Some people find Southern American English beautiful. Others love how it reminds them of their heritage. But sadly, many have adopted the wrong concept that southerners are uneducated and “backwards”. Whether you like it, love it, or hate it, you probably want to control it. Or, maybe you’re an actor looking to play a Southern...
Some people find Southern American English beautiful. Others love how it reminds them of their heritage. But sadly, many have adopted the wrong concept that southerners are uneducated and “backwards”.
Whether you like it, love it, or hate it, you probably want to control it. Or, maybe you’re an actor looking to play a Southern role. In any case, it’s nice to give people a taste of your culture through the way you speak. But you don’t necessarily want to be grouped with the prevailing stereotypes. You may also prefer to save the topic for a relaxed discussion once you have gotten to know a person instead of it being the first thing anybody asks you about as soon as you open your mouth.
Surely you would prefer to tailor the impression you make on people so that it reflects the best aspects of your personality or skill set. No one likes to be reduced to a generalization. “Where are you from?” should not be the only question needed to define you. So, how can I reduce or get control of my Southern accent?
Southern accents are not a “one size fits all” sort of thing.
In Southeast Texas, for example, people can usually tell if someone is from the next town over just by the way they talk. Each micro-culture throughout the South has its own unique identity and manner of expression. But the main characteristics that peg them as Southerners usually boil down to a handful of things.
The drawl is common across the region. Granted, some groups from rural Louisiana who have a more Cajun dialect don’t really do it very much, among others. Many Southerners though have this distinctive feature in which the vowel sounds are elongated. In some cases, they even stretch the vowel so much that it sounds like two or three sounds. Even in Standard American English, we have diphthongs, where two mouth positions are used to make one vowel. But the Southern Drawl adds a little bit extra to even the short vowels, or monophthongs, that usually only have one position. This happens frequently when the word is stressed. Here are some examples:
- “I got out of bay-ud (bed) and bumped my hay-ud (head).”
The twang is another famous feature of southern parlance. This aspect involves nasalization. In English, we always use our nose to pronounce letters like M, and N. But with a twang, you use your nose for many other sounds too. Interestingly, this is not just a hallmark of Southern American English. There are many Creole and Pidgin English dialects around the world in places like West Africa and the Caribbean that also use nasalization as an integral part of their speech. The same characteristic appears in French Creoles and other languages as well.
A great way to check to see if you are nasalizing, or speaking with a twang, is to pinch your nose as you say a word. The sound should come out unaffected (except for the M or N mentioned earlier). If it sounds extra whiny, then try to push your voice out through your mouth to avoid the twang.
When it comes to some long vowels, there is a sometimes unique convergence of drawl and twang together. They are also stretched but merged into one single sound and nasalized. For example, with the Long I (“ahy”) Southerners usually push the two positions together into one “ah” and push the voice up through the nose. It might sound something like this:
“Ah’ (I) don’t know about that.”
“Wah’ (Why) do you say that?”
Something similar also happens with the Long O:
“Nah’ (No) I can’t
Dropping Letters and Eating Words
Extreme reductions are another birthmark of the Southern dialect. This is something that is done to varying degrees. Actually, all Americans reduce their speech at least a little. We drop certain sounds in order to speak faster and more naturally. For example, “How do you do?” turns into something closer to “Ha’d’y’do?”. Everyone does that. But Southerners reduce it even further– “Howdy”. Besides that well-known instance, there are many more. Notice the following:
- “Ah ‘own ev’m wanna talk ‘bout it” (I don’t even want to talk about it)
- “Ah’m ‘bouta go to town” (I’m about to go to town)
- “Jeetchet?” (Did you eat yet?)
How to reduce the Southern Accent
If you reel in your drawl, minimize your twang, and enunciate each syllable a bit more, people will be less distracted by your accent. If you really want to reduce your accent, it takes a lot of attention to detail. You can copy people on TV or at work to try to say things more as they do. If you are able to control it then you can use a General American (GenAm) accent when you need it and turn your Southern accent back on again when you go visit your folks.
Accent modification is a great way to manage your professional image. Most business professionals strive for the standard GenAm accent because of the concepts that people form about you based on your communication style. First impressions are important, so many people want to rise to the challenge. They make the extra effort to speak in a way that is expected from someone with their skill set.
This doesn’t mean you have to change everything though. You have the power to choose what to keep and what to lose. Some Southerners prefer to keep their drawl and their twang to represent their culture and background but just turn it down a little so it doesn’t interfere at work. Others lose the twang and keep the drawl because it presents a laid-back attitude that others are drawn to.
You can tailor your accent to fit your purposes. You can even ask friends and colleagues if they like your accent and what they like about it so that you preserve the desirable aspects of your voice and the image you project. Another great idea is to sign up for accent reduction classes with a specialist who can help you achieve your accent goals. Take a look at your possibilities, and redefine yourself to meet your potential!