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Why Does a Southern Drawl Sound Uneducated to Some?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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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. Stereotypes based on accent are deep rooted and they have profound consequences. Accents influence who we select as friends, who we respect with authority and leadership, where we prefer to live, employment, and to the very real extent our personal aspirations in life as a consequence of self-perception directing ambition in education and other endeavors. Strange, isn’t it? From a biological point of view there is no “correct” or “incorrect” accent.

Adele - Live in 2009

Adele - live in 2009

This is not just a smoldering relic from the Civil War; accent-based bias is universal. Even on a tiny island country like the United Kingdom, accents abound and they pigeonhole individuals into strict social strata that have persisted for centuries. I wondered about this when I was swept away by Adele’s supreme singing voice but had the bliss shattered rudely when she addressed the audience in her “lowly” Cockney accent. She articulates lyrics beautifully with a perfect American accent, but it was if a different person had sprung out when she started to talk the way everyone does in Tottenham England. I wonder; would Adele have attracted notice outside the walls of a Tottenham pub if that same sterling singing voice resonated with a Cockney accent?

Numerous studies show that we instantly attach cultural stereotypes and subjective judgments about people’s knowledge and abilities from hearing their accent in speech. A 2011 study by Rakic and others found that in categorizing people, a person’s accent carried more weight than even visual cues to ethnicity. Americans can be taken back when hearing a black person speak with a proper British accent, for example, or be just as perplexed when they discover that a rapper singing with a “black” accent is Caucasian.

Interestingly, attributes of character that are attached to different accents are widely shared among the population. In surveys ranking where in the country people speak “correctly” or “incorrectly,” the Southern states always get the lowest marks. Italian is judged as sounding beautiful while German sounds ugly. You might presume, viewing human speech like naturalists studying songbird dialects, that people would simply prefer the accent of speech spoken where they grew up, but it’s not that simple. Adults from Mississippi rate their own region as relatively low in linguistic “correctness.” How can that be?

Katherine Kinzler and Jasmine DeJesus in the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago have just published a study of children’s attitudes toward accents that provides some surprising answers. Children 5-6 years of age from Chicago and a small town in Tennessee were shown pictures of people accompanied by a brief 3 second audio clip of speech in either a Northern or Southern accent. When asked if they would want to be friends with the person, the Northerners overwhelmingly selected the Northern-accented speakers as friends. Interestingly, the kids from Tennessee had no preference based on accent.

What do you think happened when the young children were asked who was “nicer,” “smarter,” or “in charge?” The children from Chicago attached these positive attributes to the Northern speakers, but the children from Tennessee were indifferent to how these attributes were associated with people speaking with either accent.

This last result, as I mentioned above, deviates from how Southern adults associate positive attributes to people speaking with a Northern rather than a Southern accent. So the researchers then gave the same test to 10-year-old children. The results after children had aged 4-5 years were quite different. Ten-year-old children from both Chicago and Tennessee thought the Northern-accented individuals were “smarter” and “in charge,” and that the Southern-accented individuals were “nicer.”

Clearly, children must learn these attitudes from us; that is parents and other adults. This develops in part by the attitudes we subtly convey to our children and by how we adults organize our society and culture. This is where human nature takes a nasty departure from the way songbirds use dialect. Our attitudes toward accents are strongly influenced by what we hear in infancy and childhood, but learning and acculturation are imposed on us by subtle indoctrination and experience.

Here’s the telling experimental result: When children of either age were asked whether the speaker was “American” or “lives around here,” children from Chicago selected Northern rather than Southern speakers as being locals or Americans. The kids from Tennessee did not show any such preference at either age. The authors suggest that Southerners do not categorize speakers of either accent as being alien, because they hear Northern accents at a young age from National news anchors, film and television characters. The kids in Chicago don’t have the same opportunity to hear a Southern accent. As they grow up, attend school, and develop social awareness, Southern children begin to associate the Northern accent with people being “in charge and smarter,” because these prestigious “celebrities” of high social status and respect speak with a Northern accent. This nurtures a self-perpetuating stereotype which takes root by at least the age of nine.

Preference for the sound of local language is established at birth according to what the fetus hears as its auditory nervous system is developing, but stereotypes based on accents, whether a regional English accent or a foreign accent, are learned in childhood. The subtle attitudes we attach to accents have a profound impact on others, and on ourselves.

Thanks Adele for the music and the insight!

References:

Kinzler, K.D., and DeJames, J.M. (2012) Northern = smart and Southern = nice: The development of accent attitudes in the United States. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology in advance of print on-line.

R. Douglas Fields About the Author: An internationally recognized authority on neuron-glia interactions, brain development, and the cellular mechanisms of memory, Douglas Fields serves on the editorial board of several neuroscience journals and is the author of over 150 articles and the book The Other Brain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 48 Comments

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 3:00 pm 12/7/2012

    “Clearly, children must learn these attitudes from us” perhaps, but how many times have I watched the news or a documentary and heard someone with a southern accent speak irrationally, fanatically, incorrectly or with bigotry? Compare that to the number of times I have heard someone with a southern accent speak scientifically, rationally or from a globally inclusive perspective. The brain looks for patterns in order to make predictions. It becomes alerted when the predictions are proven incorrect. So if I hear dozens people with southern accents claiming that Darwin is histories greatest monster I am going to be pleasantly surprised when I hear a southerner speak articulately about the age of the universe. In short, the reason people with southern accents are perceived to be dimwitted is because the media is full of dimwitted southerners – some real, some fictional. The problem is, in TV and film you have a very short time to tell the audience about your characters. If I want to present them with a dimwitted person, I am going to give that person a southern accent because of the prevailing prejudice. But my story now feeds the stereotype of the dimwitted southerner. It is a feedback loop. That is the nature of prejudice.

