Southern Accents and That Nashville Sound
By Shelley Johansson
"The accent of one's birthplace persists in the mind and heart as much as in speech."
— François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)
“Where are you from?” It’s an innocent, normal question when getting to know a new acquaintance. My answer is “Nashville,” but the response I get from there depends on where I am. If I’m in the South, people chat about the city, its music or their visit there. It’s nice to be from a place that’s known for something. But here in the North, where I now live, the response is frequently “You don’t sound like it.”
The social rules of small talk don’t allow me to express the wildly mixed feelings I have about that statement. What does their expectation say about Nashville, or about the South in general? What does it say about me? What’s with the superior attitude some people have about the South? And I identify as a Southerner – so why, for crying out loud in a bucket, don’t I sound like one?
The Bitter Southerner’s Chuck Reece wrote an essay, “We Are Bitter,” that explains the name of this fine publication and the rationale behind its founding. In it, he told how his pronounced Southern drawl sometimes triggered “certain negative assumptions” when he lived in New York. Upon reading that, my Kentucky-born mother texted me in shouty capital letters, “HE PUT INTO WORDS THINGS I’VE FELT MY WHOLE LIFE. I’M NOT STUPID JUST BECAUSE I SOUND LIKE THIS.” Clearly, the accent issue touches a nerve with a lot of us.
As Chuck noted, there’s often a certain condescension present when people remark about a Southern drawl, or an Appalachian twang. Hell, I sometimes detect condescension when people remark about my (perceived) lack of an accent. Do people from other parts of the country known for a strong regional accent get this kind of reaction? I can’t imagine saying “you don’t sound like it” to someone who just told me they’re from New Jersey but doesn’t sound like Tony Soprano. But is it possible we’re just being oversensitive?
Actually, no. R. Douglas Fields wrote in the Scientific American, “studies have shown that whether you are from the North or South, a Southern twang pegs the speaker as comparatively dimwitted, but also likely to be a nicer person than folks who speak like a Yankee.” Time and again, Fields maintains, it’s been shown that speakers with Southern accents are initially assumed to be less intelligent — and I find it pretty depressing that Southerners hold the same negative stereotypes about ourselves. Being perceived as nice is, well, nice, but cold comfort.
Stereotypes have a way of perpetuating themselves in that people tend to remember the experiences that reinforce stereotypical beliefs, and dismiss or forget those that don’t. So television interviews featuring strongly-accented Southerners expressing less-than-enlightened views are going to stick in people’s minds (even as those of us who abhor that stereotype cringe and groan behind the couch). Nobody denies some Southern folks are ignorant or prejudiced, and that some of them have an accent. But it’s unfair to correlate the two factors.
But that’s not all, y’all, when it comes to characteristics associated with Southern accents. A 2013 survey conducted by Cupid.com found that a Southern accent was considered “sexiest” by a significant margin. Their breathless blurb reads, “When it comes to romance, most of us dream of long lazy days in the sun, epic sunsets and, ahem, rolls in the hay. ... Interestingly the Southern accent proved a particular hit with the men who were surveyed. We’re not sure if they’re after a Scarlett O’Hara or a Daisy Duke, but either way it’s great news for all you single Southern belles!” (Oh, spare me.) An online survey by some dating website is a far cry from scientific evidence, of course, but the stereotype of the honey-tongued Southern belle is pretty familiar. I guess sexy is a better attribute than dumb-but-friendly – on the other hand, stupid plus sexy equals bimbo, at least if you’re a woman.
In 2014, the Oak Ridge (Tennessee) National Laboratories got unwanted national publicity on NPR and elsewhere for planning a six-week “accent reduction class” that was supposed to help participants “feel confident in a meeting when you need to speak with a more neutral American accent.” Oak Ridge, a federal research facility founded in 1942 to develop the atom bomb, employs a lot of highly educated scientists, many of whom are from out of the area. The class was cancelled due to complaints from employees who were from the South and proud of it, but still, the fact remains that somebody thought this was a good idea.
