Carrie Gillon: Welcome to the Vocal Fries Podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: and I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: I’m always so excited to be recording our intros and our interviews.
Carrie Gillon: This one’s pretty fun. We talk all about young adult literature, the South and Appalachia.
Megan Figueroa: And let’s just say that I fan girl a little bit. Let’s just get that out of the way.
Carrie Gillon: You definitely do. You definitely do. It’s fine.
Megan Figueroa: Listen, I love young YA literature. My partner actually was a YA librarian for like 15 years. Right. so there’s that connection too, but the YA literature that’s being written today and the fact that, I mean, we have our guests on today because of like the goodness and richness in it is just so good, so different than what I grew up with. So,
Carrie Gillon: oh yeah, definitely. And we talk a little bit about how like the representation of, of southerners is starting to change. Yes. But yeah, it’s, it’s a long time coming.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. so I mentioned the documentary Hillbilly that I watched recently on, on Hulu and just this quote that is that everyone basically has a Appalachia. so I think it’s always important to come back to talking about the South, at least in the US because it’s so embedded and in a lot of our, a lot of our heads that the South equals not as smart, and it’s hard to move away from it. So it’s always good to talk about it.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. And it’s it actually somewhat neatly maps on to other countries too. There’s almost always a region that has the same kind of associations with it, and that’s not great. And we should all think about what we’re doing. We’re making these associations. So in Canada, I would say probably Newfoundland is the closest,
Megan Figueroa: which episode we have an episode on it. So if you haven’t heard that go back into the catalog, that was a fun conversation to
Carrie Gillon: “The Rock was the Rock Before the Rock, b’y,” I can’t say “b’y” the b apostrophe y thing. I can’t do it. I’m not a Newfoundlander. Anyway, you can look that up.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Ooh, let’s talk about our favorite or at least our namesake disparaged quality.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, right. Yes. Nice, nice segue.
Megan Figueroa: You know, we’re almost at a hundred episodes if I don’t get the segues down at some point, I don’t know what I’m doing here anymore.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. So, a few weeks ago I started listening to the Murdoch Murders Podcast. At the very end, I think even at the first episode, or maybe it’s the second episode, but pretty early on, the host, Mandy Matney says something about, you know, I I’d love to hear your feedback unless it’s about my vocal fry. Yes. I just started laughing cause I was like, oh, I’m unsurprised that a woman podcaster is getting this feedback because, yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, no. And I just started listening this last week and she made a good point of saying. Why aren’t you telling me this when I can’t change it? And so, I mean, okay, I guess there, you know, if you really wanted to get rid of it, there are avenues to take, like, you know, speech, language pathologists. There are some of them that could help you with that. But it’s the idea that we’re, that we keep telling women to stop using it. When so many people use it, most people use it at some point when they’re if they’re speaking
Carrie Gillon: Well most English speakers anyway, I’m not going to speak for other languages, but most English speakers, for sure.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. That reminds me of the tweet by Michael McCain. Is that McKean? Michael McKean.
Carrie Gillon: McKean. Yeah.
Megan Figueroa: but what happened was Michael McKean, basically disparaged vocal fry within some other stuff. And then I tweeted from the Vocal Fries that he had hella vocal fry. I might as well throw on the stereotypical Californian. Although I do have “hella” in my lexicon.
Carrie Gillon: I do too. So it actually fit our brand very well.
Megan Figueroa: It was beautiful. So thanks for that- how do you call it? A set up? I was going to say- volley Michael McKean. There’s no sort of self-reflection when it comes to vocal fry, I think hopefully we’re changing that a bit when people listen to us.
Carrie Gillon: I literally thought. not even that long ago, like a month or two before that tweet, it seems like no one cares about vocal fry- actually I know, I guess it was about a month or two before the Murdoch Murders Podcast. I thought, oh, people don’t seem to care about vocal fry anymore. It seems like that battle is over. Not necessarily people are okay with it, but just that they got bored, kind of like how people have gotten bored of like shitting on Nickelback. It’s too normy. Okay. we’re bored. That’s what I thought, but no, it’s still happening.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Maybe people are being a bit quieter about it.
Carrie Gillon: I think it’s less. I do think people talk about it less. And I think that my instinct that people were kind of bored of it is actually true. It’s just that that’s not enough to stop it.
Megan Figueroa: No. Yeah, absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: It has almost been 10 years, right? It’s been 10 years since that original study came out that started this whole anti vocal fry thing.
Megan Figueroa: Is that when when Ira Glass talked about it on This American Life?
Carrie Gillon: I don’t remember what year that was, but 2011 is when the study first came out. But I think people didn’t start talking about it until 2012.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. Yeah. January, 2015 is when Ira talks about it on This American Life. I love that. I mean, we have it in our first episode.
Carrie Gillon: we talk about it for sure. Yeah.
We always forget to mention that we have a Patreon. patreon.com/vocalfriespod. And we have a pretty awesome mug on there if you’re interested. Yeah. But also stickers and bonus episodes.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Let me tease a little bit. The next bonus probably December is going to be a recording of us interviewing a special guest.
Carrie Gillon: A literal celeb.
Megan Figueroa: A literal celeb. You will see the Zoom video that was recorded with their permission. It’s just going to say here. So yes, it’s very exciting. You’ll want to at least join for a month.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And which is totally fine. Right. I mean, if you only have five bucks just to access that one for one month, you would get the back catalog. So you’ll get them all. That’s fine. We totally understand.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. patreon.com/vocalfriespod.
