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Commentary: Accentuate The Positive

By Rawlins Gilliland

Dallas, TX –

I speak with an accent. Everyone used to. Now almost no one under 40 has a regional enunciation. Which I find sorta sad, seeing the loss of unique local vocal personality, the absence of quirky idiomatic cadence. In the span of a generation, it's as if the evolved way Americans speak English became the verbalized equivalent of suburban strip centers. Where San Diego could easily be Tulsa.

I shouldn't be surprised that area-specific vernacular got plowed under by amassed media cultivating a transient populace. This plot's been thickening longer than any Cajun roux. My high school speech teacher mocked the way Texans spoke despite having grown up here. He had acquired what he called the "King's English" despite being ugh from the United States where the only king is a burger.

More recently, a drunken 40-something mimicked my accent in a hyper-southern Paula Deen burlesque. When I played mongoose to his cobra offense, that self-styled Texan insisted that his mutant-British clip was "natural." Well, my sister claims her blond hair is natural but it's obvious both she and my antagonist color their roots.

Look. Nothing's wrong with consciously altering one's voice. But there is something wrong when one sees their geographic DNA as inferior to other areas of this country or, for that matter, the world. I'm not resistant to change. Actually I thrive on it. But why forfeit who you've been in the process of becoming who you are?

I particularly enjoy Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's Kansas diction and Harry Connick, Jr's New Orleans drawl and Bret Favre's Mississippi way with words. Get a bang out of Cyndi Lauper's Queens, Jennifer Lopez's Bronx, Streisand's Brooklyn, the Kennedys' Boston, Garth and Reba's Oklahoma. I appreciate the tone Sir Michael Caine retains: clearly educated, sophisticated; worldly while speaking in a recognizably working class demeanor. Meanwhile, I'm told in my hometown Dallas, "you don't sound like you're from here." Which begs the question, "who does?"

When I became Alabama's resident poet in the late 70s, my Texas twang was as exotic to them as their softly fluid words devoid of hard consonants were to me. My two syllable name became 4 syllables. "Ra-a-lins-a". Today, for better or worse, their children likely sound like anyplace, USA.

Still, listening to Hispanics, I hear Mexico City or Bogota, Puerto Rico, Miami. The tilt-of-the-lilt fingerprint when an Argentine speaks Spanish with an Italian accent is like having a bone-in rib eye served with marinara instead of a plain chop plopped on a white plate with no flourishing garnish.

The inevitable movement away from indigenous American English accents is collaterally transforming once colorful and peculiar conversational styles into something akin to audio e-mail. Although speaking generically is this century's idyllic norm, to me, it's like family recipes being robbed of signature flavors. Neutered to create a more broadly palatable dialect cuisine. To any linguistic chef, that's like grabbing bland fast food in the noisy car rather than quietly savoring something spicier at home.

Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.

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