    I guess their are two solutions to this problem; first people need to think beyond their personal prejudices and, to paraphrase a great man, to judge a person by the quality of their character and not the color of their accent. The second solution is that southern people should try not to be so dimwitted.

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  2. 2. Scienceproofreader 3:57 pm 12/7/2012

    No mystery.

    Education levels are higher in the northern USA (and especially in Canada). Southerners are more inclined to worship the dead-guy-on-a-stick, believe in Creationism, promote xenophobic attitudes to the outside world. This in itself is part of the issue but what is more disturbing is that many southerners revel in their ignorance.

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  3. 3. DrHopeful 4:17 pm 12/7/2012

    In my experience most people do not hear their own accent and think it is perfectly “standard.” In Eastern Connecticut, for example, my students are oblivious of their glottal stops, dropped r’s, and regionally influenced vowels. In a class I once played a tape of a variety of regional accents and asked them to decide which was “correct.” Most of them chose a teacher from Brooklyn. The class was unhappy when I said that all the regional accents were “correct.” As a native New Yorker living in New England for forty years, I unsuccessfully tried to keep my original accent. I thoroughly enjoy both the many Southern variations as well as New Yawk lingo, which, alas, seems to be passing from the scene.

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  4. 4. nicholsjoshua35 6:23 pm 12/7/2012

    Most of the comments on this page are indeed another display of arrogance and ignorance. Just because someone believes in god doesn’t mean they are not intelligent. The article is wrong about one thing, judging Southerners by their accent is a hold over from the American Civil War. I live in a town with a large port and I worked at a restaurant near the port. I met many people from around the world and they seem to think nothing of my accent. Only people from up North judged me by my accent. It’s just like the way that most people think all Germans are Nazis, all Russians are Communist, and all French people are cowards. I as a Southerner know that we will over come these fascist stereotypes and will always succeed through hard work and intelligence.

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  5. 5. DOUETTA 6:48 pm 12/7/2012

    I think a certain accent, dialect, coloquialism etc. may be an easier, slower, more “casual spin” on a given language/idiom than another accent. A clipped, crisp accent in which each vowel and consonant are clearly pronounced may appear to take more “effort,” which may translate, subconsciously or not, into more “education.”

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  6. 6. DOUETTA 6:49 pm 12/7/2012

    colloquialism

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  7. 7. GreenMind 9:40 pm 12/7/2012

    There is research that shows that speaking faster is associated with intelligence, but not with being nicer. I think that speaking fast a major difference between Northern accents and Southern accents. They don’t call it a “Southern Drawl” for nothing. You can’t really drawl very fast.

    In addition, some Southern accents sound slurred to me, as if the speaker is drunk. Sometimes I can’t make out what the person is saying at all. To me that sounds less intelligent, even if what they are saying is actually pretty smart.

    Other Southern accents sound very nice and comforting to me, just as the author says.

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  8. 8. In-Tokyo 1:24 am 12/8/2012

    It’s not the accent that sounds uneducated to me. It was the people in the South.

    Maybe they just couldn’t understand me but when I worked in High School /college in market research and called all over the country about such things as laundry detergent, lip stick, health care, pickles and whatever, the calls to the South were more difficult.

    Ok I did speak as fast as the people could understand because their time was limited, I had a quota to meet and there were requirements about what had to be said, but it was noticeable in my 5 years doing it that while people in the South had a nice sounding way of speaking — I really like — it seemed at least the people I was talking to had more difficulty understanding the questions. Not only that but I had more difficulty clarifying the ambiguous portions. {ex them “I liked the smell” , me “what about the smell did you like?” — them “it was nice” me – “when you say nice, in what way do mean nice or what about it was nice”}

    So yeah for whatever reason I associated their inability to understand me as a reflection on their intelligence (sorry) while maybe I should just have chalked it up to their unfamiliarity with my (relatively accent free) midwestern English.

    In some way I think they used the sounds of their language to express their opinion and would say something in a certain way to indicate approval/disapproval. However, I needed it said in a way that I could type in. Just saying “nice” in a way that conveys a degree of emotion was not enough and when I asked for clarification it was like “what? didn’t you hear what I just said”?

    Sorry Southerners it was more difficult talking to you. People in the East were rude and rushed and so yeah actually the fact they gave me the time and struggled along with me to get the information I needed makes them seem nice too. I don’t have any hard data on refusal rates though that was some time ago.

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  9. 9. jd123 2:13 am 12/8/2012

    Interesting article. As a speech-language pathologist, I regularly deal with standardized tests that assume a particular articulation or grammar pattern as “correct”. I had to unlearn the accent prejudice, but it still pops up in my brain at times, even though I’m in a profession that acknowledges no accent as correct.

