"You don't sound that Southern" is something I've heard a lot in my adult life, always meant as a compliment. It wasn't always so. I sounded super Southern until I realized what the rest of the country already knew: Sounding Southern means sounding dumb. I set out to eradicate it.
In some ways it was a breeze. All you have to do to not sound Southern, i.e., stupid, is master this tiny little trick where you actually enunciate words and honor their intended number of syllables. You know, say them like they're supposed to be said instead of say-ud? And the benefits are myriad: you are instantly taken more seriously, no one knows where you're from unless you tell them — provided you never ever drink, never emphasize the wrong syllable, and never pronounce the long 'i'.
Hint: Something about the long 'i' is a bitch no matter what. I could sound effortlessly beyond-region until I had two beers and mentioned I was twenty-nine years old and realized I suddenly became Blanche Devereaux. Twenty-ny-uhn.
So it does not surprise me to learn that accents tend to stick around like unwanted houseguests long after you've run out of un-sweet iced tea, unless you really try to get rid of them. As LiveScience's Laura Geggel explains (via Katharine Nielson, Ph.D, chief education officer at Voxy), the reason is that our brains become less flexible past age 5, so even if we are not dumb and have learned a second language later in life (in my case a second accent), we still sound like speakers of our native language, no matter what, true blue.
Babies can discriminate among the different sounds people make, but that ability diminishes around 5 years of age, as the brain becomes less plastic, or flexible. For instance, the Japanese language does not differentiate between the "L" and "R" sounds, making it difficult for native Japanese speakers who are not exposed to English sounds until later in life to correctly pronounce words such as "elevator."
"By the time you're 5 or 6, it's hard to acquire a native-like accent, because you just can't hear the sounds the same way," Nielson said.
It only follows that this applies to regional accents as well. I grew up mostly only hearing Southern speakers "pronounce," with highly suspicious individual liberty, every word in the book, at least the books that were not burned (a joke, your regionalist). I read books and saw written words of course, but I had only my own people as a reference for how to pronounce them.
I can't remember exactly when I first recoiled at the Southern-style knack for mangling, but I know an early example happened in junior high with a girl named Misty who dropped the letter 'l' in words like cold and gold.
"LOOK AT THIS GODE RING HE GAVE ME, Y'ALL," she said of her much older high school boyfriend.
It was one of those gold coin panda rings that were so popular in the late 1980s. You know, with the coin? And the panda? In GODE?
She also got code sometimes, very code, which was not a big deal because her boyfriend always gave her his jacket to wear. Which she often paired with the gode ring. Come to think of it, she wore gode while she was code. And yet, literally no boyfriend of mine ever gave me a gode ring, so I think we all know what this is really about:
No, really. In a study looking at children's attitudes toward accents, researchers played children age 5 to 6 in Chicago and a small Tennessee town a three-second audio clip of a speaker and asked them which they wanted to be friends with.
Kids from Chicago preferred the Northern accent and also assumed Northern speakers were nicer, smarter, and more likely to be "in charge," while the kids from Tennessee had no preference. Older kids were given the same test, and the results changed. Now, as 10-year-olds, everyone thought the Northerners were smarter and in charge, and the Southerners were "nicer." Bias complete.
From the Scientific American piece on the study:
Here's the telling experimental result: When children of either age were asked whether the speaker was "American" or "lives around here," children from Chicago selected Northern rather than Southern speakers as being locals or Americans. The kids from Tennessee did not show any such preference at either age. The authors suggest that Southerners do not categorize speakers of either accent as being alien, because they hear Northern accents at a young age from National news anchors, film and television characters. The kids in Chicago don't have the same opportunity to hear a Southern accent. As they grow up, attend school, and develop social awareness, Southern children begin to associate the Northern accent with people being "in charge and smarter," because these prestigious "celebrities" of high social status and respect speak with a Northern accent. This nurtures a self-perpetuating stereotype which takes root by at least the age of nine.
As I got older, I realized that more often than not — sweeping generalization alert — everyone I knew who seemed to aspire to higher education or more professional endeavors seemed to have a less extreme Southern accent. Not because there is anything innately dumb about the accent — clearly it's purely a matter of bias — but because everyone aiming to succeed in most industries learned quickly that sounding super Southern was a liability. (Hey, even David Beckham got posher as he became famous.)
Strangely though, the Southern accent was voted the sexiest (by more dudes):
According to a press release, Cupid.com surveyed 2,000 men and women and determined that 36.5 percent of respondents voted the Southern accent the most attractive, with more men preferring it over women. This should come as no surprise, according to Cupid, since "when it comes to romance, most of us dream of long lazy days in the sun, epic sunsets and, ahem, rolls in the hay."
As for the least attractive accent? The Midatlantic accent, possessed by people in states like Pennsylvania and Delaware, came in dead last, with only 4 percent of the total vote. Think it has something to do with the way we pronounce "water?" (Wooder.)
I'm not embarrassed to be from the South, mind you, I just don't want to sound like it. Ive lived in Los Angeles for a few years now, and most people don't seem to notice anything about my accent unless certain words come up, and then suddenly it is painfully obvious, and they are quick to remind me how "country" it sounds.
Incident #1: "IN-surance."
At my first office job in Los Angeles I asked someone about various HR stuff and inquired, "When does our IN-surance kick in?"
The response was swift: "IN-surance?!" they cackled. "What's that? Do you mean in-SUR-ance?"
Incident #2: Are Pictures Made or Taken?
I asked someone a few months ago if they had gotten their picture made at something-or-other. That person, far as I know, is still laughing at me.
But with lots of good old-fashioned work, you can at least put a dent in your accent of origin and morph toward the greater glory of correctness. Back at LiveScience we learn some tips:
Listening to native speakers helps, Nielson said. Students learning Spanish, for example can listen to songs, or watch soap operas and the evening news, especially when those programs include subtitles that may help the students see the word and hear its pronunciation, Nielson said.
Some actors can learn how to mimic accents with voice coaches, but this is more of a mechanical method, Nielson said.
"They're changing the way they articulate," she said. "They're figuring out how to use their mouths to make different sounds."
This is promising, but even then, you are as I am, which is, at best, a mimic. Which begs the question: Why do I even care? Why not just embrace the accent I was born with, IN-surance and all? I think because ultimately I've sounded less Southern for so long that it sounds more like me than how I sounded in the past.
Weirdly, I don't think other people who sound Southern sound dumb at all. It's actually kind of charming. In the best of both worlds, I retain the ability to sound like a hick whenever I feel like it. I realize that now I think of sounding Southern as speaking a second language, something I can use for when the situation calls for it, like when traveling, or at parties you never really wanted to go to. You know, a kind of social in-sur-ance. Is it just me or is it code in here?
Image by Tara Jacoby