Despite living out in the country south of Fort Smith for the first 19 years of my life, I've never had much of a Southern accent. That came in handy for what I intended to do (broadcast news) since at that time TV and radio journalists were advised to have a placeless Midwestern/basic American accent.
Mama and Daddy were both native Arkansans, but Mama spent a good part of her early life in California before returning to Arkansas during high school. Her accent was flatter because of the time spent outside the state. Her mom was born in Texas and, even though Nanny was just a kid when she and her family moved to Arkansas in the 1920s (by covered wagon, no less), she could, like many native Texans, put up to seven or so syllables in one-syllable cuss words.
Add to that the nearness of several state borders (Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas), the large migrant population (primarily Vietnamese and Mexican) and the number of business executives who moved their families to the area for work, and my lack of a strong accent shouldn't be much of a surprise. Indeed, there weren't a lot of strong accents where I lived (what's called the Midland dialect, sometimes northern and sometimes southern, is prominent in northwest Arkansas). When I moved to Jonesboro for college, I was suddenly met with a plethora of accents from just about everywhere, but a lot of the people native to northeast Arkansas had accents like mine, though with a little bit of Delta flavor. The further south, the more drawl. When someone talks about "the" Arkansas accent, I have to wonder if they really think we all sound the same.
Which is why I question surveys that group all of a state's residents together, like the recent one from Family Destinations Guide, which asked 3,000 participants to rate their level of understanding "to gauge how difficult it was for Americans to communicate effectively when traveling overseas." Rhode Island's and Maine's New England accents were ranked as the two hardest to understand, followed by Alabama, New York, Louisiana (really, after Alabama?), Connecticut, New Jersey, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Mississippi.
Arkansas had the eighth hardest accent to understand. But which one? A press release about the survey noted, "This state contains several accents, such as 'Ozark,' but the most common is the Southern accent (with some regional variations). Arkansas tourists may find being understood quite challenging when traveling abroad--one of the main reasons is the unique pronunciation of certain words, including the blending or dropping of certain vowel sounds. Additionally, Southern dialects often include slang and idiomatic expressions--asking 'y'all' directions may result in some quizzical looks abroad!"
In a spring 2022 story in the Arkansas Humanity Council's Connect, Ben Corbett, assistant professor of theater-voice and acting at the University of Arkansas was asked about his Arkansas Accent Project, which is to include a documentary using live interviews of native Arkansans from the five major geographic regions in the state. While he's found a lot of commonalities (like dropping the g sound in words ending in -ing), Corbett said that not only can accents differ by region, but by ethnicity, as well as the accents heard growing up (such as a Vietnamese or Hispanic Arkansan).
"If all these people were born and raised in Arkansas, can all these accents be considered Arkansan?" Corbett said. "If they are all 'from here,' could the Arkansas accent have more than one sound, one flavor? If not, why?"
Arkansas doesn't really have one accent. You might find sweet and lilting (and far more Southern) accents around the rural Delta, a bit of "Ozarks/Appalachian" in northern Arkansas, while in Little Rock or other cities, you may find that Midland accent that sounds to many like "Southern lite."
Hard to understand? Not really. I can think of a lot of accents that make me struggle more than any in Arkansas. Besides, the survey in question talked to U.S. families. Wouldn't the people in the nations they visit be better judges of whose accent is hard to understand? And why are we not at least attempting their languages?
Kathleen Stein-Smith noted in Language Magazine: "Challenges to the development of foreign-language skills among English-speaking Americans include the sense that English is the global lingua franca. While it is true that many internationals may speak English, it is estimated that 75 percent of the world's population does not speak English."
The use of English abroad in the hospitality industry and in diplomacy helps fool Americans into thinking English is dominant, but there is also the matter that foreign languages are given short shrift here, with instructors in college and high school becoming more scarce as departments are cut.
Perhaps it's time we in the U.S. figured out that we're not the only people in the world and that the onus is on us to be understood, not those whose nations we visit. Maybe it's time to put the "English only" rhetoric to bed for good.
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at email@example.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.