When writing a novel, it’s important to bring your characters to life by giving them a distinct accent.
– Novelist Jane Austen
Giving characters an accent was a huge consideration when writing Perpetual Gloom. I considered skirting around it, and I’m sure some of my southern friends wished I had – especially those that had not grown up in the south before the 40s. What made it even more challenging was that the Hornbeck family, like so many other families, traveled from state to state during the Great Depression looking for a soft place to land, so their accents became patch quilt. And depicting the accents over a thirty was years was a problematic – like working a Rubik’s Cube in the dark.
There is no one southern accent, just as there is no one British accent. Southern accents vary from state to state and even from town to town. Some southern accents are more nasal than others, and some are more drawn out than others. Some southern accents feature a strong twang, while others are more mellow while others are more subtle or mellow. Some southern accents are stronger than others and may feature a more pronounced twang. However, many southern accents are more subtle and do not feature a strong twang.
Southern accents have changed over the decades, but they are still recognizable as Southern accents. One of the most noticeable changes is the pronunciation of the letter “r”. In the past, Southern accents tended to pronounce the letter “r” more like the letter “w”. Today, Southern accents are more likely to pronounce the letter “r” like the letter “r”. Another change is the pronunciation of the word “you”. In the past, Southern accents tended to pronounce the word “you” like the word “yew”. Today, Southern accents are more likely to pronounce the word “you” like the word “you”.
There are a number of biases against southern accents. Some people may view southern accents as uneducated or indicative of a lack of intelligence. Others may find them difficult to understand or simply unpleasant to listen to. Additionally, people from the north may view those with southern accents as being less sophisticated or cultured than those from the north.
We get a feel for this bias when Monroe, our lead male character in The Boloney Trail trilogy, makes his way across the country, first on a stolen horse, then in an ’36 Ford truck and again when he finally connects with his Aunt Ona in Weedpatch. However, he later finds he could often use these biases to his advantage and would adjust his flexible cadence to his advantage.
Kinzler and DeJesus conducted a study that looked at children’s attitudes towards accents. The study focused on children 9 and 10-year-olds in Illinois and Tennessee. Both groups overwhelming stated that the Northern accent sounded more “in charge.” They also said the Southern accent sounded “nicer.” Adults did not do any better. In the 1940s, as part of the Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the nation’s top science and technology centers, held courses to reduce employees reduce their Southern accents. The course description read: “Feel confident in a meeting when you need to speak with a more neutral American accent and be remembered for what you say and not how you say it.” Thank goodness they no longer hold courses!
The media has had a large impact on the accents of people all over the world. With the invention of the radio, people were able to hear different accents and dialects from all over the world. This allowed people to adopt different accents and dialects. The media has also had a large impact on the way people speak. With the invention of television, people were able to see how people from all over the world speak. This allowed people to adopt different speaking styles.
I was raised on old country. Late at night, lying in my bed, I heard the radio DJ, O’l Tumbleweed, spin Marty Robins, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Patsy Cline – while my mother ran her sewing machine like she was coming on her last NASCAR lap. Sure, the accent is thick, that is because it runs deeper, from the gut. It is honest, and yes, it can even make a cheating heart sound “friendly” and tolerable.
It was important for me to give these characters their authentic voice, although it increases my timeline. But this trilogy is centered on true events and real people who lived in a different time. Having the opportunity to speak with one of the last in that generation, hearing his accent was a gift – I would never take that away from him.