Carrie Gillon: So one more thing before we get to-
Megan Figueroa: a great interview, by the way.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. He’s very charming. I definitely recommend listening. Yeah. So a few days ago now-
Megan Figueroa: I think it’s a week now
Carrie Gillon: is it a week?
Megan Figueroa: Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: God, what is time?
Megan Figueroa: I know.
Carrie Gillon: Planet Word, the new DC museum about words just asked for someone pretty terrible to talk about words. Actually, maybe I should just look up the tweet. Maybe that’d be easier.
Megan Figueroa: So @PlanetWordDC tweeted on October 13th, “Do you ever struggle to find the right words? Join us on October 22nd to learn how to say what you mean with @Will_I_AM_J, as we discuss his new book Word Wise, Say What You Mean, Deepen Your Connections and Get to the Point.”
Carrie Gillon: So when I first saw that, I was like, Will I Am, really?
Megan Figueroa: I know I did too,
Carrie Gillon: which would have been weird, but kind of cool. But no, this was just as something else entirely.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, no, I think, I think. This, this man is playing off of Will I Am. Yeah, but no, not the same person. Nor would I say probably has the same views on words, I’m guessing. I’m so upset. I one, expected more. I expected more, you know?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, me too. I really expected more because- as someone else pointed out to me on Twitter, the whole idea was to push back against prescriptive ideas about words. So I did have the correct idea in my head that this was supposed to be a museum for the good and not a museum for shitting on language.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I’m upset in another way too, since I’m someone who, as a linguist, cares about words and what words are, this is not like- people confuse words with what it means to do language, and language is so much more than words. And the idea of saying what you mean is not just words and word choice. And also it’s so like, bound to culture and culture-specific of like even your family or like your friend group of saying what you mean, it’s different. It’s not objective.
Carrie Gillon: No. And even though I do like to find like the nicest possible word, the most specific possible word for certain things, not for speech so much, but for my writing, I kind of appreciate the intellectual exercise of that, but that’s not even what he’s doing now. He’s just saying these words are fundamentally bad because they don’t do anything, he claims. But words do something.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, even these little words that we don’t really think that much about like “so” or whatever, they do something and just because you’re annoyed, it doesn’t mean anything.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, absolutely good point. and when he’s says “get to the point”, I’m assuming he’s going to shit on filler words and like,
Carrie Gillon: well, that’s part of it. It’s not all of it though.
Megan Figueroa: Right, right. But, but for him. I think I saw another linguist, like saw an interview with him or took a screenshot from Google Books of the book. And it was like disparaging filler words, like get rid of your filler words as if that’s even possible all the time, by the way.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. You can probably learn to get rid of some, like a lot of them, but
Megan Figueroa: at what cost?
Carrie Gillon: If you hear a lot of them in a row, it does get a little bit tedious, I guess. But like most filler words are not even that, they actually have information. For “um” and “uh”, the information is I’m searching for my word, please don’t interrupt me. But there are other filler words that have more information than that even like, “like.”
Megan Figueroa: Which another callback: listen to our episode on “Like”.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. So yeah, so he does shit on filler words, but that’s not even all he does. He says, you shouldn’t say use the word “always”, unless you literally mean always et cetera. All of these things, it’s all filled with all this ideology about, about language and communication. And, and why, Planet Word, why?
Megan Figueroa: I know, it’s really disappointing. And guess what? It ultimately ends up being certainly misogynistic, as the examples we talked about, I’m sure racist, but it’s like filler words, just like you said, we use them to so we can keep the floor. So people don’t interrupt us. Well, guess what? Women get interrupted all the time. And there are so many strategies that we have to use to prevent that from happening. I have a feeling his talk is basically going to be like, ddon’t use language like women have been socially forced to do.
Carrie Gillon: yeah, it’s definitely sexist and classist and all kinds of stuff. So here’s another example. “Amazing and awesome. Amazing is one of the phony positives that has proven to turn friends and customers off because we feel the phony”
Megan Figueroa: what? And I say, things are amazing. And I mean it!
Carrie Gillon: I mean, if a corporation uses these words, I might get turned off because I think that they’re phony, but that’s because they’re a corporation and it’s not the word choice per se. It’s not the word choice alone, right?
Megan Figueroa: not cool.
Carrie Gillon: Not a great choice. Linguists are pissed.
Megan Figueroa: There are so many linguists or even non-linguists that have written books about words and stuff, like Kory Stamper, lexicographer. There are so many people that they could have asked to do something like this.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Look, look at our back catalog and ask almost anyone else.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Invite poets, you know, just think outside of the box. Don’t think of the most obvious, stereotypical gross thing that people associate with words.
Carrie Gillon: Anyone who calls anything “word trash” is probably a bad idea. I am so sad. I am so disappointed. I am heartbroken, because this seemed like such a cool idea. I was excited that maybe one day I would get to visit and now I don’t feel like I want to, I mean, things could change. I’m not saying I’m canceling them forever or whatever, but like right now, no, no.
Megan Figueroa: look what you did Planet Word, you’re making Carrie just like completely not want to ever come back to the US. That’s what you did.
Carrie Gillon: Well, I didn’t say THAT. There are other reasons to be avoiding the US. Although the case numbers are finally going down.
Megan Figueroa: So I guess the moral of our intro here: again, don’t be an asshole. Don’t be a prescriptive asshole.
