But then there's that one percent, when I'm speaking to my grandparents, or my cousins in Georgia, or when African American speech flips a switch in my head and suddenly I find myself responding with a Southern "yes, ma'am." Linguists, I believe, call this code switching. It's not a particularly remarkable phenomenon, but it comes with pretty good shock value. It's always fun to see the look on a northeasterner's face when they hear you talk to your Southern grandpa for the first time.
But here's the thing. I've never really had a southern accent or even a Texas accent. I do remember training myself not to say y'all sometime in high school, but it's not as though I grew up with a drawl that I learned to conceal when I went north for college.
So, when I call the elderly sister of a prison I'm working with down here in Alabama, and I automatically drop into the slow, syrupy intonations of my mother's family, what am I doing? I'm not faking it, exactly, and it's not as though I make a decision that this person ought to be addressed in a southern accent. But it's not entirely unconscious either. In my mind, the word "drop" describes what I do, I just let my voice fall into a different register, one that's higher and sweeter and lazier of pronunciation. When it comes as a response to someone else's accent, it's more automatic. But when I initiate the code switch myself, there's clearly been some sort of assessment - that my client's sister will be more receptive to a gentle southern accent, say, or that the librarian at the Alabama archives might just be suspicious of Yankees.
I find my code switching is more pronounced on the phone, perhaps because all of our vocal manners are. My fellow interns poke fun at the way I pull out my accent, and they make me feel as though there's something suspicious and inauthentic about my code switching. As though I were trading on my southern heritage, which, of course, I am. Unaccented English sticks out in Montgomery; it labels you as a foreigner and possibly a Yank, and it's nice to be able to change registers and blend in. Just as it's nice not have to ask what hush puppies are or who Jefferson Davis is.
Still, it bothers me that I can't determine what I'm entitled to call mine. That sugary accent that somehow I inherited but never fully possessed - is that mine? And the cultural trappings I know so well, but never participated in? Do we still get to own the things we disavow?