    In response to the person who did telephone sales, I live in the south, and have learned that southerners like to take their time in speaking, especially if there is a story to tell. The person who commented on how difficult southerners had a time with his speech? May I suggest that he was younger, and his listeners might have been older? That can also make it difficult to process auditory sounds. Combine that with an unfamiliar accent and a salesman’s impatience – well, I know I have had to ask people on the phone to repeat or slow down and I have a fairly standard American accent. I’ve noticed that younger people tend to talk fast, especially from the North. My family is divided between southern states and northern. My youngest brother in Boston speaks so fast that the rest of the family has to ask him to slow down so that they can understand him.

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  10. 10. In-Tokyo 2:30 am 12/8/2012

    @jd123 Yeah you are probably right. We’d call the eastern numbers first so of course New Yorkers give you a nano-second and probably the same strategy of going fast didn’t work as well for the Southerners.

    Still, we talked to people of all ages all over the country, so I don’t think that is it.

    Hey, I never said anything about sales. Why do you think it was sales? Market research is not sales. But yeah impatient I sure was so maybe you got me there.

    The bottom line was I thought everyone who gave me their time was great and really came to like Southerners even if it was a headache to get the interview finished.

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  11. 11. jtdwyer 6:00 am 12/8/2012

    I agree with nicholsjoshua35 about the disdain by which many Northerners receive Sourtheners, as evidenced by some of the arrogant comments above.

    I was born in Texas in 1950, and grew up in that neck of the woods until moving to KC in 1965. Since then I’ve been around the world, but have lived in the South for the past 30 years (working for a very large, multinational company headquartered here).

    One unusual experience I had as a child was, for several years in the late 1950s, I lived in a region of North Central Texas where the topology would not allow the distant transmission of TV signals. As a result, we subscribed to a cable-TV service back then that provided access to local Dallas stations as well the 3 network’s primary stations out of New York, Chicago and Atlanta. So during my formative years I was watching the same local TV programming and commercials as New Yorkers. While I certainly agree with DrHopeful that speakers don’t recognize that they speak with an accent, I don’t think I was nearly as affected with the the local accent as were children growing up without cable TV. While this experience was very rare in the late 1950s, it is of course the norm today.

    I certainly agree with the researchers that, nowadays, “… Southerners do not categorize speakers of either accent as being alien, because they hear Northern accents at a young age from National news anchors, film and television characters.” I also think that local accents will be further diluted in the future as a result of common exposure to worldwide media.

    The Southern colloquialisms, such as ‘pole-lease’ riding ‘motor-cicles’ are not heard nearly as frequently as in the past, but many of those from the Northeast still ‘drawr’ from their own bias when judging those who speak with a bit of Southern drawl. I can tell In-Tokyo, for example, that even a dumb Southerner can quickly tell when a fast-talking Yankee (especially those in sales or marketing who are required to communicate well in order to make a living) becomes frustrated with having to repeat themselves and adjust their speech patterns, and when they are being looked at down a Northern nose… In contrast, most Japanese will listen attentively to any speaker and will always seem to politely understand – Hai!

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  12. 12. RSchmidt 11:17 am 12/8/2012

    @nicholsjoshua35, “Just because someone believes in god doesn’t mean they are not intelligent”, you’re right because it takes a great deal of intelligence to believe in the literal truth of a bronze age myth that some cosmic Jewish zombie can make you live forever in the afterlife if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil source from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

    I agree that it is bigotry to judge all southerners because of the ignorance of the majority. I am sure there are true southern, born and bred, atheists. And I am sure they have no ability change the minds of their intellectually impoverished neighbors. But while it is prejudice to judge a person ignorant and irrational for being southern, I think it is accurate to judge them as such for adhering to the southern, “guns and god” mentality.

    I would actually love to hear more scientists with a southern accents in the media. They would be true role models for a new generation. Let’s not forget, that while we may judge southerners as backward for their primitive beliefs, southern children hear the voices of their community preaching hell and damnation and think that’s the way it should be. If they could hear that a southern accent can also be the voice of reason then they have another path to follow.

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  13. 13. Scienceproofreader 11:51 am 12/8/2012

    nicholas “Just because someone believes in god doesn’t mean they are not intelligent”.

    The more educated a people (Swedes, Danes,Israelis, Canadians, Germans, etc.) the less likely they are to believe in mythological beings.

    Less intelligent people take poor care of themselves,and thus the high rates of obesity in the south. They also look for simplistic answers (god) to the larger questions and simplistic answers to social issues (let’s execute all them dang murderers).

    There’s tens of millions of relatively intelligent southerners but the genetic gene pool perpetuates a less than stellar intellectual climate.

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  14. 14. cjoyce 12:12 pm 12/8/2012

    Being fifth generation Floridian I find the article and many of the posts entertaining. One thing to remember is that there are seven distinct regional dialects in the US. A southerner can pretty much tell you fair accuracy where in the south a speaker grew up (there are at least two of those dialects in the “south.”

    Myself, I have often found the presumption of ignorance connected to the southern drawl an advantage. Quite often by the time the listener realizes their mistake you have the advantage in the exchange, or at least a good laugh.

    The comment re nuance is very much true. I can use the same verbiage and express several distinctly different meanings by changing pauses, pronunciation, and emphasis. This does tend to make for humorous conversations. I tend to naturally vary the amount of “accent” from one situation to another and have often used this as a tool, both in the interpretation of southern culture business/civil discourse.

    Any way, ya’ll be good and stay safe.

