Accents, Vernaculars, & Slang

I have some Strong Feelings about accents. And no, I’m not referring to a fetish for Italian accents (actually, accent fetishes are a pretty big pet peeve of mine).

I just discovered that, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Southern American English gets an acronym too (SAE)! Unfortunately, it’s the same acronym as Standard American English, which causes some problematic confusion, but it can be forgiven.

I’ve also been reading a bit on the linguistic overlap between African American Vernacular English and Southern American English, which makes sense for a couple of reasons:

1) The Southern United States is historically the area most reliant on slavery, and therefore had a much higher population of enslaved black individuals than other areas of the country. Historians are now discovering that other historical local cultures were far more diverse than we had previously assumed– cowboy culture, for example: there was a significant population of black cowboys who had escaped slavery and traveled west. Nonetheless, even after slavery was ended, various unjust laws meant that a large portion of the black population remained in the South. So obviously, there’s been linguistic overlap between black and white Southerners.

2) Both of these vernaculars are looked down on, if not outrightly ridiculed, in a similar way within the United States. Other accents certainly encounter tensions and problems as well– a woman with a Spanish accent is often suddenly transformed (at least in the listener’s mind) into a voluptuous, sexual, hot-tempered stereotype, and Asian accents are most ridiculed for being the most humorous and/or difficult to understand. But at least in my experience, Southern and Black vernaculars are the most clearly associated with being uneducated and unintelligent.

A fair bit of cultural attention has been given to the topic of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), from the 90’s controversies over teaching “ebonics” in school systems to questioning President Obama’s adoption of a “blackcent.” I remember watching a funny-ish (at least at the time) special on VH1 back in high school about the drastic difference between Tyra Banks’ accent and voice depending upon whether she was interviewing a black or a white individual.* I was talking to a friend recently who went back to visit her family’s farm in Alabama after her father’s death. She said that she and her daughter spent the entire time being harassed by the extended family for being impossible to understand. “I kept telling them, ‘we’re just speaking correctly, we’re just trying to speak well,’ but they wouldn’t stop.” A friend of mine from New Orleans told me about a professor friend at LSU, who has one vernacular– accentless, and with correct grammar –when he gives a lecture, and a completely different voice the rest of the time. I met a woman in Washington D.C. who rolled her eyes when telling me about all the savvy DC residents who assumed that she was uneducated and/or unintelligent because she was from the Carolinas.

Think about how you are likely to imitate someone who says something stupid. Almost all of the time, the imitator adopts some version of a southern accent– even if the original speaker has no ties whatsoever to the American South. Even I do this, exaggerating my own accent, and I always feel gross immediately afterwards. It’s clearly an accent associated with redneck and hillbilly stereotypes, but the accent-intelligence assumption extends even to the privileged. A southern belle, for example, is often white and rich and worthy of playing the babe in a few Hollywood movies– but she is not often portrayed as the most intelligent creature.

So I’ve picked up a bit of a drawl after having been back with my family for the summer. I didn’t notice it until I came back to school, where a handful of gracious people have taken care to point it out. Or to be more precise, have made fun of it. For a girl with Something To Say, it is very frustrating to have your statement ignored while your diction becomes the subject.

Many white people don’t realize that accents are heirarchical. I want to amend that statement, though, by saying that many Northern white people don’t realize this. Or perhaps, Northern educated white people. It seems like an increasingly small group, but it’s the group that dominates the majority of U.S. politics, economics, educational system, and mainstream media. And they don’t recognize the accent hierarchy because they’re on the privileged end of the diction spectrum.

My point is bringing this up is that, when people pay attention to the way you say something, they ignore what you are saying. I go to a fairly prestigious school; I feel like there should be a general assumption that any student or professor here is intelligent. It turns out, though, that a lot of rich white kids are dumb as hell.

Here’s a few things I like on this topic:

*I noticed also that when I googled “ebonics” (to try to find the link about the Oakland controversy), that of the 92 user-submitted definitions on urbandictionary.com, the one that shows up in the google results is “a poor excuse for a failure to grasp the basics of english.” If I were a kinder soul, I wouldn’t mention that this definition is actually grammatically incorrect (which I think undermines the already somewhat racist sentiment).

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5 Responses to “Accents, Vernaculars, & Slang”


  1. 1 Ann September 3, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Fascinant.

    I’m studying the politics of translation right now (prior to and during the French Revolution, so a very different cultural matrix), and learning about how the educated nobility hated the accents and dialects of the Third Estate.

    They called them “patois” from the word for an animal’s paw, “patte”, meaning these “uneducated languages” (actually remnants of much older Indo-European ones) resembled the noises of animals rather than the speech of people.

  2. 2 Randal Moreland May 31, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    If only I had a dollar for each time I came to colewardell.wordpress.com! Great writing!


  1. 1 Act III: Heading West. « The Orchard Trackback on May 26, 2010 at 6:53 pm
  2. 2 Act III: The Departure « The Orchard Trackback on May 27, 2010 at 2:43 pm
  3. 3 Reflecting on accents (even if you would rather not). « Tales of a Sojourner Trackback on July 31, 2010 at 5:10 pm

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