When I was young I didn't realize I had any kind of accent. I could not hear it in myself or others, even when I was removed from my native Kentucky environment. When I was 11 years old, I found myself living near Glasgow, Montana, the definition of the middle of nowhere. It was there that I had perhaps the first inkling that I grew up speaking a different way than most of the people I was surrounded by. I still could not hear it - the people there sounded normal to me and I thought I sounded normal to them. Even when we took trips up to Saskatchewan, I couldn't hear any difference in speech. Maybe I wasn't paying attention, or maybe I was a child.
Children are like that.
The inkling about my speech pattern came from 2 sources, one at school and one back home. I was sitting in a 6th grade math class way up in the frozen tundra of eastern Montana, a class taught by a very strict teacher I didn't like (Mr. Bach - pronounced just like the musician), when I was called on to answer a math question. I was very quiet & I never volunteered, so he actually called on me. It just so happened that the answer to the question was "nine". Mr. Bach made me repeat "nine" 3 or 4 times, because he couldn't believe what he was hearing. And you know how kids in a classroom are, they start to giggle and stuff. I remember I finally spelled "n-i-n-e" which just made things worse. I didn't realize that he understood me perfectly well, he just thought the way I was saying it was odd.
Anybody familiar with North American English knows that most native speakers born & raised south of the Ohio River tend to elongate and flatten out words with a long "I". It's like a marker, and if you're losing a southern accent without realizing it, that is apparently one of the last things to go. Apparently in Montana that kind of speech was a novelty.
A little later, when we had gone back home for a short visit, an aunt told me my accent was changing. I'm sure it was, but I didn't have a clue.
From that point on, I felt like I was in a speech pattern no mans land, though I still wasn't particularly conscious of my way of speaking. In the South people thought I came from the North, in the North they thought I came from the South. When I was 16 or so and my father had been transferred to Germany, I remember asking one of my friends one day where he thought I came from. Without hesitation, he said Tennessee. That was actually pretty close, the speech patterns in the area of Kentucky I come from are extremely similar to the patterns in eastern Tennessee (or Western Virginia, or western North Carolina).
At some point I began to be able to hear accents in other people. When I went back home, the accents were so strong they'd knock me over, and I began to understand what my aunt had meant when she told me my accent was changing. The people back home hadn't changed, I had.
Here are ways of speaking I never lost, no matter how long I had lived away from Kentucky. I've always said "you all". I've always had a great tendency to say "I reckon" instead of "I think" or "I guess so". It's just so familiar to me. I elongate and drag out words with a long "I" in them (nine, time, fine, mine, dime, night, fight, delight etc). I've always had a tendency to place an accent on a first syllable of some words that others might not (IN-surance, UM-brella). Depending on my level of anitmation (which is generally pretty low) I can easily turn one syllable words into multiple syllable words. Words as simple as "this" and "that". There are probably other things going on I don't realize.
Speech wise, I do not feel out of place living in western North Carolina. People who lived around here all their lives may or may not know I'm from somewhere else, but they certainly won't think that I'm from Pennsylvania or anything like that. It's not hard to find people around here who are from way north of the Ohio River, and speech wise it's very noticible.
You people from Iowa don't think you have an accent? Guess what - you do. And it's very strong. Same to you all in Montana.