by Jamie Lyn Smith
“You taught me language; and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”
-William Shakespeare, The Tempest
It only takes a few syllables for me to know I’m home.
Sometimes I know it at the gasoline station in Centerburg, where the cashier asks me how my Grandma is getting along, and if that’s a rental car. Sometimes it’ll be in line at the Hometown Market, where I excuse myself for taking so long to fish change out of my purse and the clerk coos, “You’re fine, honey, you’re fine.” Sometimes it’s at the bar that first night back in town, where my cousins and I belly up alongside good old boys who nod to us as we enter. The old boys in rough twill work jackets, legs spread wide in camouflage pants, a beer before them, talk in low voices, just loud enough for me to hear thewhat-all’s, the I sure do’s, and long, drawn-out Naaaw’s that sing,you’re home, girl, you’re home. I know it for sure when Gina slides my beer across the scarred countertop at Dutch’s, and says “Where you been at here lately? Ain’t seen hide nor hair of you inside a year.”
“I’s in New York,” I’d say sometimes, or “Out to Los Angeles. I had to work for a spell.” The weeknight barflies shake their heads at my foolishness and laugh in to the bottlenecks of their beers.
“Whatcha doin’ back?” Gina’s got a tattoo of a heart on her wrist that wrinkles when she rests her arm against the bar.
“I missed you all,” I’d say sometimes, tapping the bottom of my Bud heavy on the countertop, before tipping it towards the men, who nod and tap back before everyone takes a drink. Other times, I’d say, “Don’t have sense enough to stay away.”
I did miss home, it was true. One of the things I missed most was the richness of the language I grew up speaking. I kept my ear tuned for it in New York where I was so homesick for plain speech that whenever I caught someone saying Ah-hi-ah for “Ohio” or tuh-mar-uh for “tomorrow,” I’d introduce myself. I used to take great pleasure in mortifying my then-boyfriend, when, overhearing home talk on the subway, I would turn and say, “Where you from, at?”
“You can’t talk to strangers in the city,” he’d say, eyes widening in dismay.
“That wadn’t no stranger,” I’d reply, tapping her contact information into my phone. “She’s from Marietta!”
For years, I strove to divorce myself from “Home Talk” the distinct northern Appalachian dialect of the diaspora that is my native tongue. I sought to divorce myself from my drawl, and kept my home talk packed up for use only while visiting my family, as if it were an old sweater left hanging in the closet at my grandma’s house. Like any poseur, in moments of intense emotion, gravity, or emergency, Ialways revert back to my home parlance.
“I know you’re furious with me,” the New York boyfriend would say, “Whenever you call me ‘sir’ three times in one sentence. Please stop doing that.”
“Don’t give me no reason to,” I’d say. “Sir.”
The reinvention of my speech began when I went to college, where I discovered how much I had to learn. The first thing I learned is that my clothes are wrong; they are from JCPenney, Sears, Kmart. I’ve never even heard of brands like J. Crew or Banana Republic, nor do I understand the importance of certain wristwatches or own a single item made of cashmere. The clothes I carefully curated (I’ve always had a weakness for vanity and wardrobe) are a low-budget attempt to mimic what I see in the pages of Vogue. This is a norm that I learn to reject and invert, since I cannot afford it. Cowboy boots, quirky vintage, and black basics becomes my uniform for the next twenty years, and is a studied signal of my disdainful ambivalence: I am not dressing up for you people.
The second thing I learned was that I am the only person in my class of four hundred and some first-year students whose parents work for an actual living. Work like wage work, sweat of your brow work. I’d sit at the lunch tables in Gund Commons, appalled as I listened to students complain about how disgusting the food was. To me it looked like the kind of thing you would get in a really nice restaurant, or at least a restaurant that wasn’t fast food, but someplace upscale like Ponderosa Steakhouse.
