In search of "authentic" Southern (American) accents...
October 11, 2006 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Language/Dialect-filter: In search of "authentic" Southern (American) accents...

One of the 20 or so things I've always wanted to be when I grew up was a linguistic anthropologist (it's been pretty consistently in the top 5 actually). Instead, I've taken up #3 (sorta) and try to maintain #1 along the way. Point being, I'm fascinated by accents of all kinds and how they are accurately or inaccurately portrayed in the media. Of special interest is the "Southern American accent", a blanket term which many use to cover a ridiculously large geographic area that (not surprisingly) has produced a number of widely varying dialects.

Now the request: those of you who grew up in the South or hang with a lot of Southerners, I'd love it if you could give me film/media examples of the best and worst Southern accents you've come across, with regional specifics (about you and the actor's accents) if at all possible.

Bonus info: I'd also love to hear your take on the accents of the numerous actors who grew up Southern, had to lose their accents for their careers, then were asked to perform as a Southerner (Josh Lucas and the guy from Lost who plays Sawyer come to mind, also Parker Posey who grew up in Mississippi but I can't actually remember her playing Southern...). Do their re-learned accents sound odd to you, or do they fall right back into it?


p.s. Some resources I've found already:
the speech accent archive
This American Life #138 "The Real Thing" (8/27/99)
posted by ibeji to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
For rural Appalachian (specifically West Virginian) accents, John Sayles, Matewan uses local folks as many of the minor characters and extras. It's a great movie, too!
posted by malaprohibita at 11:57 AM on October 11, 2006

I suspect that this may be a bit harder for us Southerners than you suspect - to be quite honest, the only southern accents I hear in the MSM are the bad ones, and I think most people I've hobnobbed with would agree. While I can listen to an accent and make a guess as to its origin (North FL, AL/MS, GA/SC, KY/TN, etc), I never turn on the TV and think to myself, "Hey, that actor's Georgia accent is spot-on!" It just sounds normal and uremarkable.

Ooh, except for one, come to think of it. I recently watched Elizabethtown, and remember thinking about how authentic all of the "home" scenes felt. Kirsten Dunst's accent sounded forced (her cadences were too lilting to be very authentic), but everyone else's were probably natural.

For the time I spent surrounded by theatre people, I will say that those who need to pick up the accent again for a role will usually do so exceedingly well. Except for a Georgian attempting an overblown Texas/Oklahoma accent, I can't think of a time when I ever noticed anything amiss.

My $0.029.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 12:01 PM on October 11, 2006

Believe it or not, "talk show host" Nancy Grace has a very accurate Southern (Georgia, in this case) accent.
posted by jca at 12:03 PM on October 11, 2006

There are oddities all over the south, like the Eastern/NY sound of the New Orleans accent; and Tangier Island, VA. Virginia has probably 3 or 4 distinct accents all by itself. I remember the accent of some of the baymen in the tidewater area as being nearly unintelligible and quite different from the "broad" southern accent. Kinda clipped and muttery. Fascinating subject though.
posted by Mister_A at 12:12 PM on October 11, 2006

The TV show King of the Hill has the central Texas accent and dialect nailed.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 12:24 PM on October 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Regional dialect database.
posted by Addlepated at 12:29 PM on October 11, 2006

I believe Julia Roberts is from the south, but her accent in Steel Magnolias is dreadful. Hollywood often seems to think that "talking southern" automatically means dropping r's all over the place ("evah," "nevah," "coluh"), but I have a big thick drawl courtesy of North Florida with plenty of r's to it.
posted by JanetLand at 12:36 PM on October 11, 2006

I agree with UncleJimmy about King of the Hill and TheNewWazoo about Elizabethtown.

In fact, I think Paula Deen played one of the family members in Elizabethtown, and she's about as Southern as they come. (That said, I'm from Georgia and the movie was set in Kentucky, so people from there might beg to differ about whether those accents were in fact authentic for Kentucky.)

The worst southern accent I can remember in modern movie history was Nicolas Cage in Con Air. It made my ears bleed.

Other movies: Driving Miss Daisy -- Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy had great accents (and note that the differences in their accents had as much to do with class as race). Dan Ackroyd's was mediocre.

Sweet Home Alabama - Reese Witherspoon's is the only accent I remember, and it was perfectly fine.

