Accents and Perceptions

A new study came out recently that claims that students with a distinct Appalachian accent have to work harder to prove that they are intelligent.


The Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. |Image: Jan van der Crabben/Wikimedia Commons

That may sound odd to you, but it doesn’t to me. First of all, I’m a “language person.” Not only am I a former broadcaster, but I used to teach people how to lose their Southern accents.

Why? Because in broadcasting, the most appealing (everything is relative, of course, but appealing to prospective employers back in the day, at any rate), most preferred voice in the U.S. is one that is absent of a dialect. It’s called General American speech.

It’s our version of “the King’s English.” The idea is that heavily accented speech can be interpreted as less authoritarian or less intelligent. To put it another way, television journalist Linda Ellerbee, who is from Texas, once noted that you’re not supposed to sound like you’re from anywhere.

Ultimately, it’s all tommy rot. Accents have no bearing on intelligence.

However, this study found that many persons feel that they must “code switch” or use a different dialect around those who do not use their own dialect to project intelligence. The flat vowels and incomplete or missing diphthongs in Appalachian speech make them traditionally an even smaller subset of accents that make up the subset of American Southern speech. For example, natives of the Carolina Piedmont (like me*) might pronounce the word “bear” as “bay-uh” while Appalachian natives may contract and harden it and say “bahr.”

For the record, inside the region, Appalachia is pronounced with flat a’s, while generally outside of the area, the second a is long — App-uh-LAY-cha. As a graduate of Appalachian (-LATCH-un) State University, I’ve corrected people’s mispronunciations for decades.

Many countries are wildly more inclusive of accents than we are in America. But, like so many things, we are forever bringing up the rear in acceptability and celebration of differences.

The paper, called “Dialect and Influences on the Academic Experiences of College Students,” was recently published in The Journal of Higher Education. You can download it through Project MUSE, if you are a member, or read an abstract at Inside Higher Ed.

*For the record, I wouldn’t pronounce that word that way today. Like fellow Carolina native Stephen Colbert (I’m North; he’s South), I lost my Southern drawl years ago because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as “Southern.” I still don’t want that — it just doesn’t have anything to do with acceptance now.

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