Carrie Gillon: stop being an asshole about language.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. So I’m really excited to say that we have Jeff Zentner here. He is the author of the New York Times notable book, The Serpent King, which is literally my favorite YA book. So I’m very excited. Not only that but Goodbye Days, and Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee and most recently, In the Wild Light. He has won the William C. Morris Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, the International Literacy Association Award and the Westchester Fiction Award. He was selected as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start and an Indies Introduce pick. His books have been translated into 15 languages. And before becoming a writer, he was a musician who recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Debbie Harry. We are so excited to have you here, Jeff. Thank you for being here.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, thanks for coming.
Jeff Zentner: Thank you for having me.
Megan Figueroa: I have been reading your latest In the Wild Light, and I got to this part in the book and I just got up from my bed and wrote a note to myself to contact you in case you might be interested in coming on because you write so beautifully, the dialogue in Southern variety.
But before we get to that, I want to know a little bit about your language history. Just for context, you write about rural Tennessee. Is that where you’re from?
Jeff Zentner: No, I actually grew up in rural Kansas. That’s where I lived about the first 15 years of my life. Although I have lived now between Tennessee and Western North Carolina for most of my life. It it is certainly the place that I chose for myself. It’s the place that feels like home to me now more than any other. So it’s kind of one of those weird things where I didn’t actually grew up here, but I consider myself from here. I consider myself to be of this place.
Megan Figueroa: And then, so do you now consider yourself Appalachian?
Jeff Zentner: I definitely consider myself Southern. I have lived in Appalachia. I consider myself Appalachian enough, I guess you’d say, in terms of my love for the culture, my love for Appalachian people, I live currently in Nashville, which I do consider to be kind of the cultural capital of Appalachia, or at least a cultural capital of Appalachia. It’s certainly where the music of Appalachia came to be disseminated to the wider world, and it gained a certain cachet and prominence here. Nashville, I think is an important capital of Appalachia. So, so yeah, I would consider myself Appalachian.
Carrie Gillon: What was it like growing up in Kansas?
Jeff Zentner: It was a lot like living here in the south. I mean, one thing about living in this modern age is that it’s flattened out the experience a lot. There are fewer regional differences where back in the 1920s and thirties, you’d get these music forms that only existed in certain regions. And maybe didn’t get disseminated widely until they were on the radio. Now with the internet, kids in Appalachia, they’re not sitting around listening to banjo and fiddle tunes, they’re listening to Lil Wayne and Taylor Swift and Kanye West and Post Malone, along with country music, to be sure. But growing up in rural Kansas was very, very much like growing up in the rural South, which is why I think- and I’ve been told that I write the experience of growing up and coming of age in the rural South with accuracy.
Megan Figueroa: It striking to me. Cause it also sounds like the experiences of my friends who grew up in rural Arizona. So it makes me feel like there’s something about growing up in rural places that connects people from rural places. I wonder if you get that impression.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that even extends- being that we’re on a language podcast- I think that even extends to the way people speak. Even the accent. If you listen to somebody from rural Kansas, they’re going to sound like somebody from Alabama. There has become an American rural accent, almost. If you hear somebody talk from rural Arizona, they will have that American rural accent. They’ll sound like they’re from rural Kansas or they’ll sound like they’re from the rural South. Now, I think that does change somewhat, depending on some areas. For example, if you get into the upper Midwest and you get to like rural Wisconsin, I think there’s a very distinctive rural upper Midwest accent and things like that. But, but yeah, I think there is a sort of a commonality of experience throughout rural America. There are certain businesses that are drawn to rural America. You see the Dollar Generals all over the South, you see the Family Dollars, you see your Cracker Barrels in rural places. You know, you see your Walmarts in rural places. So again, there’s kind of that, that flattening out of experience, where I think somebody who grew up in a small town in Arizona is probably going to have a lot more in common with somebody who grew up in a small town in Alabama than with somebody who grew up in Phoenix, you know?
Megan Figueroa: Oh, absolutely. So the idea that 45 minutes south or north or whatever, you could be in a bigger place, I think also speaks to this experience because some of these people have never actually been 45 minutes north or south or wherever. I’m thinking of your book In the Wild Light too, in that you can really feel like an outsider pretty quick. Do you feel that that’s true?
Jeff Zentner: I certainly feel like it’s true for me. It doesn’t take much for me to feel like an outsider. I’ve kind of felt like an outsider all my life to whatever community I’ve been in. I’ve been in religious communities where I felt like an outsider because I didn’t entirely buy into all the beliefs or teachings of that religion. I felt like an outsider as a writer because I’m new to writing. I don’t have a degree in writing. I’ve never had any training in writing. So I feel sometimes like an outsider in that community. I, as a musician, felt like an outsider in that community because I came to music relatively late. I started playing guitar when I was around 19, which is kind of late to get started. But so, yeah, I do think there’s that element of outsidership.
Megan Figueroa: What would you say is the difference between the varieties of language you can find in Nashville versus eastern Tennessee or western or the Carolinas?
Jeff Zentner: Well there is a very distinctive Southern Appalachian accent that is different from just a run of the mill Southern accent, and In the Wild Light I highlighted one kind of specific linguistic feature of Appalachian pronunciation, which is the, the U P sound in ‘up’ will get pronounced as “ep”. So “up there” becomes “ep thar” and it’s a pronunciation, I believe that resembles- this, this is so fascinating to me- I love the development of accents. I love learning things like that. Elizabethan English was probably pronounced closer to an American Southern accent than to the present-day British accent, which is something I’ve heard.
Megan Figueroa: you’re in the right place. Right.
