LINGUIST List 5.417

Mon 11 Apr 1994

Disc: Southern and British accents

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Michael Picone, Re: 5.381 Varia: Tocharians, NPR
  2. Joseph P Stemberger, North American vs. British accents

Message 1: Re: 5.381 Varia: Tocharians, NPR

Date: Mon, 04 Apr 94 13:15:02 CDRe: 5.381 Varia: Tocharians, NPR
From: Michael Picone <MPICONEUA1VM.UA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.381 Varia: Tocharians, NPR

Due to a posting mix-up, Mark A. Mandel (and probably many others)
were mystified as to the antecedents of a recent posting to this list
about anti-Southern bias expressed in the media. The source of the
mix-up was the fact that there has been a discussion along these lines
on the American Dialect Society list. A contributor simply posted a
comment to the wrong list.

Since this topic, to the extent that it is related to perceived and/or
stereotyped speech habits and to the extent that it finds expression
in derogartory language, may be of interest to participants to this
list, and since I am the author of two of the original postings
that got the discussion going, I will re-post my two messages here, as
well as a recent message authored by Dennis Preston.

Mike Picone
University of Alabama

 ============================================================= 41

The subject of actors & accents has become more intriguing to me since
transplanting to the South. While it is true that when Meryl Streep tries
to imitate a Polish accent, for example, there are relatively few people,
other than linguists, who are listening while undertaking meta-accentual
monitoring, this is not true when it comes to the portrayal of Southern
speech habits. Untold numbers of Southerners are, despite themselves,
very much aware of the artificiallity that, for them, is injected into a
film when non-Southerners attempt to mimic their speech. Hollywood,
and America in general, often give the impression that the South is a
forgotten audience. So accents will conform to Northern stereotypes of what
constitutes Southern speech, especially when, as is so often the case,
the white "Southerner" is to be the clown, villain, village idiot, rabid
Bible thumper or whatever.

I remember thinking to myself during the last presidential election, that
NPR's occasional derisive use of the term "bubba vote" made it clear that
condescension towards the (white) South was not considered a PC faux pas.
True, "bubba" does not have quite the same negative force as do "redneck"
and various racial slurs, but it was clearly less than respectful. NPR
commentators were not sensitive to this and seemingly shared the perenniel
blind-spot that prevails in American media when it comes to the South.

Mike Picone
University of Alabama
 ================================================================= 26

Just for the record, I heard another instance of NPR anti-Southern
bias this morning on the radio. Cokie Roberts was referring to some
federal legislator (whose name I didn't catch) when she said that he
"mumbled in a Mississippi drawl that nobody understands." I will bet
money that the person in question was a white Southerner, for she would
never have permitted herself such a derogatory remark if it had been
otherwise. In fact, the insult is all the greater because of the exaggeration,
for even if someone of another ethnic group conceivably spoke a divergent
variety of English or an "accented" variety that impeded comprehension, such
a remark would be considered inappropriate. Yet in this case it is not
credible that the variety of English she is referring to is actually
unintelligible to her or anyone else, but she did not hesitate to use
exaggeration to make a negative insinuation based on linguistic habits.

Mike Picone
University of Alabama
 ============================================================= 19

Move over Cokie Roberts. More Southern speech-bashing; this time from the
Lansing (MI) State Journal (3/3/94), commenting on the retirement of Charles
'For 37 years, Charles Kuralt has shown us what network news can be - calm,
thoughtful, perceptive. Beneath that deceptive North Carolina drawl, there's a
crisp intelligence.'

Dennis Preston
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: North American vs. British accents

Date: Wed, 6 Apr 1994 14:27:09 -North American vs. British accents
From: Joseph P Stemberger <>
Subject: North American vs. British accents

A few days ago, I was watching the movie "Robin Hood, Men in Tights",
which is a spoof of last year's movie "Robin Hood". At one point, the
humorous Robin Hood makes fun of the serious one by saying something like:

 "Unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with a British accent."

In the earlier "Robin Hood" movie, the lead was played by an American
actor, and there was no attempt to do a British accent. The actor used his
own North American English accent.

I find the comment by the humorous Robin Hood interesting for a bias that
it reveals. We all know what kinds of accents are found in modern England.
We all know that the Robin Hood story takes place in England. Therefore
Robin Hood had a modern English accent. You find this same reasoning at
the Renaissance Festivals that are scattered across North America: the
people who work there put on fake modern British (or sometimes fake modern
Irish) accents.

But the Robin Hood story (and Renaissance Festivals) are set in the time
period before North America was settled by the English. The ancestors of the
people who contributed their dialects to North America were all living in
England at the time. So, if you had to guess what kind of dialect was
spoken in the 1200's or the 1400's, you would think that modern North American
accents are as good a guess as modern British accents. But, given
language change, the dialects spoken then would probably come across as
some unknown accent to us today. (And the real Robin Hood, who spoke Middle
English, would probably sound more like he had a German or Dutch accent.)

But all this brings up another idea common among the public: that North
American accents have been radically alterred by all those foreigners who
came to the US in the 18th and 19th century (Irish, Germans, Italians,
etc.). All those foreigners learning English just didn't get the accent
quite right, and that is why North American English accents are so
different from British English accents.

Does anyone know if there is a linguistic literature on this last idea?
That low-level aspects of intonation and allophony have been affected by
all those foreigners coming to North America? I don't know of any concrete
evidence for it, and I'd like to, if there is any. It would be amusing to
find that the naive reasoning that Robin Hood had a modern British accent
is (sort-of) on the right track. (But I'm skeptical.)

(One of the few "accent" phenomena that I know of that I am tempted to
attribute to borrowing from another language is the vowel system here in
Minnesota English. Along with the diphthongs [ey] and [ow], speakers
frequently produce the monophthongs [e:] and [o:]. And there are further
variants of /ow/ (like: a long open-o) and centering glides after long
vowels that sound quite unusual for English. But all the peculiarities of
the dialect here sound perfectly Swedish. And tons of Swedes settled here.
People around here don't understand why some people have no idea how to
pronounce names like BJORK (/byork/).

Anyway, I found the Robin Hood remark amusing. If anyone has knowledge of
the more serious questions that I've raised, I'd be interested in hearing it.

---joe stemberger

(After the over-serious discussion on mainstream linguistics, perhaps a
lighter topic would be refreshing.)
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue