LINGUIST List 5.438

Mon 18 Apr 1994

Disc: Accents

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Re: 5.422 Accents
  2. Suzanne E Kemmer, covert attitudes
  3. "RANDY J. LAPOLLA", Re: 5.422 Accents
  4. "Murray Munro", Re: 5.422 Accents

Message 1: Re: 5.422 Accents

Date: Wed, 13 Apr 1994 13:58-EDTRe: 5.422 Accents
From: <Marion.KeeA.NL.CS.CMU.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.422 Accents

I grew up in south-central West Virginia, a place which has an accent that
I can distinguish from those prevailing in some other parts of the state
(let alone those versions of Appalachian or "southern" accents that
prevail in various bordering areas, such as the Pittsburgh area where I
now live, or eastern Kentucky, or southwest Virginia, etc.)

I remember going to see "Silence of the Lambs" when it came out. I
hadn't read the book, so I did not know what the background of Jodie
Foster's character was supposed to be. What struck me at first when
her character spoke, was that it sounded awfully close to "down home."
This made me pretty curious. Probably, I thought, her character is
supposed to be from Tennessee or someplace like that. U.S. film-makers,
after all, seem to use Tennessee locales to represent other Appalachian
locales (cf. whatever that Paul Newman film about Blaze Starr and Huey
Long was called), and only we natives of those "other locales" seem to
notice that it doesn't fit. Perhaps, in a similar way, a Tennessee accent
was being attempted here, and fallen short of. Probably most people
would never notice the difference. Imagine my surprise when the script
revealed that Jodie's character was from roughly the area where I grew up!
Her accent was very close to being "correct." She must have done her
homework. I was impressed. I suspect that she immersed herself in the
speech of the area for a while, whether directly or through tapes.

While I would love to go on to discuss the political implications
of revealing one's heritage as an Appalachian in every sentence one
utters (in fact, the movie "Silence of the Lambs" does explore this
to some extent), I am not sure that this list is the proper place for
it. It has always been OK for other Americans to look down on
"hillbillies", regardless of race. Our speech tends to be an object of
pity, or of derision; its serious erosion under the deluge of television
during the past 40 years should be a topic for research.

In any case, it was pleasant for me to find that a major actress had
been so thorough in respecting that speech.

Marion Kee | All opinions are my own;
Knowledge Engineer, Center for Machine Translation | when CMU wants my opinions
Carnegie Mellon University Pittsburgh, PA, USA | it pays for them.
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Message 2: covert attitudes

Date: Wed, 13 Apr 94 20:29:08 CDcovert attitudes
From: Suzanne E Kemmer <>
Subject: covert attitudes

The comment about southern speech, "Beneath that
deceptive North Carolina drawl, there's a crisp intelligence",
reminded me of another case I came across where a speaker's
covert cognitive model is revealed by the juxtaposition
of perceived incompatibles:

(in an advertisement for handcream):

"So feminine...yet so effective!"

--Suzanne Kemmer
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Message 3: Re: 5.422 Accents

Date: Thu, 14 Apr 1994 12:07:38 Re: 5.422 Accents
Subject: Re: 5.422 Accents

Apropos accents, attitudes, and the ability to copy other accents,
a New York accent (esp. Bronx or Brooklyn) also has connotations
of lack of education and culture. For this reason I made a
conscious effort in college to learn standard English, though in
doing so I kept getting it wrong, and so for quite some time
people kept asking me what country I was from. Most guessed France.

By the way, immitations of the New York accent are usually easy to
spot (e.g. rounding the first part of the dipthong in words such as
"toidi-toid street"), though there is one amazing
exception: when I saw the movie _Rogger Rabbit_, I had no idea the lead
(human) actor was an Australian who normally has a very strong Aussie

A Native New Yorker
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Message 4: Re: 5.422 Accents

Date: 13 Apr 94 16:33:40 CST
From: "Murray Munro" <>
Subject: Re: 5.422 Accents

Margaret Fleck's posting raises an interesting issue about
unsophisticated listeners' abilities to distinguish accents. She wrote

> A cautionary note about "parodies" of various accents: remember that
> most people (particularly non-linguists) are quite bad at
> distinguishing accents very different from their own. It seems very
> likely that the imitators can't hear the difference between what
> they are producing and the real thing.

While I agree that an inability to accurately imitate an accent may
be the result of perceptual difficulties, I don't think it is fair to
say that people are bad at "distinguishing" accents. There are
certainly plenty of studies in the phonetics literature showing that
even untrained listeners are astonishingly good at detecting a
foreign accent. In one study by Flege, for instance, English
listeners could detect a French accent at above-chance levels in
short portions of speech such as CVs and even 30-millisecond chunks
edited from initial consonants. Accuracy increased (to as much as
95%) as a function of the duration of the speech sample presented.
While it's certainly possible that accent imitators may do a mediocre
job because they can't "zero in" (in terms of perception, production,
or both) on subtle aspects of the accent that cause it to sound
genuine, they may still be aware of their own "imprecision."

I think bad imitations of Southern speech may have a lot to do with a
tendency for actors to imitate stereotypical forms of the accent
rather than true models. A particularly extreme case of a similar
sort of thing occurred in an American TV commercial (for Kellogg's
cereal, I think) which was adapted for viewing in Canada a few years
ago. In a mock interview, people who supposedly came from small
Canadian cities were speaking about why they ate Frosted Flakes. As I
recall, one of the interviewees, who supposedly came from Lethbridge,
Alberta, spoke like someone from the American South. Apparently the
makers of this commercial thought they could get away with this
silliness because in Canada as well as the US, a Southern American
accent is often associated with a rural, uneducated image (my
apologies to Lethbridge readers). There is also a character in the TV
series "Northern Exposure" who is said to come from rural western
Canada (Saskatchewan perhaps?) but who has noticeable Southern
American elements in his speech. Whether this is intentional on his
part or not, it is interesting that he was cast as a rural Canadian.

Murray Munro
Department of Biocommunication
University of Alabama at Birmingham
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