As we ate, my friends would talk about things their fathers did for a living: oh, he’s a stockbroker….My Dad’s an oil and gas executive… My father is the CEO of Merger and Acquisition… in Business … He’s the mayor of D. C…
During these conversations, I kept quiet. They were as blissfully unaware of their own wealth as I was painfully becoming aware of my own want. My dad was stocking shelves at a grocery store chain and serving as a union steward with the AFL-CIO/UCFW. I told them he was a labor organizer. My mother, the bank teller? She worked in finance. This impressed people; I’m sure they did not realize that my mom toiled for only a dollar or two above minimum wage fielding customer service calls in the last few remaining years before those jobs were outsourced. I’m sure they did not know that my dad didn’t own a single suit, and never wore a wedding ring because it would get caught on wood pallets, snag on the forklift, or pull his hand inside a power tool. Where I came from, they both had good jobs, but my parents together made a couple thousand dollars less than Kenyon College cost per annum. For the first time in my life I was ashamed of not only what I had, but also of what I lacked.
The third thing I learned—and I learned this right quick, the moment I opened my mouth and spoke—was that my speech immediately cast me into the category of other. When I talked, I outed myself as a charity case scholarship student at best; and a blue-collar, unsophisticate at worst. I’d never met anyone who had been on vacation in the Riviera, or whose father was an ambassador. And my peers had never met anyone who sounded like me. They were not unkind people, just sheltered and ill-traveled within Knox County. So I learned not to take it personally when they dissolved in surprised laughter at the extra digits in my single-syllable words, my angrily muttered Good Lord have mercy’s, and my colorful backwoods expressions.
Where I grew up, most everybody sounded an awful lot just like me: a slight twang, Appalachian vowels, complete absence of “g” on all gerunds, a drawling, musical lilt to one’s voice when delivering a well-deserved scolding. My friends and the majority of my classmates seldom held this against me.
A well-intentioned friend of mine from Chicago, named “Boppa” took it upon himself to school me in the correct pronunciation of certain words so that I would not stand out as such a hayseed in heated intellectual conversations, at frat parties, or when I met his parents.
We’d split a case of Natty Light, pack the bong, and my lesson would begin.
“What is another word for attorney?” Boppa would ask, glancing at the list of words in need of fixin’.
“That’s redundant,” he’d say, pushing his mop of hair out of his eyes. “Repeat after me: loy-er.”
“What? Says who?”
“I say, and everybody else says.”
“Everybody else can go whistle dixie,” I’d say.
Boppa would exhale through his nose and look me in the eye. “Listen. When you talk, people think you are stupid, and you aren’t. You’re super-smart, but they quit listening if you sound like a character fromThe Grapes of Wrath.”
I didn’t bother telling him that I didn’t sound like someone from The Grapes of Wrath, because those folks were Okies. I was a hillbilly. I realized the subtlety of this distinction would be lost on him.
“Try it again,” he’d say, the bong gurgling deeply as he pulled the carb.
“Loyyyeeerrrr.” Boppa high-fived me, but when I talked that way I felt like I had a ball of shoe leather in my mouth. This work was really difficult after you’ve had like six Natty Lights, smoked a bunch of weed, and had to thank someone named “Boppa” for correcting your diction.
In the end, Boppa succeeded in scrubbing double negatives out of my language (no more done been or had gone or went and got me’s.) I also learned that there is only one syllable in the word “bush,” that grown women don’t call their fathers “Daddy,” that waving your arms while talking alarms rich people, and that shaking your head while murmuring “Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm…Somebody help this child” is not appropriate in professional discourse.
My home talk was entirely welcome when it added salt to a conversation. I was the source of endless hilarity with remarks likeYou better get yourself out the ditch and up onto the road; He’s just had a snoutful, that’s all; or That man is crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Gossip was all the more fun if I threw in an occasional comment that someone was useless as a box of hair, or that I wouldn’t piss on her to put a fire out.
Home talk was a risk I could not afford to take in high-dollar company. My speech became an extension of the circumspection and excellence I had to demonstrate academically in order to compete with peers who had advantages, connections, resources. My peers’ ships seemed unsinkable, and I knew mine was not. I had to paddle like I was drowning, outrunning a beast intent to consume me lest I spend my life in the belly of the same whale that swallowed my parents in debt, fear, and dead-end jobs and left them gasping for air at the end of each day.