I’ve asked several of my closest, non-Southern friends how they perceive my accent. The consensus is that the Southern accent is detectable, especially when I’m telling a story, but that it’s not immediately obvious. The most thoughtful response I got was this: “I don't think you have a paradigmatically thick Southern accent, but it’s hard to tease out the accent from the whole package — which is pretty Southern. But I do think the Southernness comes through more than occasionally.”
Like most anybody, my accent shows up a little more when I’m self-conscious, excited or tipsy, but I agree that it’s on the mild side. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but it doesn’t have anything to do with how my parents sound. My mother, a native of Louisville, has a much stronger accent than mine – perhaps because her mother grew up in Jackson. I can (and often do) still hear my Nana’s gentle voice in my head – so lovely, a classic, soft Mississippi accent.
Maybe it’s because I took a lot of theater classes in college that involved voice work (but then again, if college had any effect, it might have been to strengthen my accent – I went to Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where the student body was overwhelmingly from the Deep South). I’ve made my living in communications, sometimes in a role where I speak on mic or on camera, and in that capacity I suppose it’s better if people are listening to what I’m saying rather than how I’m saying it. I even teach public speaking as an adjunct at a local community college these days.
I guess it’s possible I once had a stronger Southern accent than I do now, and somehow – consciously or not – trained myself to sound more neutral. But then again, I’m not sure I could. I know what it is to have an accent you can’t change, as I learned to speak Swedish when I was 25 – I cringe when I hear my strong English-speaking accent and know exactly what’s wrong, but my tongue will not bend to change it. Obviously some people are able to alter their accents or even adopt completely new ones at will, but not all of us are Meryl Streep. But the thing is, Swedes love listening to my accent – and I get that, because I like hearing accents myself.
Frankly, it bugs me that in this country we seem to value accentless speech, that we expect everyone speaking in a public capacity to sound flat and unidentifiable. Accents are much more interesting to listen to than so-called Standard American English, and much more revealing about the person speaking. Years ago, a boyfriend of my sister’s called my parents’ home when I was there for Christmas and said, in the strongest Long Island accent I ever heard, “Hel-loh, I’m callin’ fa Heath-hah.” I giggled and asked him to repeat himself, and he laughed back and good-naturedly obliged. I liked him the more for his accent, and although that was the first time we’d ever spoken I felt like I knew him a little better than if he’d sounded like some TV reporter.
As a college student traveling in northern Scotland, I stopped an elderly gentleman for directions to Loch Ness. He was struggling to understand me, though he clearly wanted to help. I was charmed, but couldn’t get a word he said. At some point one of us was struck by the absurdity of the situation – two native English speakers, colossal failure to communicate — and started to snicker with embarrassment. The longer we carried on, the funnier it got. By the end of the exchange both of us were doubled over, roaring with laughter. He wound up writing down the directions for me as we wiped tears from our eyes. That encounter became one of the most memorable experiences of the whole trip. In the right circumstances, differing accents can connect strangers, even if communication suffers.
I understand why people expect a Nashville accent to be strong – country music, our claim to fame, is supposed to be twangy. But today’s Nashville sure ain’t country in the rural sense. It’s one of the hottest, hippest cities in the nation – a far cry from what it was like when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, before Garth Brooks and the other hat acts brought country back into mainstream popularity. The downtown entertainment district – which was full of peep shows and downright unsafe at night when I was a kid – is rocking every day of the week, with authentic honky-tonks like Robert’s Western World and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge holding their own against the influx of new, more tourist-oriented establishments like the Wildhorse Saloon and the Hard Rock Café. We even have NHL hockey and NFL football these days, and downtown condos are sprouting up everywhere.
