non-accented white. You don’t often hear regional accents on NPR, no matter what race the speaker is.

That’s an interesting and valuable conversation to have, and it gets into all kinds of issues — race, ethnicity, regional dialects, the value placed on how we talk, how we sound, the words we choose, how others judge us by all that, etc. An interesting comment on that is here.

But it got me thinking off on a specific related tangent — Appalachian code-switching. This probably would apply to any strong regional accent (hi, Boston), but Appalachian accents are my own experience.

I don’t think everyone in Appalachia (or the south, or another region with a strong accent) code-switches. Not everyone needs to. My uncles and cousins mostly still live in the small communities where they grew up, and I doubt they talk any differently at work on the strip job than they do at home. They might change their words a bit when they go to, say, the doctor’s office in Bristol or Johnson City. But largely, their lives are lived around people who talk the way they do.

But I grew up hearing my parents code-switch, because they left those communities. They were both the first in their (large) families to go to college, and we lived in a town — still in Appalachia, but outside the more isolated, small communities where they both grew up. You could hear my mother’s voice change when she called her parents on the phone. To neighbors where we lived, it was your basic “Hi, how are you?” To her own parents, it was “Howdydo. Howre you’uns a-doin?”

She still does that when she calls her dad or brothers, or when we visit them. And so do I. It seems you only need to code-switch when you leave. (Or become a radio/tv host.)

I am an adopter of accents. I think there’s actually a word for that but I don’t know it — I unconsciously mimic the accent of the person I’m talking to, if I talk to them for long enough and if their accent is distinctive enough. I don’t mean to, and they aren’t necessarily flattered by it, and I don’t always do it strongly. I first noticed it when I spent a month in England in college.

But my own accent is softly Southwest Virginian. I’ve lived away a good long while, so it’s not as strong as, say, some of my cousins’ accents. And probably it never was, because we lived in town and my parents went to college and I grew up watching public TV and, as I noted in a previous post, I was the kind of kid who thought “ain’t” wasn’t a proper word. But it’s there. People here, away from the mountains, sometimes comment on it, or ask where I’m from. It’s a great way to find fellow mountain folks here — we can hear each other talk, and believe me, if I hear an accent that sounds like it’s from Southwest Virginia, I’m going to ask that person where they’re from.

My sister’s accent has mostly faded, but mine hasn’t. I think I’m just prone to an accent. Also, I lived back home for a couple of years after college, so maybe it sort of “set” then. It gets stronger if I’ve had a glass or two of wine, and it gets stronger when someone asks about it. It knows when it’s being talked about, and it likes to show off.

I have a professional job, but I rarely consciously talk differently than I would, say, at a party or at home. The primary exception has been at public events — say, if I’m on a speaking panel — or the occasional times when I’ve been a guest on a radio show (public radio, at that!). I think the accent tightens up a bit then, tries to behave itself. I probably make some different word choices than my colloquial speaking voice, although I know I’ve said “might could” on the radio.

My writing changes some, too. I’m rereading this post and it sounds awfully formal. If you and I were sitting down and just chatting about this, I would probably say things a bit differently.

But that’s all code-switching, I suppose, to an extent. I also know I talk differently when I call home to Mom, and even more so when I call my grandfather. I talk differently when I visit my parents’ families. My boyfriend tells me I talk differently when I come back from a visit home. So I code-switch both ways, to a lesser accent and to a stronger one.

And I’m glad. I’d rather switch than talk blandly all the time. I don’t want to lose my accent, my word choices, the colorfulness of Appalachian ways of talking. I’d be fine with that accent getting stronger. I know many people outside the mountains assume someone with a strong mountain accent is a dumb hick, but I figure that’s their problem, not mine. I love using terms like “might could/should/would” — and it is so handy, perfectly describing that point between “I could go to the party” and “I only MIGHT could go to the party.” I love having that vocal connection to home, to a place and a culture and a history.

My boss once told me he had heard a theory that we talk like where we want to be. I miss home, so I love talking like people back home. People who are glad to get out of the mountains (and there are some such misguided souls) probably welcome the disappearance of their accents, consciously work to shed them. The boss had come from a poor, flat farming area in North Carolina. He didn’t seem to much miss it, and he didn’t talk like his roots either.

I’m not a linguist. I assume there are studies and papers and research and opinions out there about this subject, about Appalachians shedding their accents in the flatlands. I know there are many papers and studies and ruminations about the broader issues of the homogenization of language, the pernicious effects of TV (and radio!) on making us all sound the same, the value judgments placed on word choices and on speaking “proper” English, and all that.

But I love accents and words that change by region. Perhaps because I value them so highly for my own sense of culture and place, I’m all for everyone else having their own too. Why should we all talk the same? Language should be colorful. So while I love public radio, I hope it doesn’t Henry Higgins us all, stamping out accents and strange pronunciations and weird words.