As for your question about actors "relearning" their accents -- I'm not sure it's as difficult as you might think. I grew up in Georgia, but I've lived up north for 10 years. Whatever accent I had has largely disappeared from my everyday usage (sadly), but I can turn it on in an instant if the need arises.
posted by somanyamys at 12:40 PM on October 11, 2006

And yes, Julia Roberts is from Smyrna, Georgia, about 10 minutes from where I grew up. But I'd take Holly Hunter's accent (in almost any movie she's ever done) over Julia's in Steel Magnolias any day of the week.
posted by somanyamys at 12:43 PM on October 11, 2006

I dispensed with my Georgia accent at age 13. My technique, if any northward-bound 13 year-olds are interested, was to try to "talk British" all the time. After a year or so I realized how idiotic that was and easily slipped into talking like generic newscasters.

I've been busted as Southern exactly twice: the first time I would kill to know how he did it, and the second it was because I said "INsurance." I can no longer do a good Southern accent, but I can certainly recognize a fake (Hollywood -- eck!) one.

This old on-location movie is the only one I've ever seen that has good Northeast Georgia accents (among the children and other extras). Doubt it's on DVD; I saw it on a classic movie channel.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 12:44 PM on October 11, 2006

Don't look to movies for a true Southern accent. If you could find clips of local news reporters, that would be better, although many of them learn to midwestify their accents. PBS has a cooking show by an old cajun guy, Justin Wilson, who's got a great Cajun accent, I guarantee.

In general, don't look to big productions, look to small, locally produced and aired stuff to find true accents.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 12:44 PM on October 11, 2006

For Worst Southern Accent I've gotta go with Nicolas Cage in Con Air.
On preview, I see I'm not the only one.
posted by solotoro at 12:47 PM on October 11, 2006

With practice, you can learn to distinguish a Mississippi accent from an Alabana from a Georgia. Florida is all screwed up. North Louisiana sounds a lot like Mississippi, South Louisiana has it's own set of dialects, and native New Orleanians can tell where each other were raised within a couple miles.

I don't really consider anything other than the above a true Southern accent. Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and so on are more Appalachian, which is different from Southern. Texas is it's own deal, but falls more under Midwestern.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 12:51 PM on October 11, 2006

Before anyone mentions it, "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "Mississippi Burning" are extremely poor examples. Let's not go there.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 12:54 PM on October 11, 2006

Hell, I'm Texan born and raised (East Texan to be specific).

Shoot me an email and I'd be happy to arrange a talk session. Probably not what you're looking for, but I'm always glad to help.
posted by Willie0248 at 1:08 PM on October 11, 2006

For Worst Southern Accent I've gotta go with Nicolas Cage in Con Air.

No. Benny Hill sounding like the unholy love child of Texas and Brooklyn was worse.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:13 PM on October 11, 2006

Not an actor, but if you can stomach listening to the 700 Club, Pat Robertson's accent is pretty typical of older dudes from tidewater VA. It's an oat of the hoase accent.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:16 PM on October 11, 2006

There are several Georgia accents, actually. I can usually tell someone from Augusta va. Atlanta vs. Savannah vs. Macon, etc.

There are variations within other states too. So I'd disagree with Mr. Gunn about not counting Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, etc... the appalachian accent is different, but it's not the only accent within those states.

I'll hush now.
posted by somanyamys at 1:16 PM on October 11, 2006

I didn't mean to imply that Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee all sounded the same, but rather that they shouldn't be lumped under the Southern category. From how I understand it, Appalachian has more to do with proximity to the mountains than anything else, but even coastal Carolina isn't a Southern accent, IMO.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 1:27 PM on October 11, 2006

Well then you're just plain ol' wrong, Mr. Gunn!

The Carolina accents (there are several distince ones in each state) are as genuinely Southern as you'll find anywhere.

Oh, and for an example of a movie where non-Southerners managed to do a not-so-bad job at a particular regional accent, check out last year's charming and excellent Junebug.
posted by trip and a half at 1:39 PM on October 11, 2006

er, distinct
posted by trip and a half at 1:40 PM on October 11, 2006

We'll just agree to disagree, OK?
posted by Mr. Gunn at 1:46 PM on October 11, 2006

posted by trip and a half at 1:47 PM on October 11, 2006

Response by poster: somanyamys & Mr. Gunn, your comments about what is and isn't southern are really interesting. As I am nowhere near an actual linguist, I have no idea what the scholars say... Categorization is most useful to me as a gauge of what each categorizer thinks, really, so the more variety the better, and opinions like yours tell me so much more :-) For the purposes of this question, I'd definitely enjoy hearing what anyone from Texas or those with Appalachian-ish accents have to say, along with everyone else.

Thanks, everyone!