Jeff Zentner: good, good. I’m glad I love to geek out about this stuff, but, but yeah, there are, there are certain quirks of Appalachian pronunciation that- I believe I’ve read and this may be true. It may not. I’m again, not a trained linguist, but- are holdovers from when you had isolated communities of Scotch-Irish living in the mountains of Southern Appalachia from the Scottish Highlands, from Ireland, from poor parts of England because that’s who was coming over to America and that’s who was being forced to settle on this very kind of non-arable- is arable the word for when you can grow things?
Carrie Gillon: Yes.
Jeff Zentner: Okay. There we go. For this non-arable land in the Southern mountains that’s who was kind of being forced to the Southern mountains. So you see this sort of distinctive pronunciation and that’s something I tried to highlight in one of the scenes of the book and through kind of a running thread of the book where Cash is – my main character’s named Cash Pruitt, where his wealthy roommate from Scottsdale Arizona, which is just right outside of Phoenix.
Megan Figueroa: Oh no, you got him right.
Jeff Zentner: Megan is that where you’re from, is Phoenix?
Megan Figueroa: the Phoenix area.
Jeff Zentner: Okay. Well, one of my one of my writer friends, Stephanie Perkins, who now hilariously lives in western North Carolina in Asheville, she grew up in Phoenix, which is so bizarre to me. She’s so not a Phoenix person, but I asked her: “I need to write the most awful character on Earth. I want to have him be from Phoenix because Phoenix just seems like this huge, dry, sprawling metropolis. I want him to be from Phoenix. What’s the worst part of Phoenix?” And without even thinking immediately goes “Scottsdale.”
Megan Figueroa: Love it.
Girl goth from South Park: If we’re going to send them somewhere, it should be the most horrible, most miserable place on Earth.
A bunch of South Park characters in unison: Scottsdale.
Megan Figueroa: So Trip is written perfectly as someone from Scottsdale who is wealthy and has a high-ranking father.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. And I’m so sorry if you’re a wealthy person from Scottsdale who loves golfing and also loves linguistic podcasts.
Carrie Gillon: There may be one person. There’s always that one person who doesn’t fit what they grew up as.
Jeff Zentner: So anyway, this, this roommate Trip from Scottsdale, he makes fun of the way that that my main character’ grandfather, his Papaw- that’s what Appalachian people call their grandparents, Papaw and Mamaw- how he speaks and how he pronounces “up there” as “ep thar”.
Megan Figueroa: that’s the scene that I contacted you after I read. I’m going to read you to you.
“What’s it you called him.” I don’t want to say it, but I do to keep the peace. “Papaw.” “Papaw?!” He snickers. It’s an east Tennessee thing. I should have waited until I found my headphones. “You must have”
Cause he takes the call- what do you call it? FaceTime call- without his headphones.
“you must have gotten a fire ass scholarship.” Because we sound unsophisticated and hillbilly.
is what Cash’s thinking. and so I noted that and I was like, oh my God, not only are you writing Papaw’s dialogue or Papaw’s accent so beautifully, but this scene I think is so perfect because one, just thinking about being YA. It’s so nice to know that some people that are coming of age will see this. And I wonder what you think about that. And like specifically writing for people that are coming of the age in the South and actually getting to see this representation.
Jeff Zentner: Well, so, Southern Appalachian kids have a pretty rough go of things in a lot of ways. One of which being that they’re a pretty easy butt of jokes in our pop culture. It’s still considered pretty okay to joke about kids who live in rural areas like Appalachia, depressed areas, like Appalachia, as you know, you know, snaggle-toothed rednecks, bumpkins, you know white trash, which is a term I particularly hate because there’s a lot of collateral damage to that term. I mean, not only are you mocking economically depressed white people, but with that term, you’re setting up the implicit premise that the default is trash, right? And then you have to specify white trash. So it’s just a tremendously offensive term that really rarely gets called out, which I find shocking because everybody should be offended by it. But they’ve got a rough go of it. They’re the butt of jokes in pop culture. They live in a region that’s been traditionally exploited by moneyed interests, whether it be coal mines, mining now it’s really the pharmaceutical industry kind of promoting these pain killing drugs, these painkilling opioids, making a concerted effort to sell these in these areas getting them hooked on drugs. And they’ve had to deal with a lot of exploitation. They’ve had to deal with a lot of economic currents that produce bad living situations. so they’re just not afforded, I think, a lot of dignity in pop culture, and that’s what I hoped to do with this book. I hope some of these kids would be able to see themselves in this book to see the beauty and the richness of their culture and their land. That’s why I have Cash in the book be a nature lover because truly the, the natural beauty of Appalachia is it’s stunning. It’s like nothing else. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Carrie Gillon: I’ve only been to Nashville, but oh my God, it’s so beautiful.
Jeff Zentner: It’s, it’s truly spectacular. I mean, if you ever get a chance, go visit east Tennessee and western North Carolina, and you’ll see why the Highland Scots settled there, because it does look like the Scottish Highlands, these gorgeous rolling misty mountains that fade into the horizon and these kinds of shades of blue and purple and violet and just as stunning as can be. So, I hoped to show them to be proud of that part of their experience to be proud of the tradition of family and storytelling and poetry, that is part of their heritage, part of their birthright and just to show a couple of Appalachian kids who have dignity, who are smart, who are brilliant kids who have dreams and hopes and goals and loves. And I think all of that is really important for kids to see.
Carrie Gillon: I agree. You also use the word “hillbilly”. What do you think about that word?
