Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


Porch Tale     


First Language

By Nicki Toler



I grew up saying "y'all" and "yes, ma'am" and eating barbecue every chance I got.  But for the better part of three decades I've lived in New England--longer than I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, my hometown, the place where I learned much of what I know. 

"But you don't sound Southern," people always say when I tell them where I'm from. They're right. I don't.  Somewhere along the way I lost my accent.  It must have slipped away a syllable at a time when I wasn't looking. And now, when I met other displaced Southerners, who have long lived in New York or California and still retain the cadence and expressions of their Southern heritage, I am filled with remorse. How could I be so careless with the language of my growing-up days? 

Now barely a trace is left, obvious only to the most astute observer, and of course, to me. Because I believe being Southern is less about the way I sound to others than about the voices that are always part of me, the ones inside, and the lessons that remain. 

Since my mother was a born-and-raised Yankee, I learned most of my Southern ways from my daddy. A fine gentleman with a tender heart, he was my first teacher in the language that formed me, giving me lessons in good behavior with the repetition of three simple rules: Be sweet, be still, and don't be ugly. 

My daddy called me "Sugar," so I knew it was my job to be sweet. But whenever I let some of my natural orneriness show, he didn't hesitate to remind me that being sweet was more than looking the part, decked out in dotted-Swiss and organdy confections: It was about being kind, and not too focused on my cute little old self. 

During the times when I was a bundle of raw energy, with arms and legs all over the place, going in every direction, "Be still, now," he would say to me.  Now I say it to myself when my mind is going in every direction and I need to calm myself. All at once I hear my daddy's voice and feel the panic begin to subside. 

"Don't be ugly," was saved for major infractions, like taking advantage of someone, gossiping, or just being downright tacky. I knew that to "be ugly" was a serious sin: crossing a line and letting your humanity slip. My daddy's been gone now a few years, but in his long life, I never once saw him be ugly to another living soul. 

I don't know much about language development, but it makes sense to me that the medium is a big part of the message: Lessons learned and stories shared in honeyed tones are easier to take to heart. 

Recently I saw an advertisement for a class to help people lose their regional accents.  It made me sad to imagine all those folks paying good money to learn to abandon a part of themselves. Maybe regional accents are fast on their way to becoming a thing of the past as people live here and there and everywhere, blending, adapting, becoming as generic as the fast food restaurants and shopping malls that inhabit their days. I hope not. Or maybe I just feel guilty for letting my own accent go so easily, without a fight. 

I have a good life here in New England--I have found a home that suits me well. But sometimes I miss those Southern sounds, the lilting voices, the luscious turn of phrase. Life is harsh enough, and it always soothes me to hear the language that formed me. I devour novels by Southern writers, luxuriating in the flow of words on the page, the long-forgotten expressions that come back to me in an instant. Most of all I miss my daddy calling me "Sugar." 

I go back home, once, twice a year, to visit family and eat barbecue. As I wander in familiar and not-so-familiar places, I eavesdrop constantly, listening to voices in supermarkets and department stores, hungry for the familiar accent, the connection to my past.  But when I open my mouth to speak, I know I don't sound like one of them. And it breaks my heart when they smile at me politely anyway, as they as they would to an outsider, a perfect stranger. 

But it's my first language and I understand every word they say.

Nicki Toler is a Rhode Island writer born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her essays have appeared in The Arkansas Times, Rhode Island Monthly, The Providence Journal, and Body Mind Spirit, among other publications. She currently writes a first-person column for several local publications and is working on a collection of essays on the meaning of home.

Her email address is

2003, Nicki Toler, All Rights Reserved