Note: This was supposed to a post about how in love I am with Karl Urban’s portrayal of Bones in the new Star Trek movies, but then I went off on a tangent about Southern accents and Southern culture. Maybe y’all will find that interesting.
Despite being a native Metro Atlantan, my ear isn’t fine tuned enough to tell you how genuine-sounding Karl Urban’s affected Southern accent is when he plays Bones. However, I do appreciate how muted it is and that it only truly comes out on the vowels. That’s a marker of an “educated” Southern accent.
Atlanta and the greater metro area are filled with so many transplants that there is no one distinguishable “Atlanta” accent. You’re more likely to hear New York, Pittsburgh, and Detroit accents here among the English-speaking population. On top of that there is the fact that well-educated Southerners are both explicitly and implicitly taught from an early age to excise as much of our accent as possible, because a pronounced Southern accent is regarded as ignorant-sounding, even among Southerners.
I generally speak with a neutral accent, unless I’m exhausted or drunk or around my family. Even within my family the Southern accents vary. My grandmother is from the “hills” and speaks with in a mountain dialect. My father is from Texas and despite living in Georgia for 30+ years, still has a pronounced Texas accent on certain words. My mother’s accent is generally neutral like mine because hers was the first generation to be explicitly taught to not speak “that way”. She had her Southern accent literally beaten out of her by teachers. I’m thankful all I got was yelled at for saying “y’all” in elementary school.
I often joke that if an actor wants to affect a genuine Atlanta accent they should study a Michigan accent. It’s not that far from the truth. And an interesting thing I discovered recently is that an inner city Atlanta accent and an inner city Detroit accent are identical because of a long history of worker migration between the two places.
My own accent is so muted that I’m usually mistaken for being from out of town. It wasn’t until I started traveling regularly and had people comment, that I realized I even had a Southern accent beyond my obstinate use of the word “y’all.” I’m perpetually bemused when people in other cities comment that my Southern accent is “pleasing” and “charming”. My knee-jerk response is still to apologize for sounding ignorant, and it’s a habit I’m working to break.
The perception of Southern accents as ignorant is tied to the most painful and infuriating parts of Southern culture. Because there is so much ignorance entrenched in the dominant culture here, everything all the way down to how we talk is perceived as ignorant. I can’t exactly say that’s an unjust accusation.
Oppression, racism, and sexism are intrinsic to the dominant Southern culture. However, like all things, the South is not a monolith and there are so many of us on the fringes of that dominate culture who are digging our heels in and fighting. There are so many voices here screaming and shouting until we are accepted into the narrative of what it means to be Southern.