Jeff Zentner: I mean, I think it’s one of those words that if, if people against whom the word is directed, want to reclaim it and use it for themselves, which I hear sometimes. That’s fine. But I don’t think it’s a word that that should be imposed upon them by outsiders. I think if they want to reclaim it- and many of my friends who live in the hills in Appalachia have reclaimed it for themselves- then I think that’s perfectly valid.
There’s a really interesting history behind the term “redneck”, that is not what you would imagine. A lot of people think it comes from, you know, just rural Southern white people, working in the fields, getting sunburned, you know, and that’s why they call them rednecks. there is a very complicated history that that involves the labor movement that involves the socialism movement. I will butcher it if I try to recite this history, but my friend, Rob Bokkon wrote a fantastic for the online magazine Raft Bearing Tree for Labor Day about this term “redneck”. Go Google Rob Boken, R O B B O K K O N and redneck. Think it’ll come up but he’s a fantastic historian. And he goes into the history of this term “redneck”. It came from red scarves that these striking workers would wear and they came to be known as rednecks because of that. And now it’s become essentially a class-based slur. but it once had kind of this, this proud this proud provenance.
Carrie Gillon: Oh yeah. Shocking that something that would be used positively for socialists would be turned into something negative. [sarcastic]
Jeff Zentner: Imagine that. Who could have envisioned such a thing happening?
Carrie Gillon: How about you? Have you ever been judged for the variety that you speak?
Jeff Zentner: No, I haven’t, I’ve always had a very flat accent. I’ve always had the opportunity had opportunities for education. And you know, I came from a really solidly middle-class home of the kind that’s disappearing now, where a father could work a job that didn’t pay an exorbitant amount whatsoever. My dad was a college professor for a lot of the time I was growing up, he was a pharmaceutical researcher and they don’t make tons of money, but it was enough. It was enough for a middle-class existence. I went to good public schools in a college town. so I had a lot of opportunities for education that, that certainly gave me the opportunity to learn and to have had the chance to avoid situations that would normally lead to ridicule.
Megan Figueroa: You’ve been blurbed by Silas House who I’ve quoted, I’ve like even asked Carrie back for the regionalism chapter in our book that we’re writing so I could add more Silas House to it. You know him.
Jeff Zentner: In fact, we’re going to be doing an event together up in Bowling Green, Kentucky next month.
Megan Figueroa: Did you watch the Hillbilly documentary?
Jeff Zentner: I have not seen it yet, although I need to.
Megan Figueroa: he plays prominently in it and he mentioned that he was once asked if he knew who Johnny Carson was, because when he was outside of the South, outside of Appalachia, the woman assumes that they didn’t have TVs in Appalachia.
Carrie Gillon: at this point, I would be like, do people remember Carson? This was a while ago?
Megan Figueroa: It was a while ago.
Jeff Zentner: What’s so, what’s so funny about that is I was introduced to one of my favorite comedy sketch shows, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job. Which if you’ve never heard of that, it’s just going to prove my point even more strongly. It’s this comedy show, really highly kind of experimental, sort of anti-comedy very, very kind of cutting-edge comedy, very daring, very edgy comedy. And the first time I ever saw it in my life I was visiting my friend Josie up in Louisa, Kentucky which is a town of maybe 1500 on the eastern Kentucky West Virginia border, because they’ve got satellites now, they got satellite dishes, they have access, they have internet, they have broadband sometimes. so they have access to these things. So I just thought that was really funny that here I lived in Nashville, this kind of entertainment center, this very metropolitan cosmopolitan place. And I drive up to Louisa, Kentucky to visit for the weekend. And I get introduced to this very highly experimental comedy. I thought that was a real subversion of what you usually think of as being the cultural exchange.
Megan Figueroa: Oh yeah, absolutely. On the podcast I like to point out instances of linguistic discrimination that I may have participated in because we’re all growing and, from the US we all, depending on our age, grew up with certain media. And even though I had family from Oklahoma, I certainly bought into the idea that the South was all Beverly Hillbillies, because I had watched Nickelodeon, I stayed up late and watched Nick at Night and that just seemed like, okay, why would the TV lie to me? I realized later it would lie to me all the time.
Carrie Gillon: as a Canadian. I got the same media. So had I had heard similar experience, although I didn’t have any family from the South. I’m now married to a Southerner, but I didn’t have any family at the time.
Jeff Zentner: So what what’s funny about Canada is there’s I think this whole generation, and I think it’s my generation that kind of accidentally grew up on Canadian TV and we didn’t even realize it because Nickelodeon showed so many Canadian TV shows. So we grew up on like, You Can’t Do That On Television. There’s this bizarre comedic sensibility. And all these people saying, “soary”, and “aboot”, you know, growing up with Dave Coulier. And so I’ve got this weird streak of Canadian pop culture in my cultural DNA. It’s very strange. Speaking of Oklahoma and linguistic quirks. and tv, I can’t help, but think of the show Reservation Dogs that I’d become addicted to. I have to throw it a plug on this show because it’s just fantastic. It takes place on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma and it strikes me as very authentic. I mean, it’s made by a Native American creator and all Native actors and it has a lot of what I think are probably accurate linguistic quirks of the area and just a fascinating, beautiful, heartfelt show.
Megan Figueroa: I will have to watch it. It’s on my list.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I’ve been watching it. I’m behind, but I’ve been watching it and yeah, no, it’s really good. And one of the characters said “Sonics”, which apparently is a, like a pan Native American thing to call Sonic “Sonics” and stuff like that.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Oh yeah. We did one episode with a friend on Rez English and “innit” is always something that sticks out to me is, was that in the show at all Carrie do you recognize “innit”?