All that growth has negatives as well as positives, of course. When I was born, the city had three tall buildings downtown, as immortalized in Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” album art. Today, downtown is growing at a ridiculous pace. Cranes litter the landscape, and they cannot pour concrete fast enough. My sister drove me around town when I was there last Christmas, and some places are borderline unrecognizable. Nashville is grappling with the problem faced by boomtowns everywhere – what happens when the people who make the city what it is can’t afford to live there anymore? It’s pretty scary, but my point here is that a lot of folks are coming to Nashville from somewhere else.
But I would maintain that Nashville’s always been a more cosmopolitan place than its country image might suggest, for the same basic reason – the recording industry draws a lot of people. To my ears, the accent of those who have grown up in Nashville hasn’t changed, at least not yet, despite the city’s dramatic changes. It’s true that our country image has evolved considerably, as the industry has evolved. The city has always been Music City USA, but the emphasis on that slogan has grown right along with country music’s popularity. We’re a generation or two from when “Hee Haw” was Nashville’s major on-screen entertainment export, so it seems silly that people should expect me to sound like one of the Honeys.
I do suspect that TV and movie depictions of Southern accents are partially responsible for setting unrealistic expectations. Those of us who know what the South really sounds like often suffer through the mangled enunciation of some actor sporting a fake Southern accent that’s more out of place than an ill-fitting top hat. And all too often characters from the South are depicted with ridiculously exaggerated accents. I enjoy primetime TV’s current, soapy depiction of my hometown, “Nashville,” in part because the location shots are impressively authentic – the show is shot in Nashville, not on soundstages, and it’s obvious. But some of the characters are portrayed with strong accents indeed (to be fair, not all of them are supposed to be natives). In any case, I find the accents on that show entertaining, but I’m not sure I’d call them representative.
I’ve lived out of the South for more than 12 years now, so it could be that my accent’s changed slowly over time. Accents can be fungible things. When I first met my Swedish husband when we were 18, he spoke British English, because that’s what Scandinavians are taught, starting in fourth grade – it is, after all, English. Today, almost 30 years later, his accent is quite American, with a trace of Swedish lilt present. It’s not uncommon that people who move adopt the regional accents of their new homes, at least to some degree. We all want to fit in. That could be what’s happened, but I think Southern accents are beautiful, and if mine had been more pronounced I’m pretty sure I would have been deliberate about maintaining it. Heaven knows I love it when I have the opportunity to chat with someone who has a Southern accent, because it sounds like home.
But it would seem inauthentic, borderline ridiculous even, to try and cultivate a stronger accent. I do have language itself as a good fallback position, as my vocabulary can be pretty Southern when I want it to be. Apparently that holds true when I write in casual settings – or maybe it’s just that the Southern part of my identity is clearly communicated, one way or another. I was a member of an online message board for years with women from all over the country before I had the chance to meet one of them (a Pennsylvanian) in person. After chatting for awhile, she confided that after hearing my virtual voice for so long, she was surprised to find my actual voice didn’t sound as Southern as she had expected.
What I actually say when someone responds, “You don’t sound like it,” after finding out I’m from,has everything to do with the tone in which the remark is delivered. If there’s a hint of a sneer, I’ve been known to dryly observe that virtually everybody in downtown Nashville who’s wearing a cowboy hat is a tourist. If they sound friendly and curious, I’ll smile and tell them what I believe to be true – that my slight accent is not atypical of Nashville, and if I’d grown up in a rural area of Tennessee I’d probably have more of a twang. No matter what I’ve said, the person almost invariably responds, “I’ve never been to Nashville, but I’d really like to go.” No kidding, on either count.
I reckon I shouldn’t overthink it. Like most of the comments people make about others, “you don’t sound like it” says much more about the person uttering it than it does about me. At best, it reveals a lack of knowledge of what the real South sounds like, in all its delightful, subtle variations – including, y’know, me. At worst, it could mean they assume Southerners tend to be uneducated and unsophisticated, and that my lack of accent indicates I’m an exception to that timeworn stereotype. Of one thing I am certain, though – it sure as hell doesn’t mean that I’m not Southern. Perhaps the best response to that remark is look them in the eye, smile proudly and say, “Ain’t that a shame?”