Any thoughts on DeNiro in Cape Fear? Heard that was embarrassingly awful... I believe they were going for an Appalachian dialect, but who knows.

posted by ibeji at 1:50 PM on October 11, 2006

Mr. Gunn, what about the eastern parts of the Carolinas and VA? World o' difference between Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, and Richmond and Columbus, Columbia, Charlotte, and Roanoke, respectively.

And that's not even getting into Tidewater, VA or watermen on the eastern shore of MD.
posted by desuetude at 2:03 PM on October 11, 2006

Oh, and Georgia. I know that Savannah and Columbus are not in the Carolinas.
posted by desuetude at 2:05 PM on October 11, 2006

Keanu Reeves in The Devil's Advocate has the worst North Florida accent ever commited to film. The woman who plays his mother has one of the best.
posted by Optamystic at 2:10 PM on October 11, 2006

I was born and raised in Texas, which is or isn't part of the South, depending on who you ask. There's definitely a Texas accent, twangier than the stereotypical drawl, with sub-categories that mirror the geography. East Texas, which is largely indistinguishable from West Louisiana, has (to my ear) a more nasal, more "southern" accent than the West Texas version, which is broader and closer to a Plains/western sound. I grew up in Central Texas, and we pretty much split the difference.

I bet the guys who co-star with Patches the Horse live in East/Central Texas. (That video scares me. Should anything happen to my mother, God forbid, my father will be driving around with livestock in the car within about six weeks.)
posted by vetiver at 2:24 PM on October 11, 2006

As a 6th generation Texan, I can say that East Texas (where I'm from) used to have a pretty close connection to the south which I believe is a holdover from the heavy influx of southerners antebellum and former confederates after the Civil War. The mascot of my high school was the Rebels.

Given that, I think that Texas as a whole is reverting to a more Texocentric form of thinking where Texas is its own region. If anything, I think Texans are more likely to think of themselves as Western (in the cowboy sort of Western) rather than Southern.

As far as accents go, my wife is from the panhandle of Texas and we live in Central Texas. It's 300 miles to my parent's house and over 600 to her parent's house. None of those regions retains an accent I can distinguish from the other. Some of the dialect is different, but not pronunciation.

The biggest difference is country/city. I lost my country accent when I was in college and hanging out with a bunch of city folk. I can still turn the country back on, but it sounds fake to me when I do. It was really useful in picking up Australian girls in London, though.
posted by CRS at 2:37 PM on October 11, 2006

Yankee chile here, but of Southrun parents, and have spent a fair amount of time in Dixie. I tend to notice the stronger attempts at accents, because missteps tend to jump out at you more. Seems to me you can always count on natives Tommy Lee Jones (TX) and Holly Hunter (GA) to get things right.

Of the "carpetbagging" actors, I think Jodie Foster, James Cromwell and Jessica Lange have done solid accent work in the past, but one great example is Canadian Kate Nelligan's subtle Low Country (SC) drawl in Prince of Tides.
posted by rob511 at 2:45 PM on October 11, 2006

I'm from Nashville and I agree with the posters above who say that the largest difference is city/country. Most of the people around me growing up had a "city" Southern accent, which I would characterize as "smoother" than the "twangier" country accent, which some would call "hillbilly." This also has to do with class--poorer people tended to sound more "country." Also, East Tennessee has a more Appalachian accent, which is a sort of pronounced "country" accent with some archaisms thrown in.

The most beautiful Southern accent I've ever heard was that of my late step-grandfather, who was a Vanderbilt professor from Macon, Georgia.

The guy from Lost, Josh Holloway, sounds like he's from Georgia, and a quick visit to his page on Wikipedia confirms it. Some of the usages are a little strange or overblown, but that of course would have more to do with the writers.

I recently reluctantly watched Walk The Line, and Reese Witherspoon sounds like a slightly countrified version of herself--I grew up near her and me her briefly once. I can't tell you if Phoenix sounds Southern--I was too distracted by his over-the-top version of Johnny Cash's speech.
posted by lackutrol at 3:03 PM on October 11, 2006

I second Reese Witherspoon and Sweet Home Alabama. I've only seen clips, but her vocal work on that classic "You have a baby. In a bar." earn her my vote. I also recommend Freeway. Though it's set in California, I was struck throughout by her very authentic southeastern accent. This was earlier in her career, so I figure she'd had less opportunity to convert.

One thing you should remember though: all actors/announcers/etc. are paid to speak clearly, regardless of accent. Even football coaches and local broadcaster types who have very thick accents (and oh god I've heard a few in my day...) will ennunciate more clearly while on TV than they will around the dinner table with their families. A lot of them probably don't even realize they're doing it. And the southern dialect is, as far as I'm concerned, all about slurring as many syllables together as possible. So in that sense, all southern accents I hear in the media, both real and not, are a bit unconvincing.