Carrie Gillon: I don’t think so, but it might not be the right region.
Jeff Zentner: I N N I T like the way the British say? Yeah, I haven’t heard that.
Carrie Gillon: So if you watch Smoke Signals, they use innit in that a lot, but they’re also from the Pacific Northwest, which is where my friend Peter Jacobs is also from. So it comes more down the west, I think rather than Oklahoma.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I think Dene use it.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I think it’s all the way down.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, there’s these interesting, I mean, it’s so beautiful. And I have you here just to compliment you, apparently. I love how you write about language and words in this one specifically, because Cash’s in a poetry class and I know you’re a poet, so I love you. I love how you sneak in poems to your books. But I love linguistic quirks that kind of mark identity or region or whatever. I think it’s beautiful. And I think it’s a shame that so many people use it to discriminate against people.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. Nothing is more heartbreaking to me than when somebody gets made fun of for the way they talk. I mean, it’s so fundamental. You have so little choice over it, it’s so unconscious, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to me that somebody would get made fun of for what they call their grandfather. You know, this term of endearment. One thing I wanted to set up with that dynamic between between Trip and Cash- Trip from Scottsdale, wealthy- is that even people who would identify with a political persuasion that would label some parts of America “the real America”, like rural parts of America, that’s the real America. And I think Trip certainly would identify with politicians who said things like that and who did that. Even people like that- and sometimes especially people like that- discriminate against rural Americans and mock rural America.
Carrie Gillon: They don’t believe what they’re saying.
Jeff Zentner: exactly. Exactly. They’re speaking in code.
Carrie Gillon: Definitely. Yes, definitely. So maybe don’t want to talk about inauthentic portrayals, but maybe you do: do you have any inauthentic portrayals of Southern slash Appalachian language?
Jeff Zentner: Oh gosh. Yeah. Well, a terrible Southern accent will make a show immediately unwatchable to me. I just. Can’t do it
Megan Figueroa: like the Walking Dead?
Jeff Zentner: Yes, absolutely. The Walking Dead. True Blood was a particularly awful offender in this regard. Oh gosh. I’m trying to think of some others.
Megan Figueroa: Be kind if you’re gonna say that Timothy Olyphant did a poor job in Justifie,d because he is so handsome
Carrie Gillon: and you can’t say anything bad about handsome men, I guess.
Jeff Zentner: I’ll say this. I’ll say this: Timothy Olyphant’s accent isn’t great, but he’s so charismatic and funny to watch on screen. And he’s got such a mischievous little glint in his little eye. I love Timothy Olyphant, so I give him a pass. His Southern accent is not terrific, but I got to give him a pass on it.
What’s funny though, in Justified, is that Walton Goggins doesn’t have a particularly great Southern accent. He grew up in Atlanta, which is so funny to me.
Megan Figueroa: I wonder if it’s because he was trying to do like the Appalachian like, like whatever he perceives as Appalachian instead of his own?
Carrie Gillon: Kentucky.
Megan Figueroa: Right. No, wasn’t it in Kentucky? I thought it was.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. it’s Eastern Kentucky, I think Hazard, Kentucky, which is in Eastern Kentucky. I’ve heard him in other things though, where he wasn’t playing Appalachian and it’s similarly not a great Southern accent. Again. So funny because he did grow up in Atlanta, apparently grew up in Georgia.
Now a show with really, really good Southern accents is Rectify, which is on Netflix, a Sundance show. Just a gorgeous show, man. Really, really well done. It’s so good.
Carrie Gillon: And the main guy’s Canadian. And I’ve also seen him in an Australian show doing an Australian accent, which I can’t judge, but seemed good.
Jeff Zentner: It’s good.
Megan Figueroa: He has an ear for it, like, like a particular talent
Carrie Gillon: some people do. Yeah.
Jeff Zentner: but that one is that one is, is phenomenal. Friday Night Lights is, is generally pretty good on the Texas accents. The Texas accent is pretty indistinguishable from a Southern accent to most ears, certainly to my ear. So that one did things well, but yeah, I’ll tell you the biggest problem with the fake Southern accent is they think that Southerners pronounced the word “your” as “yo”, well, “now, yo going to get yo fill of this.”
If you listen to, and that’s not how Southerners pronounce the word “your”, they pronounce it “yer” “yer going to get your fill”. So they don’t say “yo” for Y O U R. That’s one of the biggest markers I see that people aren’t getting it right.
Carrie Gillon: You want to know why that is?
Jeff Zentner: Why is that?
Carrie Gillon: Because they’re aiming for an old Southern accent.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. I think that could be, I think that could be.
Carrie Gillon: White white Southerners used to not have “r”s in that position. They started using “r”s in that position around World War II.
Jeff Zentner: yeah. Wow. That’s fascinating.
Megan Figueroa: Like Daniel Craig.
Jeff Zentner: Oh, there we go. The quintessential horrible Southern accent.
Carrie Gillon: Sure. That was supposedly on purpose that he purposely used an old Southern accent as his target. I think he’s supposed to be bad, but maybe I’m giving him too much credit. I don’t know.
Jeff Zentner: Another thing that actors miss with the Southern accent is that the double E isn’t a sound. So you know, we’re going to the meeting, we’re going to the “mayting”. So it’s an ay sound instead of a double e sound.