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  15. 15. RSchmidt 12:25 pm 12/8/2012

    “Myself, I have often found the presumption of ignorance connected to the southern drawl an advantage. Quite often by the time the listener realizes their mistake you have the advantage in the exchange, or at least a good laugh.” had a similar experience when I was much younger as I looked very much like the dumb blond jock. I would get into an argument with someone and see the classic eye-role indicating, oh no I have to explain this to a child. The common closer I heard was, “you got some interesting ideas” or in other words, “that wasn’t as easy as I thought.” It is good to be underestimated by your opponents and a compliment to be overestimated by your friends.

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  16. 16. R. Douglas Fields 12:55 pm 12/8/2012

    I would like to thank the readers for such thoughtful comments. As a developmental neurobiologist, I found this study interesting because it reveals how subtly but profoundly human beings are molded by the environment in which we are raised. Childhood is the start of an intense and prolonged personal struggle to fit in. When I was the age of the young children in this study my vocabulary included the words “worsh,” “chimbley,” and “acrost.” I regarded people who said “wash,” “chimney,” and “across,” as Eastern snobs, but that, I guess, was before I became one. Joining a new group means leaving another behind, which is the poignant message I take from Adele, who speaks with a cockney accent but sings without one. By age nine, as the researchers show in their study, my mispronunciations were expunged.

    In reply to RSchmit, the authors of the study also raised your point about negative stereotypes reinforcing accent-based bias, but the many “Southern Man” squabbles in the comments echoing the Neil Young vs. Leonard Skynyrd antagonism suggest deep roots that do extend back to the Civil War. I wonder in trying to apply training of scientific detachment in observation, is it issues that divide us or divisions that create issues? Seeing the human condition it is obvious how deeply tribalism is coded in our DNA. This biology has served us well through eons of struggle for survival in the wilds of nature, but looking ahead one wonders if this may be the hard-wired “dinosaur” trait of our species that could be the nucleus of our destruction.

    We now live in an environment that is largely self-created, and that environment may change faster than our ancient neurobiological underpinnings can support. We live at a time when territory is mapped out in blue and red on the map of the United States. When an “us vs. them,” dichotomy seems to permeate all social and political issues, igniting strife, dead-locking progress in impasse and fueling war, but again, which came first?–the issues or the divisions. We see that over time boundaries between groups change, just as accents blend over time and territory, and with the remodeling strife subsides, but then redirects toward a different group. The chance publication of my article on December 7, “a date that will live in infamy,” reminds me of how we now enjoy strong alliances and friendship with the same people that we once incinerated by the thousands. That was our first application of our new scientific insight into atomic energy. But there is no doubt that “they” would have done the same to “us” in a heartbeat if they had developed the atomic bomb first. We seem trapped in a vicious cycle; an Escher-like endless loop: a drawing of a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand drawing, or ensnared in a staircases that seem to progress upwards but always cycles back to where we began. The struggle for social kinship acts at the level of the individual. Yesterday a nurse in England, Jacintha Saldanha, committed suicide out of shame, leaving her two children orphaned. Victimized by a practical joke that left her an embarrassment to the group to which she aspired to belong, she took her own life. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/nurse-who-took-prank-call-about-royal-kate-is-found-dead-in-suspected-suicide/2012/12/07/529e94d4-40a9-11e2-a2d9-822f58ac9fd5_story.html?wprss=rss_world

    The rich diversity of accents are a marvel of neurobiology and it is remarkable that they sustain in this time of global communication, but accents persist because each of us speaks the way our mothers did, until in a quest for inclusion we remodel ourselves for acceptance into a new kin-group. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just once hear Adele sing a song the way her mother would have sung it to her when she was a child?

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  17. 17. RSchmidt 1:45 pm 12/8/2012

    @Dr.Fields, you are touching on the concept of “community of equals” which is a very interesting discussion. The idea that only those in your “community” deserve to be considered equal and therefore extended the same rights as yourself seems to be at the heart of society. We base our laws on it. We decide how we interact with other nations on it. We build our communities on it. The gated communities in many parts of the US clearly represent that concept. Fortunately, for most of the civilized world, each person’s community of equals has grown. What would have once been only one’s troop, tribe or clan has now grown to include all humans and in some cases all members of the family of great apes and beyond. This is a luxury granted to us by the fact that each individual really has little to fear from other humans. We are safer than we have ever been from each other. But the community of equals is not black and white. It is layered. I learned this first hand when I was in Egypt during the bombing of Tripoli. The Egyptians I spoke with were very angry with the US. I asked if they thought Gaddafi deserved their support and then stated that while they did not agree with Gaddafi, the people of Libya are their brothers and the US was clearly an outside force attacking their brothers. It brings back the phrase, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. People have said that what would unite the world would be an extraterrestrial attack with much the same logic. The West may not get along with the Islamic states but at least we are all Terrans.

    So the issue of how to address this is complex. Do we work with or against human nature? Do we tell people to stop being tribal or do we use the media to present all humanity in a way that makes us feel that we are all part of the same tribe? I think we have had a great deal of success with the later. But, as long as a cultural group is depicted as being a threat then the general population will have a hard time accepting that group as equals. Frequent depiction of Arabs calling for the death of westerners over trivial offenses will keep those people out of the community of equals of many westerners. The same goes for the frequent depiction of southerners trying to force their religion on others keeps them outside the community of intellectual equals of the secular west. People need to see our common humanity and I guess the best way to show others OUR humanity is to demonstrate to them that we hold them no malice. I guess you say things like, we aren’t fighting a war against Islam only a war against terror. But that becomes hard to believe when you are killing lots of innocent Muslims.