Some, of course, are completely laughable: the mini-series North and South comes to mind. Perhaps some of the most convincing I've heard in recent years were in the David Gordon Green film All The Real Girls. You might also check out George Washington by the same director.

Curiously, Fred Thompson doesn't sound all that southern to me. I mean, he's definitely got an accent, but he doesn't sound like the people I know. I think it's just because his voice is so distinctive.

Finally, you might want to look at portrayals of George Wallace and then at video of the man himself. Wallace had as authentic an Alabama accent as any you're ever going to find. The differences between the performances and the reality might be instructive.
posted by Clay201 at 3:10 PM on October 11, 2006

For Worst Southern Accent I've gotta go with Nicolas Cage in Con Air.

No. Benny Hill sounding like the unholy love child of Texas and Brooklyn was worse.

I'd love to hear a Texan weigh in on Jennifer Jason Leigh's slightly cringe-inducing turn as an East Texan in the 1991 film Rush. I think she sounds awful, but maybe she's remarkably accurate and that accent just happens to grate on my Yankee ears.
posted by scratch at 3:47 PM on October 11, 2006

I grew up in North Georgia, North Florida, and rural Central Texas. I now live in Southern California and speak with generic Midwestern flatness.

Except when I'm drinking or I'm talking to family. Then I get a little louder and the southern accent comes back. And the hand gestures.

In movies and on TV, I always see Southern roles being overplayed. See Matthew McConaughey or the aforementioned Paula Dean as examples... from Texas and Georgia respectively, and both go too far an awful lot of the time. The smirking, winking drawl with pauses for appreciation of their accents kills me. Just because their accents are based in reality, doesn't mean they aren't cranking it to 12.

As for good examples... it's hard for me to notice when actors can actually rein themselves in enough to be genuine. And this is a good thing! On popular TV, I guess Emily Proctor from CSI Miami manages it. She's from Raleigh, North Carolina originally, and sounds it without annoying me too much.

I've been gone for almost 10 years and hearing refined North Georgia accents of my youth still does it for me... women, take note. That accent should be illegal to use on men. It's like a drug.
posted by empyrean at 3:50 PM on October 11, 2006

I have long despised Andie McDowell for her accent. I'm Southern (South Mississippi) and it still just absolutely grated on me. In the more recent L'Oreal commercials, however, she seems to have damped it down some. I'm convinced she's done some work with a speech coach.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:02 PM on October 11, 2006

Perhaps some of the most convincing I've heard in recent years were in the David Gordon Green film All The Real Girls. You might also check out George Washington by the same director.

I came here to say that. Paul Schneider, the lead in All the Real Girls has a great (natural) accent. Also, DGG's third movie Undertow is worth watching.

On preview: Matthew McConaughey overplays his accent quite a bit, but that reminded me of Frailty where he tones it down more than usual. Powers Boothe nails it in Frailty though.
posted by dogwalker at 4:23 PM on October 11, 2006

And, of course, treatises could be — and probably will be — written about the vocal "goodness" that is Mah Nime iz Urrl.
posted by rob511 at 4:26 PM on October 11, 2006

If you can find a recording of Eudora Welty (from Mississippi) reading her own stories, I think you'll find it's one of the loveliest Southern accents you'll ever hear. Jim Hightower's is typical of a really strong central Texas accent, much more so than some of the characters on King of the Hill. Those sound more south Texas to me (I'm from east Texas). John Goodman's accent in O Brother, Where Art Thou? was absolutely one of the weakest I've ever heard. You could feel him struggling with it.
posted by Lockjaw at 5:01 PM on October 11, 2006

I’ll second that the actors in My Name is Earl sound pretty authentically South Georgian. Jaime Pressly talks just like many of the girls who went to my high school.
posted by ijoshua at 5:04 PM on October 11, 2006

Jaime Pressly is actually from Kinston, North Carolina (I know a girl who went to high school with her), so I'm pretty sure the Southern accent is mostly natural.
posted by feathermeat at 5:32 PM on October 11, 2006

I'm from Texas, but I don't have much of an accent. It gets stronger when I hang out with my grandparents, though, who are from Eastern Kentucky and sound like it. For what it's worth, though, the Texan guy(George Eads aka Nick Stokes) on CSI has a natural Texan accent that sounds about right to me. He pretty much opened his mouth and I said "He is so from Ft. Worth".
posted by MadamM at 8:03 PM on October 11, 2006

My least favorite misguided overdone attempt at Southern was in Forrest Gump when Jenny's friend in Savannah dropped her son off at her apartment when Forrest was visiting her there the first time. Ugggghh. She actually said "How dj'dew" and bobbed a bit of a curtsy. Then she said "Gotta go. I'm double pahhked." Blaagh! Had to wash my own mouth out after that one. It was like she watched Gone With The Wind and thought people still spoke that way. Little Forrest did a good job, though. "Mah laigs r' jist fahn n' daindy. But mah back's crookid laak a qweshtun maurk." And Bubba was excellent. "Mah given name is Benjamin Buford Blue. People cawl me Bubba, jus lak wunna them ol' redneck boahs - can you belee' dat?"

