"Hi, and welcome. Have you dined with us before?"
They looked up at me from their menus with smiles, "Okay. Where are you from?"
These guests who grew up in the South heard it instantly, what is left of my Tennessee accent.
It is not debatable that I have a Southern accent. I do. What is in question is whether or not it is detectable to most.
My roommate would tell you that absolutely, yes, it is. She is a Bay Area native with no discernable regional accent besides the patented California uptalk. To her, my accent is noticeable and pronounced. She now calls it "Tinnissee" rather than "Tennessee," because that is how I say it. I can't help it. "Pen" will always sound closer to "tin" than to "hen," no matter how hard I try to shake my drawl.
Not that I try to shake it. I mean, I used to, when I lived there. In fact, when I waited tables in Tennessee people often asked me where I was from since I didn't have the thick, honeyed accent had by many Middle Tennesseans. But since moving away I have naturally lost the Southern twang I acquired when learning to talk, at least to some degree.
I mean, when I call my family I am often surprised at how Southern they sound. My sister's voicemail message for the longest time was this amazing example of how a Southerner can turn single syllable words into a symphony of sounds: "Heyyy, the-is is Amy. Ahm naught here ra-ight nay-ow, but leave a message aind ah'll ge-yet back to ya." It was a thing of beauty--unabashedly drawly and Southern-sounding.
I slip into this style of speaking when I call home or when I've had too much to drink. When I visit my family my Southern accent picks up where it left off like it never disappeared. It takes days for the drawl to wear off after a trip home.
Certain words for me will always come out drawl-y, like "Tinnissee." Or "oy vey," which I inexplicably adopted after just 14 months in New York. But I've also developed that unsure California uptalk where every sentence ends like you are asking a question? As though you don't want to commit, because you are an open-minded, up-for-anything Californian? Quite the nasty little trifecta of speaking styles.
Most people tell me my accent is endearing, but I have no doubt many who don't speak up dismiss me as simple or stupid. The Bay Area is a well-educated enclave that can be quick to judge not only your university, but its location. And sadly, the South still carries a stigma of ignorance that even incredible institutions like Vanderbilt and Emory can't erase.
I don't really have a take-away or a conclusion to this post. But as a transplant, comments on my accent happen a lot. Of course, most of the time I hear no accent when I speak, and so I'm often suprised when somone brings it up. But the truth is, being Southern if very much part of my identity living in places like New York or San Francisco.
The other day I was introduced thusly: "This is Brittney. She's from the South, and she's awesome. She helped me fry okra the other day."
Sure as shit, I did. And I was proud to do so.