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  18. 18. Dr. Horrible 1:52 pm 12/8/2012

    I actually read the article and find it fascinating. I believe that the study should probably be done with children of other nationalities, because the American media is quite anti-southern. I have long noticed a trend in movies where the bad-guy will often have either a Southern or British accent. This is not only bigotry and ignorance, it shows in all of the above comments as well.
    There is a very good reason why “Yankees” do not understand Southerners: it is because our language has developed in such a way as to completely exclude outsiders from understanding. The comments above show how very little of Southern culture these people understand. You’d probably think that if someone said “Bless your Heart” it would be kind and a show of affection. In reality, this phrase is commonly used in the South as a euphemism for “What an Idiot.”
    The bigotry of the North, as well as the complete lack of courtesy towards people of other cultures, even within their own nation, is the reason why you would still believe in the complete stupidity of Southerners. I hope you realize that, although we do not have your fancy “Ivy League” schools, we are still well-educated.
    I have lived in more places than most “northerners” have seen. I have visited the Grand Canyon four times, been to every state across the Mississippi, excluding Alaska, and have met more people of different cultures than most Americans do in a lifetime. I understand that many people in the West both admire and dislike the South, but at least they don’t assume we are stupid, like every Northerner I have ever met.
    Although you may think that we are all “rednecks”, we see you all as bigots and racists.

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  19. 19. Dwang 2:10 pm 12/8/2012

    “Clearly, children must learn these attitudes from us; that is parents and other adults.”

    Actually, this isn’t the only conclusion – the children from Tennessee may actually be dumber and it takes them 5 more years to figure it out!!

    JUST KIDDING SOUTHERNERS!

    This is a fascinating topic, particularly as I am a 1st generation American from the (Northern) Midwest, who attended university in the South, and now lives in England. I would like to see more research on the subject, because, while I jest above, I don’t think the article’s conclusions necessarily follow. Undoubtedly, some of this is in fact learned behavior, particularly when one regularly encounters a ‘neutral/educated’ accent on the evening news, and in other forums associated with intelligence. However, when I moved to England, I was exposed to a vast array of unfamiliar accents, but was quickly able to generalize (correctly) about and associate education to these unfamiliar accents. Similarly, I for the first time encountered certain rural accents which I later found had a positive association with ‘niceness’ which was immediately & intuitively perceptible to myself, uninitiated as I was in local stereotypes. I wonder if there aren’t common stress patterns or contractions across languages that are associated with more rural and less affluent areas, which I suspect correlates highly with education and speech patterns and also with a slower, more welcoming pace of life?

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  20. 20. RSchmidt 2:31 pm 12/8/2012

    @Dr.Horrible, “Although you may think that we are all “rednecks”, we see you all as bigots and racists.” Like the people who fought a war to keep their slaves? Like the people of the KKK? Like the people who wrote the Jim Crow laws? Like the people who demanded that the president show his birth certificate and then called it fraud when he did? Like the people who call the president a Muslim? Sorry, I understand that your feelings are hurt but it is laughable that you would call all northerners bigots and racists. The south would do well to be as bigoted and racist as the north.

    I visited the grand canyon too and watched while during a lecture on the natural history of the canyon a number of people got up and left when the ranger mentioned the age of the strata. It is that type of close-mindedness the world sees coming in large part from the american south and causes them to wonder what is it about the culture of the south the breeds such myopia, such a worship of ignorance? Like I said, not every southerner is a raving Jesus freak, just like not every Muslim is a terrorist, but a rather disproportionately large number of them are and that is hard not to notice.

    So if you want the north or the world for that matter to think of southerners as educated and tolerant it’s best not to represent yourself as the very stereotype you oppose.

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  21. 21. rpnewman7 4:13 pm 12/8/2012

    Addressing some of these comments, religious bigotry aside, if you’re going to base your opinion about an entire group of people based on stereotypes, it might be helpful to look into the facts behind those stereotypes. The percentage of atheists in Illinois is 15%, Georgia 15%, Tennessee 9% North Dakota 9% and in Canada only 6% of people in the province of Quebec are athiest.

    I also wonder if those who claim to judge southerners as less intelligent based on religious beliefs of their majority use the same criteria when judging other groups. For instance only 1% African Americans and less than 1% of Latinos are atheist. Do you judge those groups on the whole to be less intelligent?

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  22. 22. RSchmidt 5:21 pm 12/8/2012

    @rpnewman7, I think you are missing the point. People don’t make irrational judgments based on statistics. They make them based on observations. How many people in Quebec have been seen on TV trying to ram creationism into the classroom? How many people in Illinois dragged a black man to his death behind their pickup truck? How many people from North Dakota protest the funerals of innocent people claiming their deaths were caused by “tolerance” of homosexuality in the US? That is what we see in the media and that is what drives the stereotype. And that is just one element of southern culture that people find dimwitted. The culture of guns, paranoia of government, anti-science, anti-immigration, pro-life, pro-execution, intolerance of differing lifestyles… are all reasons people view southerners as backward. Now these issues aren’t things the southerners are born with. These are attitudes they have chosen which is very much unlike the people they hate.