My parents had three children by the age of twenty-five and high school diplomas are worthless in a recession job market. In the early 1980’s my father’s high-paying union job in a factory was sent overseas. Reentering the employment pool, he was routinely turned down for positions because he had no college degree and no vocational certificates to prove the skills he executed with acumen for a decade on the factory floor.
The declining industrial economy pulled the rug beneath my parents’ feet. It sent them reeling into the service sector where they said “yes sir” and “please” and “thank you” to the class of people they hoped someday their children might join. There was such instability—constant layoffs, plant closures, holiday shutdowns, unpaid time off, work injuries, and other trials that prompted them to push my sisters and me into higher education. Go to college, go to college, go to college, they said. You need that piece of paper, they said. You’ll never have to stretch and struggle like we do. Go to college, go to college, go to college…
During the academic year at Kenyon, I worked about twenty hours a week, waiting tables alongside women my mother’s age, women who didn’t have GED’s or scholarships or summer internships in New York City. My waitress friends had bruises on their eyes from live-in boyfriends and two kids at home being babysat by teenage cousins. Waitressing didn’t ostracize me from my college friends at all; they seemed to think it was cool that I earned my own spending money. I never admitted that I needed that cash, because that cash covered the small gap between my financial aid and tuition. I had skin in the game, but I wasn’t flashing it to just anybody.
It disappointed me when I’d wait on my friends’ parents during Family Weekend at the College, and they’d practically interview me, smiling up over their menus and archly over-tipping me. It was generous and well-intentioned, but my coworkers were not necessarily treated with the same noblesse oblige.
A student working her way through college was admirable, but if you were forty and waitressing then you were someone who deserved nothing better than a curt “Check please” and the thrill of bringing them lemon slices on a doily-draped saucer because they can’t drink just plain water. I’d see families crack up after my friend Annie took their order, giggling and imitating her down-home accent. I got in trouble with my manager for standing stock-still and staring at them until they stopped. I got a whispered thank you, ma’am from Annie.
The only other student I knew who held down a job during the school year was Drew Evans. Evans was from West Virginia, a good old boy who also spoke unaccented, overly enunciated English that I immediately recognized as fake.
“Where you from at?” I asked him.
He looked carefully at me before responding, “Down to Wheeling.”
“Mmmmhmmm, thought so, ” I said. “We’re from Virginia proper.”
Evans and I became fast friends. We were both first-generation Appalachian college students on significant scholarships from the college, the shining light and hope of our working-class families, struggling to straddle both worlds. Evans and I spoke both kinds of English, but with each other we slid shamelessly into the vernacular. Counting up our tips at the end of the shift, he’d say, “Let’s go into town and hang out with people of our own class.”
We’d belly up at The Office, Dutch’s, or the Corner Bar and Grille with the dudes who mowed the lawn on campus, get a wink from the barmaid who knew my dad and that I was underage, but served me anyway. We’d get good and drunk listening to folks tear up karaoke covers of Allen Jackson and Reba McIntyre songs, cheering and whooping at the top of our lungs while stomping our feet to “Who’s Cheatin’ Who…?” and giving each other a look when the singer crooned, “Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me down…”
When we didn’t have the money or the heart for the bars, I’d pick Evans up and we’d drive around the countryside outside of Gambier. The moon would hang low and pale over the stripped-clean cornfields, the stalks standing like sentinels along the river. We would fall into silence, listening to old Waylon Jennings songs on a cassette player I kept in the truck. We’d drive far past the glare of light over the gravel pit and park, looking at the stars, waiting for a shooting one to streak across the sky.
“There’s a big’n,” I’d say.
“Mmm hmmm,” he’d say back.
The more I denied myself home talk, the more I yearned for it, as a binge drinker might fantasize and fixate on a bottle of really good gin. If I were speaking home talk, I’d say, “You might ought piss in one hand, wish in another, and see which one fills faster.”
In my academic career, I’ve come across others who’ve crossed the tracks, same as me. A professor of mine at Kenyon also hailed from the holler, earning a PhD and international acclaim for her scholarly work. One day in class—a day I was, unfortunately, absent—she told her students about her upbringing, and read a passage of Jane Austen aloud in her native drawl.
