Class, accent, variety: north vs south

Posted by on December 06, 2011

Discussion of class and English continues for one final week. In this guest post, journalist, author and blogger Robert Lane Greene looks at class and language, specifically pronunciation, in American English.

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In my last post I wrote about the messy variety that characterizes American English, saying it was far too often treated as a single mass when viewed from Britain. In fact, America has great regional variety.

But one thing it does not have, in contrast to Britain, is a strong tradition of class-marked accents. Shaw, who gave us the braying phonetic snob Henry Higgins, wrote in a preface to Pygmalion that “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” English accents have both geographic and class divides; America has many of the former but fewer of the latter. Across broad swathes of the country – most of the midwest and west – it’s hard to know at a quick listen whether someone comes from a well-heeled background or a poorer one.

But class does appear in the oldest European-settled parts of the country. Ben Trawick-Smith wrote here that in places like New York and Boston, “r-less” accents persist, and mark a working-class origin. These accents are at least well-known; outsiders can usually fake a broad Boston accent – badly, perhaps, but they get the right idea when they try “Pahk the cah at Hahvahd Yahd”.

When non-southerners try to do a southern American accent, though, the result is usually a total hash. I noted this in the HBO vampire show True Blood: about half the “southern” characters, ostensibly from Louisiana, throw in features only found in Inland Southern accents, in places like Kentucky and Tennessee. (The actor who plays Jason Stackhouse, Ryan Kwanten, an Australian, is the worst offender.)

But the other thing outsiders often don’t get is that there is still a clear class-distinction in the south.  Upper-class r-dropping still exists vestigially among those unafraid to flaunt such an accent. Watch this (fictional) pair, the redneck deputy Roscoe Coltrane and the white-suited local political honcho Boss Hogg, in The Dukes of Hazzard, set in Georgia. Boss Hogg isn’t true southern aristocracy, but his white suit and his speech show that he likes to think of himself that way. (The actor, though, is from New York State.) Meanwhile, deputy Coltrane’s dim wit is meant to be clear through his R-ful (sorry) English.

I’ve always loved the well-heeled southern tones; for real-world examples, check out William Faulkner, Eudora Welty or Shelby Foote. The sad thing is that they’re getting rarer; the fact that I reached for three dead exemplars here says a lot. (I wish I had a recording of my Aunt Sue for you.) I wonder if there isn’t a political component to this: the anti-“elite” political climate of the South since the 1960s may have made many reject the planter-elite tones in favor of a demotic general southern, much more R-ful, as well as distinct in its vowels.

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