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9 Responses to Appalachian code switching

  1. Pingback: The Stories of Appalachia (Feb 2-6)

  2. Great piece! I’d love to run it as a guest post on my Appalachian blog tomorrow. If you’re interested, please drop a line.

  3. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m a West Virginia girl, but I’ve code-switched all my life. I first noticed it with my dad who was a farmer, teacher, and politician. Even as a kid I knew there was a different “voice” for each of those personalities.

    I spent 10 years on the coast of SC so in addition to mountain-talk, I have a Southern drawl I pull out now and again. I’m in Western NC now, which is similar to WV, but different, too. Back home it’s all mountain. Around here I’d call the accent country.

    Regardless, I really can’t help slipping in and out of accents (maybe because I don’t want to) and I’m glad you’ve put a name to it.

  4. Patti Dotson says:

    Thanks for naming this! I’ve done it for years. I grew up in McDowell County (or Mac Dowell County if you’re from there) WV in a holler near Iaeger. So my accent can be rather thick. I had a very rough time when I went to school at WVU, people made all sorts of fun of me and my accent so I learned then how to “code-switch”. It never goes completely away as I’ve settled in Southwest Virginia and have been here for nearly 25 years but I can definitely tone it down when needed.

    People I work with have commented on how they can tell when I’ve been home for a visit or if they hear me on the phone with someone from home. But I own it, embrace it and love it–it’s part of who I am, where I come from and how I was raised.

    Thanks for the positive pieces you write. I enjoy them.

  5. Carolyn Mathews says:

    Thank you for this great piece on Appalachian code-switching. I, too, am from Appalachia (Pulaski County, Virginia, to be specific), and I code-switched as a public school English teacher in Pulaski County and now as a Professor of English at Radford University. I teach a Grammar and Language for Teachers class as a part of RU’s Teacher Preparation Program, and my students and I do a whole unit on code-switching. We talk about the importance of teaching students to code-switch so that they can speak and/or write in a way that best communicates with their audience. We talk about the importance of valuing students’ “home speech,” whether that way of talking be Appalachian or African-American vernacular, or some other dialect. I love your piece because you write from the perspective of a person who values her home speech but recognizes that sometimes we need to choose verb forms (or whatever) that fit the audience and situation. I’m going to have my students read your piece.

    • CD says:

      Oh, that’s great! I do think it’s so important to value “home speech” and the identity that’s wrapped up in that. I hope your students enjoy the piece! (There will probably be an edited version in the Roanoke Times as well, in a month or so.)

  6. Kelly Banner says:

    I have thought–since college, when my elocution class whipped it out of me–that I was the only one who “code switched”. When I’m at home in Madison County, NC, my accent is so thick you’d dull a knife trying to cut through it; when I’m with friends from “off” ( we have a ton of transplants in Asheville), they ask where I’m from because they can’t discern my accent. Thank you for letting me know that this is a normal behavior!

  7. Michael Ramsey says:

    Ms Davis,

    I read your op-ed in today’s edition of The Roanoke Times. I enjoyed it on several levels. I was born in Charleston, WV. My father immediately returned to Dayton, OH where we lived until he was posted to Beckley to open a regional office for his company. It took me a long time to understand the value of Appalachian history and culture.

    My Scots ancestors settled in Botetourt County in the early 1700’s. The farm where my Ramsey ancestors lived is now in Monroe County, WV. My McCraw (McGraw) ancestors moved from Surry County, NC to what is now Wyoming County, WV, and my grandfather sold his businesses and bought a farm in Monroe County.

    I grew up hearing funny syntax (which I had to unlearn) and funny words. My maternal grandfather referred to his wool knit winter cap as a “toke.’ His grandfather’s nickname was “Bige” named for a tall stone on the Orkney island of his grandparent’s origin. My great aunt, Laura, would start some of her sentences with ” ‘ere, now.”

    I almost never lapse into a West Virginia dialect anymore, having lost it years ago. I don’t care about that so much, but I do care that it seems to be disappearing because of the homogenizing effect of television.

    I joke with people today that wasn’t truly successful until I joined a 12-step program called “Hillbillys Anonymous” and learned to say, “my name is Michael, and I’m a West Virginian.”

    When I learn of someone who is working to preserve the culture from whence I sprang, I am pleased. I truly believe there is beauty in diversity. As a student of the Constitution of the United States, I have come to understand that the real beauty of that document is to provide a forum and a system by which people of different cultures are encouraged to talk about their common goals and their differences.

    If we are all the same, what is the point of living. We would eventually die of boredom.

    I applaud your work and look forward to reading more of it.

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