Megan Figueroa: Do you have in mind any dialogue written in books that has been particularly offensive?
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. Where the Crawdads Sing was unreadable to me because it is- and listen, people love that book. Lord knows. I mean, I think it’s sold like 50 million copies or something. I found it unreadable. I find written dialect to be so exhausting to read. And the problem with it is that if you- you’re, you’re going to have a certain way of hearing the words on the page. and if you impose a reading on the page that interrupts the way that you would normally naturally hear the words, it’s very jarring to me. So I know how people in North Carolina- I know I can hear them naturally. If you just put the words on the page, I’ll know how the words are being pronounced, but when you put them on the page with this heavy, heavy dialect, I find it really difficult to read, really tiresome. It’s why I don’t write in dialect, even when I’m trying to convey a Southern accent. I give you the fact that these characters are from the rural South. You’re going to have to meet me halfway, because I’m not going to try to give you those pronunciations in dialect. It borders on offensive too, I think.
Megan Figueroa: With Papaw, there is distinct parts of his language variety in the dialogue that you’ve written, but I guess it’s the words. And not like you trying to get someone to think of how the vowels sound.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. Yeah. You can get people to hear the musicality of the accent. You get people to hear the language through your word choice and the way you construct the sentences, the colloquialisms you use.
Megan Figueroa: What really struck out or stood out for me was the use the double negatives, because people disparage the use of double negatives. Both of my parents have it, have double negatives, and I got rid of mine because that’s how I felt that I needed to do to succeed in the world.
Carrie Gillon: My parent didn’t have it, but I still got it because it’s actually, I think, very logical. But I also got rid of it when I was like 10 or something, cause my parents told me it was wrong.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I know. And certainly people in the South are told in so many different ways that X is wrong. And so I wonder if you’re thinking about that when you’re writing, for example, Papaw’s dialogue.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. I’m absolutely thinking about the way that the rural Southerners construct sentences. I’m thinking of their colloquialisms they use, right down to little things like Southerners say, “do what?” For “what?” So if you say something and I don’t hear you: “do what?” “do what now?”
Megan Figueroa: It’s funny. I didn’t know that. Do you watch Bob’s Burgers? I know Carrie does. The character of Zeke says “do what”.
Jeff Zentner: Oh, okay. Yeah. That’s a Southernism. I wouldn’t be surprised if a Southerner wrote that character. So there’s that. There’s “getting your picture made” is instead of “getting your picture taken”, “we’re going to get our pictures made”.
Where you put the emphasis on some words like umbrella, they say UMbrella. They say BUffet instead of buffet. I’m trying to think of some other ones.
Carrie Gillon: INsurance.
Jeff Zentner: Yep. Yep. That’s one. So, so yeah, with Papaw, I definitely use the double negative because that’s a common feature of Appalachian speech. I’m kind of looking through the book now to see what other things I did. I just kind of do it instinctively. If you want to see a really, really keen ear for Appalachian colloquial dialogue, read the book Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. He’s got just an unbelievable ear for Appalachianisms and the color of local dialogue. It’s really wonderful.
Megan Figueroa: Is that person from the area?
Jeff Zentner: He, yes, was born and raised in east Tennessee. Now he kind of famously lives in the West and writes books set in the West. But yeah, his formative years were in east Tennessee. So he really grew up with those linguistic speech patterns as part of his life.
Carrie Gillon: Well, how about the Kansas dialect? We’ve never really talked about the dialect. Is there anything that makes it distinctive from other varieties?
Jeff Zentner: Not really. Sometimes you’ll, you’ll get an r in a word like wash. So you get warsh.
Carrie Gillon: okay. In Washington state, sometimes in the rural areas, you’ll hear that too.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. So you get an r in warsh. Other than that, it’s largely Southern. I mean, people say “y’all” and nothing, nothing terribly, terribly interesting. And, outside of the rural areas, the Kansas accent is very, just flat Midwestern, you know, newscastery.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I was recently in rural Missouri, and most of the students were from St. Louis, but I was talking to some students and asked how they felt about Midwestern, the quote, unquote Midwestern accent being like the go-to or at least described as the go-to of how you need to sound to be successful. Because actually someone in Hillbilly says that she feels like she has to code switch from Appalachian English to Midwestern or Californian English. So the people in the class, it didn’t even occur to them that their accent that they hear around them in the Midwest would be something to aim for. But I wonder if there was any sort of, that like message in Tennessee. Like you need to sound like X to be successful?
Jeff Zentner: Nobody delivered that message explicitly, but culture delivers that message by every time they need to show somebody slow witted, they give them a Southern accent. Every time. I mean, a thick, heavy Southern accent. So the message isn’t always delivered explicitly, like you need to talk this way to be successful or to be thought intelligent, but, pop culture makes sure you get the message.
Carrie Gillon: I do think this is finally starting to change because, for example, there’s a woman from, I believe South Carolina, apparently from the region that my husband is from is in For All Mankind. And she’s playing a character with that same accent. Like she’s not changing her accent. That’s her accent. And she’s working for NASA. So it feels like finally there, we’re starting to like chip away a little bit at this. Yeah, I hate it so much. I hate it. I hate like, so many, like the Simpsons and so many things. Yokels.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Thinking of this specifically, how it’s not always explicit in your book. I really, really loved it. Just came me the feels that you notice this change in Cash where I don’t know if it’s a change, but he feels comfortable enough to start saying Papaw to his group of friends and then his poetry instructor. And I think that that’s really, I don’t know if it’s subtle to some people or not, or if it’s more overt, but it’s like a really nice transition to kind of think about how, like he’s letting his true self, and that includes, these words from eastern Tennessee, these things from eastern Tennessee, like words and his dialect and all.