“What did she sound like?” I asked.
I thought of my Mamaw and Papaw, and southwestern Virginia, and how my mother sometimes imitated how my father talked, but never to his face. I thought about my friend Hallie congratulating me on how hard I must have worked to make something of myself, after hearing my grandmother’s voice on our answering machine. I thought how my college advisor winced when he met my dad and I walking out of a restaurant, the work-dirty sleeve of my father’s twill jacket and his ragged beard causing the professor to accept my father’s handshake as if it were a dead fish.
“She sounded horrible,” they said, cackling and giggling. “It was craaaazeee.”
I wonder how she felt when they laughed at her. I also wondered why she did it. Perhaps it was to prove that someone like her could rise above station. Perhaps it was to validate her own dual identity. Perhaps she did not anticipate how it would backfire. You’re too far from home, girl, I wanted to tell her. Ain’t nobody gonna like the sound of that up here.
I had another colleague in my master’s program, an urbane young man who wore his glasses on the tip of his nose, dropped vocab words with more syllables than Carters have cousins and spoke with a florid, faux-Shakespearean accent.
“What is up with that guy?” I asked a friend.
“He’s from West Virginia,” she said. “Out in the boonies somewhere.”
“Oh, that explains it,” I replied. She looked at me strangely.
But for me, it did. The professor, my colleague, Evans, and me—we speak “standard English” because of the deep roots of insecurity and class shaming in academia. There’s often a none-too-subtle dismissal of intellectual credibility if you forget to check your drawl at the door. I’ve seen the smirks and raised eyebrows when I slip into my accent during class discussions.
Sometimes people are simply reacting out of surprise, because they haven’t heard my plain speech before. Sometimes, it’s condescending, and sometimes it’s unkind. There’s an administrator where I work who has earned my umbrage by consistently pointing out the “country-ness” of my speech. I have never pointed out that his voice is nasal, grating, and sounds like Beaker from Sesame Street. There’s a teaching mentor who advised me to police my accent a bit more stridently because “You have an education, you should sound like it.”
I do sound like it, I want to say. This is what it sounds like you educate a hillbilly. Try your Standard damn English at Dutch’s Bar, and let me know which hand fills faster, ma’am…
So at work, I wear my mask. I save up my home talk for when I really need to use it—mostly in objection to the irritation and dissonance I feel if people pejoratively use words like “redneck” or “backward” or “hillbilly.” At the slightest innuendo of patronization, I turn my pone-puttin’ dial up to eleven and soak my gerunds in molasses. I don’ t always stop, even when I have made my point; after all when you have someone by the balls, you don’t let go to get a better grip.
When I do this, I think about those cases of Natty Light, Boppa, Evans, the English professor, my colleague’s Fakespearean accent. I think about George Bernard Shaw, Cinderella, Pygmalion, fairy tales, college brochures, my father’s calloused knuckles. I think about my own speech, my better English.
Last year, in a discussion with my fiction students we debated the ethics of writing in dialect. I talked with them about code-switching and some of my own experiences, including a funny story about the time someone told me that dialogue in a nonfiction piece I wrote didn’t sound “authentic”—when it had been transcribed from interviews with my family.
Then, they asked me to “Do my accent.”
“I can’t,” I said. “It isn’t something I can do on command.”
They asked me why. I thought for a moment before I replied.
“When it happens, it’s because I can’t help it,” I said.
It ain’t ‘cos I don’t know no different.
Jamie Lyn Smith is a native of Knox County, Ohio. An alumnus of Kenyon College and Fordham University, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University in 2015. University Fellowships allowed her to complete two book-length manuscripts:City Girl, Country Girl, an essay on homecoming and homesteading in rural Ohio after years of living in New York City; and Township, a collection of short stories about intersecting lives and misfortunes in the northern Appalachian diaspora. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Pinch, Low Valley Review, and The Boiler Journal. She currently teaches English Literature and Composition at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, and is writing her first novel, Americas.