One time I helped tend bar at a gala hosted by my father in the historic building that tripled as his studio, gallery, and dwelling. A man I knew by reputation, but not personally, appeared at my countertop and asked for a beverage. What he ordered sounded to my ear like it had two, if not three, syllables — something like TAY-uh-yub.
I had lived on the Mid-Atlantic Coast for several years, and had lost touch with the gutbucket Texas drawl of my nativity. I had labored over the years with some diligence to suppress it in myself.
Item: A colleague from Berkeley advised me to pronounce “metaphor” as “meta-FORE,” not “meta-FER.” I took her advice.
Item: A fellow student in the Old North State recounted how his landlady summoned her dog Butch every morning in stentorian tones, bellowing the name with two syllables and interrogative intonation: BUH-yutch? I practiced saying one-syllable words crisply and declaratively.
Item: Dr. Katherine “Kitty” Carmichael, Dean of Women at UNC-Chapel Hill, once lamented the southernness of her speaking voice: “All my life,” she said, “people have tended to listen, not to what I say, but to how I say it.” I resolved all the more to cultivate the fabled “accentless” Mid-Western dialect.
Item: My Uncle Buzz, a West Texas cowboy, ordered lunch in a Montana diner once: “Just bring me a hamburger with french fries, ma’am.” The waitress was charmed by his twang: “Would you say that again?” Uncle Buzz flashed a blinding grin and obliged her. Unfortunately, I wasn’t pursuing the cowboy profession, where a drawl was almost a sine qua non. I wanted to be a scholar.
Try or not, though, you never lose the son-of-a-bitching drawl, you just mask it. But I digress.
I was quaking with alarm after the gentleman at my dad’s gala repeated his order for the third time — please God, let me understand what he wants, I prayed. He was the scion-cum-patriarch of a founding Irish-Catholic family that had achieved ungodly wealth in cattle and oil since the eighteen-hundreds, and owned thousands of acres of land in every direction surrounding my town.
Snapping finally to what he requested, I served Mr. Welder a Tab with all the haste and deference accorded Old Money in these parts, and probably elsewhere. He was, I learned subsequently, on the wagon, and needed if not wanted a diet cola.
(Copyright 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.)