I thought the townies in Slingblade were fantastic. Turns out they were actual townies, so I guess that explains it. Billy Bob Thornton's boss was super authentic. "You couldna been more right about him fixin' thangs. That sumbitch is a reg'lar Eli Whitney on a lawnmower. Loooves freench frahs. Eats four larges and don't even so much as belch."
posted by kookoobirdz at 8:42 PM on October 11, 2006

Rowena, the whore in Biloxi Blues, is super genuine. The cigarette-ravaged larynx only adds to the rich flavor. The actress is from Tennessee and sounds like she could be from there or any of a few surrounding states. Could've been plucked from any truckstop diner in the region.
posted by kookoobirdz at 8:56 PM on October 11, 2006

Billy Bob Thornton's movie is mentioned above, but he's hugely Southern himself and his accent isn't toned away, most of the time. Sometimes it's exaggerated but usually it's just him. Tommy Lee Jones is Texan, too. See Sissy Spacek and him in Coalminer's Daughter.
posted by cgc373 at 9:26 PM on October 11, 2006

My own accent is pretty out there. My parents are Cajun and I was raised in Dallas - so pretty much, I sound like shit. I've noticed that when I'm around my grandmother, I sound more Texan.... but when I'm around friends here in Texas, I sound more Southern. When I was in high school, I watched a movie and learned how to speak with a British accent to combat my twang. So right now, with the exception of certain words ("paaaahrk" with a soft "r", "aaaahce" instead of "ice"), you can't really tell where I'm from. People have pegged me being from New England, California - even Canada. But when I'm tipsy, congested, or exhausted, this absurd smash of Paula Dean-Movie Loretta Lynn-Wooderson comes out. It's atrocious.

I recently discovered The Closer on TNT and Kyra Sedgewick does a great Southern accent. I can't nail down her dialect - if I had to guess, I'd say from Georgia or Alabama, maybe? And Matt McConaughey does a great "I know the ladies love my Texan accent so I'm milking it for everything it's worth" accent.

But I'll totally admit it - it works on me.
posted by damnjezebel at 12:26 AM on October 12, 2006

I was born and raised in Georgia.

I have to agree that the cast of 'My Name Is Earl' really gets it right.

Jessica Simpson in "the Dukes of Hazzard" wins my award for worst southern accent. She was born in Texas, but it seems like the same thing happened to her as Julia Roberts. She must have been coached out of her accent and then borrowed one from "Gone With the Wind" for her Daisy Duke role.

However, if you want to get a good idea of how real southern accents sound check out any congressperson from the south on CSPAN.
posted by Alison at 5:39 AM on October 12, 2006

I have only one very important thing to add. If you see some sumbitch on TV or in a movie referring to a single person as "y'all" ("Why Clemintine, y'all are just the cutest little thing I ever did see in all my live long days, bless your heart"), you should immediately turn off that TV or leave that movie, and then go shoot as many people involved in its production as you can get to before you yourself are killed or imprisoned. "Y'all" is a contraction. It is a combination of two words. "You" and "all". Put them together and they make "y'all". Why would you call a single person "you all"? You wouldn't. Neither would we. "Y'all" is used to refer to more than one person. If you hear it used to refer to a single person, you know that you are listening to a pathetic faker.
posted by ND¢ at 1:15 PM on October 12, 2006

I second Billy Bob Thornton, who grew up in Arkansas, as a good example of the sort of accent I often encountered growing up there. Johny Cash is also from Arkansas, though his voice is so distinctive that it defies easy stereotyping. Arkansas accents, like any others, vary by region of the state as well as by class and the aforementioned urban/rural distinction (not to mention normal individual variation).

To me, having grown up in Texas and Arkansas, and now living in South Carolina, most Hollywood movies, when they go for a "southern" accent, assume everyone in the south sounds like a character from Gone with the Wind. Unless the character is supposed to be white trash, in which case they go with something really nasal and twangy, like the rednecks in Deliverance.
posted by wheat at 7:53 AM on October 17, 2006

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