    So this isn’t just about religion, this is about character and sadly the way it has been depicted in the media. The media is partly to blame for this, no doubt, but to a certain degree so are, very sadly, a large percentage of the southern population that cling to these primitive world views, presenting the world with an impression of ignorance and intolerance. They say first impressions are lasting impressions. If the world sees a news clip of a scientist from Cal-Tech and then a story about a dragging death in Texas those will stick with people. So as I said, lets see more southerners explaining evolution, advancing human rights, supporting gun control, otherwise when people think of the south they are just going to remember a trailer park being destroyed by a Tornado or some mom partying after killing her daughter.

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  23. 23. SastryNittala 6:08 pm 12/8/2012

    “What do you think happened when the young children were asked who was “nicer,” “smarter,” or “in charge?” The children from Chicago attached these positive attributes to the Northern speakers, but the children from Tennessee were indifferent to how these attributes were associated with people speaking with either accent.”
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    You guys forgot an important factor: Influence of media… Currently all media (TV, movies, music) feature the Northern kind of accent… Children, and even adults are used to this, and therefore anything outside this norm is associated as inferior (especially so if the slowness of the southern drawl is correlated with slowness of brain, which isnt the case)

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  24. 24. outsidethebox 6:08 pm 12/8/2012

    It’s politically incorrect to insult blacks or hispanics or immigrants in general in any way. But it is perfectly acceptable to insult white southerners and or Christians. The unapologetic bigotry showed by posters on this site just boggles the mind. Why do the editors let it go on?

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  25. 25. jgl53 7:35 pm 12/8/2012

    I’m a white southern male, age 63, born and lived all my life in Mississippi and I would have to agree with the fact that the image of southerners is pretty much due to the overwhelming number of southerners who are ignorant redneds. I don’t think there has been any insults or unapologetic bigotry on anyone’s part here. All the statements I’ve seen have qualifiers, i.e., no one is saying ALL southerners are redneck yahoos, just SO many of them that it gives the whole region a bad name. I agree with that because it is true. Most white southerners I know ARE racists, bigots against anyone who is not exactly like them, and revel in their ignorance. Most I know are teabagging republicans and hellfire fundamentalists. It is very very sad. The truth hurts some people’s feelings? TFB.

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  26. 26. brian1625 7:56 pm 12/8/2012

    And Jersey Shore reminds us that “rednecks” are a national phenomena

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  27. 27. RSchmidt 8:35 pm 12/8/2012

    @outsidethebox, “It’s politically incorrect to insult blacks or hispanics or immigrants in general in any way. But it is perfectly acceptable to insult white southerners and or Christians.” whew, thanks! I was wondering about that. Guess it makes sense.

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  28. 28. RSchmidt 8:42 pm 12/8/2012

    @brian1625, actually the term redneck refers to southern folk who work the fields (hence the red necks) and tend to be somewhat xenophobic, though now it includes all southern bigots. On the other hand, the people from Jersey Shore have never worked a day in their life and would have to do something pretty amazing to reach the level of redneck. But you are right, ignorance and bigotry aren’t isolated phenomenon.

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  29. 29. RSchmidt 10:22 pm 12/8/2012

    @jgl53, very well said.

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  30. 30. ErskineCaldwell 12:07 am 12/9/2012

    If the North is so smart, why do Buttafuoco’s keep coming down here trying to be the next greatest carpetbagger? Only to leave, two years later, with their tails between their legs?
    Accents prove nothing. The North is the group which check itself into cement prisons (ala New York) and self loath all the time. Please stay up there. If thinking we are unintelligent down here helps you get through your miserable day, so be it. Just please, stay up there.

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  31. 31. RSchmidt 1:16 am 12/9/2012

    @ErskineCaldwell, I think you have a point Erskine. Perhaps the US has finally reach a point of irreconcilable differences and its time for a divorce. For the most part states are red or blue but don’t often change. That means a handful of states decide the next president of the US, everyone else is dragged along for the ride. It’s time for a free south, and freer north. Heck, may as well give those dope-smokers on the west coast their own chance at liberation too. I would be interested to see how that turned out. I suspect the north would prosper, the west would be totally narly and the south would become like Iran. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about em yankees comin a callin because you could extend the wall you are building for mexico all around your little old self. And once the south’s experiment with religious fascism failed it could rejoin the civilized world with a little more clarity. Those that survived anyway.

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  32. 32. sjfone 7:20 am 12/9/2012

    One must remember, people who judge others by their speech patterns and intonations, just got no class.

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  33. 33. ErskineCaldwell 7:52 pm 12/9/2012

    @RSchmidt I said nothing of the sort. I never mentioned succession. Nor did I imply it. You did. I travel to New York yearly to get a pulse on society from your pov.
    I am constantly bombarded with insane tropes from idiotic “new yorkers” who are actually from Nebraska or some other random place. I simply smile as you continue to perpetuate a false notion of a sheep-like following down here. You prove my point. You garner stereotypes in order to make your life feel valid. I suspect your psychiatrist reminds you weekly to “stay positive.”
    In conclusion, as you sit in your hookah bars and laugh at us during bathroom breaks to snort cocaine, I simply ask you to stay there. I know you will. You couldn’t handle one dose of southern culture. Being outside of your Yonkers Shawshank would simply be too much freedom. After all, you need a governor to tell you how much Coca Cola to drink. Trust me, I have seen many of you rubes come down here and try.
    As the comedian stated, “Once you are past the Sex and the City age, New York City is just depressing.
    Have fun!