Jeff Zentner: Yeah. So, so what I think is the driving force behind that is that he does meet this poetry instructor, Dr. Adkins, Brittany Ray Adkins, who, when, when he’s discovering that she’s also from Appalachia, she goes, my name is Brittany Ray Adkins. Does that sound like I was born in New York City? and he kind of blushes he’s like, yeah, I guess not. But he discovers that this incredibly brilliant poetry instructor is from his cultural region, is from eastern Kentucky, a few hours away from where he grew up, and she’s got a PhD, she teaches poetry. She’s a National Book Award finalist, in demand from these elite schools. And she says to him at once that she called her Papaw “Papaw”. And so it makes him feel like it’s not a thing for stupid people. It’s not a thing for unsophisticated people.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And her poetry book is called “Holler”, which I think is fantastic. Again, it’s like, unfortunately we associate Appalachia or the South with unsophisticated for media portrayals and all of this. So the idea that the word “holler” would be on a award winning poetry book is fantastic.
Jeff Zentner: Sure. And for those of your listeners who don’t know, a “holler” is an Appalachianism for a hollow, a small, little valley in the mountains. And there are a lot of hollers in Appalachia. Hills and hollers.
Carrie Gillon: We have a whole episode about that with Paul Reed.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah. We have a linguist who’s Appalachian who came on and he’s the reason how I know how to say Appalahchia instead of Appalaychian.
Jeff Zentner: I make sure and take that on in, in, In the Wild Life as well. That’s, that’s how Cash knows that that Dr. Adkins is really from Appalachia.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. It’s like a shibbolith, right?
Jeff Zentner: Exactly.
Megan Figueroa: You say on your website that you wanted to write for young adults particularly, and I think it’s so important that they get the message that they are good and valued and their language is valid from the very beginning. But I think it’s great to see YA books that are portraying it as such. So I wonder what you want to see more of in YA books or in contemporary fiction or just in the book world in general, or maybe even, you know, for different types of media when it comes to the portrayal of the south in Appalachia.
Jeff Zentner: So two of my favorite texts on the rural South are Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which is uh rural Black people in Mississippi. And now Reservation Dogs, which is rural Indigenous people in Oklahoma. I think more stories of rural people of color are, are needed. I mean, just in general, more stories of rural people, but, but definitely within that underrepresented subset of stories about rural people, rural people of color. I want to see stories of rural Latino people in the South. There- North Carolina, I think has the quickest growing Latino population in America. Over Arizona, over Texas, over New Mexico. I think Tennessee is like top 10 as well. And so you go out to these rural towns now in North Carolina and Tennessee, and you see like a carnicerias and padarias and these Mexican groceries and central American groceries. And so there’s this whole Latino community. And I want to read that experience. There’s a really specific experience that I am bonkers to read. I want to read a book about this so badly.
I did a school visit in Southern Texas, rural Texas, right along the border. And I found out that there were kids at that high school, who every day cross the border from Mexico into the United States to attend high school. And then went back to Mexico. I want so badly for somebody to write a book about the experience. Getting up and going to school every day in the richest country in the world and going back home. To me, that is absolutely fascinating.
Megan Figueroa: I agree. I mean, that happens in Arizona too. obviously, they cross the border every morning and I even mentored a student last year that came every, he had that experience and it was like nothing to like him, he said it casually and I’m just like, oh wow.
Carrie Gillon: You know, this is not at all the same, but there are kids in Point Roberts, Washington state who have to drive through Canada back to United States to go to high school.
Jeff Zentner: That’s wild, an international journey every day to go to high school is bonkers.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: I don’t know what they’re doing now. I mean, I, maybe, maybe it’s still happening, but the border is sort of closed. Although Americans can come if they’re vaccinated now. Anyway, bizarre. The world is bizarre.
Megan Figueroa: So beyond just media, how can we be kinder to each other about our differences in language?
Jeff Zentner: Well, I think there’s a real opportunity there too, to see the, the beauty of the way other people speak and to partake of that. The same way we have the opportunity when we, when we eat at a restaurant that serves some cuisine, we’re not used to it. When we go to a Thai restaurant, when we go to an Indian restaurant, we have the opportunity to experience something then then we were raised with different than we’re used to, and to enjoy the beauty of it and the same way that we let the flavors of that cuisine spread across our tongues and please that taste pleasure center of our brain. I think we have to approach language with that same way that we’re going to let all language land upon our tongue with that same searching of joy and deliciousness.
I lived in Brazil for a while and became fluent in Portuguese. So I speak fluent Portuguese and to learn another language, it’s so wonderful and exciting. And I hope that we can start to see language as exciting in that way and delicious in that way, in a way that we can experience the world and expand ourselves by meeting people on their own terms, linguistically.
Well, this was a real honor. Thank you for having me on your show.
Carrie Gillon: And we always leave our listeners with one final message. Don’t be an asshole
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole
Jeff Zentner: succinct, to the point.
Carrie Gillon: And this month we would like to thank our latest patron: Karen Jaffe.
Megan Figueroa: Karen, thank you so much. We really appreciate you.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. And as a reminder, if anyone wants to join, we have $2, $3, $5 and $15 support levels, and you get all kinds of things like stickers or bonus episodes, or the, as we said before, mug.