By Aubrey Hirsch
It didn’t even occur to me as a possibility until my family started teasing me about it. When I told them I’d accepted a job in central Georgia, and after the “congratulations” had dissipated, my mother pointed to my two-year-old and said, “I bet he’s going to get a little Southern twang.”
I smiled, politely, and shook my head. “I doubt it,” I said.
My Cleveland accent had persisted through a decade of relocations to Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs. I’ve come to accept that my high, nasal a’s and sharp-edged o’s aren’t going anywhere. I assumed the shapes of my son’s vowels were locked in as well, perhaps even inherited.
I continued to think that for the first two months we lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, until the morning my son woke up and, overnight, had taken on a melodic Southern drawl.
I recognized it immediately. “I don’t want breakfast,” he said. “I want a snack.” Only the word “snack” had two syllables. “Snay-ack.” When I set his milk down slightly out of reach, he said, “Can I have thay-at?” And then, when my husband disappeared to change our younger son, “Where’s Day-addy?”
I was, frankly, stunned. My instinct was to correct him, to say, “You mean ‘Daddy,'” emphasizing the inland north “a.” I didn’t want him to think he was doing something wrong, but still, the difference was so stark and so sudden, I felt I had to say something. I aimed for neutrality, remarking that he was starting to sound like his friends at school. He ignored me, diving into his breakfast.
On the drive back from daycare, I tried to examine why this was bothering me so much. Certainly it was jarring, to tuck him into bed one night and have him wake up the next morning speaking in a voice I didn’t recognize. It was like some foreign spirit had taken hold of him.
But it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t just the strangeness of the voice, but the particulars of the accent itself. After all, we’d had a Costa Rican babysitter for almost a year when he was small. If he’d come home with her accent, I would have found it adorable.
No, it wasn’t just the change, it was what this accent represented to me that I had trouble with. The speech affect in middle Georgia is not subtle or gentle. It’s deep, rattling. These stretched vowel sounds come from the speaker’s backbone, his gall bladder, his shoelaces.
And here’s where I must confront my own prejudice. Because when I heard my son say “snay-ack,” I heard him say it in the voice of the oppressor. He sounds like “those people,” I thought. Those people who care about success on the football field more than success in school. Who want to regulate my uterus more strictly than semi-automatic weapons. Those who would stifle marriage equality, raise confederate flags and forge purity rings in the stifling fires of gender expectations. People without a sense of justice, without imagination, without ambition.
The problem was that when I heard my son speak, he sounded like that.
It reminds me of when I first moved to Pittsburgh. Growing up in Cleveland, I had two things tattooed into my brain: hard-nosed optimism, and hatred of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were not just our rival football team; they were the bad guys. It was as simple as that.
I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained in me this had become until I was walking around Pittsburgh. Every time I saw someone in a black and yellow jersey, I had this completely instinctual reaction where I would look at him and think, That is a bad person.
Of course, this is a ridiculous way to think. It’s also ridiculous for me to think that people with Southern accents are uniform in their beliefs and priorities. If you had asked me outright, I never would have said that I bought into these stereotypes about the deep South. That is, until I heard that voice come out of my child and panicked.
But now that I know it’s in there, lurking somewhere beneath my skin, I can eradicate it, willfully. I can remind myself that good-hearted, open-minded people wear black and gold on Sundays and pronounce “snack” with two syllables.
And who better to help me remember this than my kind, curious, whip-smart two-year-old? Whose tender heart I recognize beating through every syllable, every new rhoticity and back upglide and chain shift. Who proves his inner beauty with every single word.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, The Rumpus and The New York Times. She currently writes a parenting advice column, “Ask Evie,” for the website Role Reboot.