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  34. 34. Happy Phil 2:01 am 12/10/2012

    Southern accents vary. There is a dopey drawl that is common among some stereotype, moonshiner, didn’t finish grade school, way of speaking on one end of the southern vocalization spectrum.

    But, on the other side of the southern accent scale, there exists a warm, well read, cultured, form of speaking that embraces the melody and meaning of each treasured word as no northern accent could hope to accomplish.

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  35. 35. curiouswavefunction 10:56 am 12/10/2012

    Doc Horrible: “The bigotry of the North, as well as the complete lack of courtesy towards people of other cultures”

    You do realize that cities in the North are some of the most culturally diverse places in the country, don’t you?

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  36. 36. jh443 6:01 pm 12/10/2012

    Dr. Horrible said, “…Although you may think that we are all “rednecks”, we see you all as bigots and racists.”

    Oh, puh-leeze. I’m old enough to remember the King march (among other similar events of the time). The northerners haven’t even made a dent into the bigotry market that southerners created.

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  37. 37. vagnry 11:21 pm 12/10/2012

    ” Even on a tiny island country like the United Kingdom, accents abound and they pigeonhole individuals into strict social strata that have persisted for centuries.”

    Exactly, these (mis?)conceptions are much older than radio and TV.

    In my country, Denmark (twice the size of NJ, population 5.6 million), accents are also seen as determinants for smartness and warmness, as they have for ages.

    During education, people will usually adjust to speaking the Copenhagen dialect (CD), and will use it at work later on. Teachers at school will probably speak CD to the kids, who will hear it in the media as well, so the dialects are gradually giving way.

    The link between education and CD “affirms”, that smart people speak CD, are fast talkers, etc, but are not as nice as those with other dialects.

    But if you try to do businness with people from Jutland (the biggest region in Denmark), they will fleece you, in their charming dialect:-D

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  38. 38. Diesel67 11:44 pm 12/10/2012

    If your respondents were Jewish, the second part is not surprising. We associate German with S.S. men barking out orders (Achtung! Juden raus! – Can’t you hear the boots clicking?), not with Schiller and Goethe.

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  39. 39. Diesel67 11:46 pm 12/10/2012

    The machine dropped my initial quote: “Italian is judged as sounding beautiful while German sounds ugly.”

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  40. 40. R. Douglas Fields 9:02 am 12/11/2012

    In reply to comment 17 regarding expanding the tribe: I don’t think “expanding the tribe” is a utopian fantasy, but rather a practicality that results from scientific and technological advances. A collapse in the housing market in America ripples around the globe causing a world-wide financial crisis. Radiation leaking from a reactor in Japan ends up on the shores of Oregon. A viral outbreak in Asia lands in NY within a matter of hours. It matters very much to citizens of other countries who the President of the United States is, just as it matters very much to us who the president of Egypt is. The internet and global communications erode ignorance and expose oppression and injustice. These changes in human society are already expanding the tribe, as the Southern children in the study show, who do not classify people with Northern accents as alien. Consider: CNN broadcasts from Atlanta, GA.

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  41. 41. otakucode 11:53 am 12/11/2012

    Wow, you missed the mark on this one by a MILE.

    The reason a southern drawl sounds uneducated is because for a very long time the southern part of the US was afflicted with hookworm. Hookworm causes permanent IQ loss in children infected with it, which effectively all southern children were for a long time. Improvements in hygeine have brought hookworm mostly under control, but the stigma remains.

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  42. 42. tedre123 2:49 pm 12/12/2012

    @outsidethebox “it is perfectly acceptable to insult white southerners and or Christians.”
    Absolutely what I was thinking. If you substitute “black people” into half these comments, in place of “southern people”, there’s no way they would be published. Most of the opinions expressed here are appalling. All of you’d sound pretty stupid explaining what you think to a Southerner who turned out to be a PhD from NASA or the research triangle.
    People are people. All the talk about the % of atheists etc, statistically I’d say 90% of the opinions here are worth sh&&T.

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  43. 43. sheilabr 10:44 pm 12/12/2012

    Clearly, television’s stereotypical Southerner is “real” to many folks. The media is the media and what sells, sells. As long as people like to see idiocy, that’s what will be shown. We Southerners are not all “Swamp People,” nor do we all ascribe to Paula Deen’s propensity to add butter to every dish, and further, most of us who believe in God are able to accommodate the tenets of evolution within our belief system… Golly, gee, some of us even think the world may have taken more than seven days to “create.”

    And although I understand that the audience for Scientific American may be better educated than most, who said that being nice was less desirable than being well-educated? One trait speaks to character and the other doesn’t.

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  44. 44. billjones47@hotmail.com 2:48 am 12/13/2012

    R. Schmidt, you need help. R. Douglas Fields, you are spot on for the most part. I agree with anyone who says
    that accent/dialect has nothing to do whatsoever with cognitive ability. Idiots graduate or don’t graduate from all walks of life. billjones47@hotmail.com

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  45. 45. Michael M 11:25 am 12/13/2012

    A lively discussion.

