In Praise of Accents

Letter From East Tennessee

A few years ago, sitting on the floor of the U.S. House with my friend Rep. Jim Walsh of Syracuse, I said of the member who was speaking: “Curt’s dyed his hair.”

Jim looked at me, very seriously, and said: “Curt’s dad is here?”

People who grew up in East Tennessee, as I did, are accustomed to being teased about our accents.

I sometimes say, when speaking to groups from around the nation, that I come from the only part of the United States where the people speak without any accent.  I say this in jest, but it actually has some truth to it.

Many years ago, on an elevator in Washington, a woman heard my father speaking with my younger sister.  She said, “You must be from Eastern Tennessee or Western North Carolina.”  (Natives of Tennessee always say “East,” never “Eastern,” Tennessee).

Dad replied: “We are.  How did you know?”

The woman explained that she was a college professor who specialized in American dialects and that those were the only two places where the people still spoke “authentic Chaucer English.”

Years later, I heard a talk in Knoxville by another professor who said that the tone, dialect, and inflection of native East Tennesseans was the closest to what some called the King’s English, the English of Shakespeare.  Yet those of us...

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