Okay, so I sit down to watch The Gift yesterday and I’m trying to get into it, but not quite settling in because of the pinging banjo that seems slapped on to the soundtrack in order to give that poor kid from Deliverance something to do in his old age.
And then the folks start talking.
Okay, it’s not just the sisters Ms. that have done it. Part of it is living here and over yonder for seven years and spending my free time driving around and listening to folks. But everyone in that movie appears to have done their dialog training with Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel from The Simpsons instead of with anyone who’s from the area the movie is set in.
There is not one “southern accent.” Folks in Tennessee alone tend to have three or four different accents. The sisters Ms.’s dad has a west Tennessee accent that kind of sounds like Elvis’s. Not the corny Elvis that lives on in every “Thank you, thank you very much” but that way of starting a word, letting it fill up with the sound of the first vowel, and then gently closing the word off after that. (But their grandpa shuts his words off tight, so I could be wrong.)
Folks in middle Tennessee tend to sound a lot like people from Southern Illinois, that kind of rural, slow, lilt. And folks in east Tennessee still sound like they are, people who’s ancestors came from Scotland and Ireland and settled in isolated spots.
My nephew from rural west Georgia has a very distinct accent, but not near as thick as his great grandma and great grandpa, who I can barely understand. It takes me a good couple of hours to acclimate. They have the same trouble with us, but are good-natured about it. For one Christmas, they put “To: Bun” on all of my recalcitrant brother’s presents to ease his homesickness, reckoning that it would sound more like how we say his name than either of the ways they say it “Bin” or “Bi-en.”
My two neighbors, the guy who gets laid and the cute one, are both from the coast of Alabama, the Real South, as they remind me, and though both of them have an accent, it’s not one people outside of the South would place as Southern. They also stretch their words out, but unlike the sisters Ms.’s dad, they don’t let the words inflate, there’s not that same kind of fullness.
The folks in Louisiana about knocked my socks off with their accents. The people in New Orleans had a very urban accent, they sounded almost like New Yorkers, and the folks out in the countryside that we met all had Cajun accents.
There are still a couple of old professors here at Vanderbilt who were educated in the South and they speak with that Old Southern Accent that gets instilled in places like Sewanee. There is no sing-song to this accent, it’s as if every word is formed while your mouth is shaped like you’re going to say the letter “a”–“Ah laik mah chances.” When you hear it, you know that’s someone who’s over 65 and got a PhD.
The closest any place comes to having that sing-song Southern accent is Texas.
So, my point is that the movie was ruined for me. I just couldn’t get into it because none of the accents sounded the same and none of them sounded like they were from anywhere I recognized. J.K. Simmons did it the best, I think, opting for an accent that wasn’t really an accent. He just spoke more slowly and seemed to listen and like the sound of each word before he went on to the next.