    Notice that the term, drawl, refers to extending the length of vowels. Let’s notice that those with accents closer to England in nature shorten that vowel length, and tracing that yet further, we notice that French does not lengthen vowels.

    Listening to less-urbanised Canadians and North-Central US residents, we hear pronunciations quite similar to that of the Indigenous peoples when speaking English.
    Even a few colloquialisms come directly from Indian words.
    The French of Quebecois is more singsong, or musical sounding to the ear, than that of anywhere in France. This, too, has strongly affected Canadian colloquial speech from Western Ontario into Saskatchewan, and into Minnesota and other locales geographically close.

    Southern French is very Italian sounding.
    Parisien is so distinct that it is far more difficult to understand.

    Social acceptance is, as is implied and hinted by comments, a result of what we call ingrouping/outgrouping. Recognition of individuality (enhanced in social species) seems to result in valuation of this cognitive trait.

    Intelligence is a slippery concept, and might probably be best described as adaptedness to surrounding environment, including other local humans. What seems to be said both by the author and commentors, is that auditory and vocal adaptedness to the larger accepted culture is intelligence. This may not at all be true, as the author has looked at likeability, finding those seemingly not socially prominent (here, “intelligent”) as better fitted to the culture.

    Or, are longer vowels associated with lower social stratum, and the likeability a result of hierarchical placement?

    We have seen recent studies on individuals whose heads are shaved as being perceived as more socially dominant, when in fact, such as I perceive them as imitating prison convicts and thus at the bottom of social strata. Stereotypes are in the senses of the beholder, and failure of willingness or capacity to introspect on one’s own generalizations, may be the problem.

    I have long known a captive wolf. That wolf once had to attack a Rottweiler that was threatening me. Ever since, that wolf held a low opinion of Rottweilers, and attacked the Rottweiler nation, unless restrained. He can hardly walk now, but still enjoys the idea.
    The lesson? Let’s be civil.

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  46. 46. sanderson121 2:46 pm 12/14/2012

    I’m not sure how I feel about the ideas presented in this article, I don’t associate accents with intelligence personally. I do, however, find myself inclined to wonder if a person with a thick southern accent is artificially nice, and actually being cleverly condescending. I don’t judge people based on this, just find it interesting that my brain goes in that direction. I honestly think it is from exposure to some villainous southern characters on t.v. as a child. The other thing I find interesting about accents is that I find it difficult to understand southern accents, but I have no problem understanding English spoken with thick accents rooted in foreign languages. Why is that???

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  47. 47. richmondbread 3:39 am 02/22/2013

    There is nothing wrong with a Southern accent- but there are many different kinds of Southern accents, and they do vary quite a bit. Unfortunately, most Northerners lump them into one kind. I am from Virginia, and while we don’t have as strong an accent as some other places, it is there. As a Southerner, my perception of many northern accents is the opposite of what they believe. They believe they sound more cultured and educated. But to my ears, they sound harsh and rather unrefined. They have a tendency to pack things through the nose more. I venture to guess the children in Chicago were raised with their hideous dialect, and they can’t hear how bad it sounds to Southerners. Many Southern children may not be particular, but as adults we can hear more of the northern accents. Their nasal piercing shrill sounds that seem to hit our ears like jackhammers. The way they say “you guys” to address a group of women. Their lack of sweet tea.

    The South is a rich culture. What culture does the north have? Pizza parlors , bowling, and rude people? See, how I am making stereotypes here. But the South has given us sweet tea, coke, and Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline. And that’s plenty folks. You can be intelligent and believe in a higher power.

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  48. 48. Notorious 6:17 pm 09/13/2014

    Does anyone remember when they started getting taught the alphabet, a lot of you learned the alphabet in school, some of you may have been taught the alphabet by your parents, others from friends or even self taught.

    Do you remember pronouncing each individual letter of the English alphabet? Its what we call “Sounding it out”.

    The fact is, those who speak with a heavy southern accent, “Sound out” words out the incorrect way. Therefore, your opinion on “there is no correct or incorrect way to speak” is false.

    If you are not pronouncing words in English (or any language for that matter) correctly, then yes, you will sound stupid, for pronouncing words incorrectly.

    But that does not mean that the people are stupid. Many factors play a main role in speaking incorrectly. For instance, being surrounded by other people who speak with an accent. It rubs off on you so gradually that you will not even notice that you yourself, are starting to talk with an accent.

    Another fact; southern accents are further off the pronouncing curb than the northern accents. There’s no denying that.

    The key fact is this; No matter who you are, no matter where you are, if you hear someone that does not pronounce words the same way you, your neighbor’s, your friends, your community, your state, do, then they will sound stupid. It’s natural, our brains get adjusted to a style’s in sound.

    That’s probably why in England, they’ve gradually tweaked words and created an accent. Most noticeably the way they now pronounce the letter R as the letter A, or even the letter U, to make the sound “Uh”, at the end of words.
    Examples:
    Elevate-Uh – (Elevator)
    Refrigerat-Uh – (Refrigerator)
    Daught-Uh – (Daughter)

    So yes, southern people do sound stupid to northerners.
    But also, northern people do sound stupid to southerners.

    I probably sound like a nag to you readers, so I’ll end this in something most of you will enjoy.

    Northerners and Southerners can both agree on one thing, when it comes ranks of sounding stupid on the Stupidity Scale, Western accents top first place. Yes, that means you, California, and it’s neighboring states.

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