published Friday, August 29th, 2014

Southern Fried: Depending on the situation, a Southern accent can help or hurt

Many of voice coach Beverly Inman-Ebel’s clients come to her for help shedding their Southern accents.
Many of voice coach Beverly Inman-Ebel’s clients come to her for help shedding their Southern accents.

We asked a question of Times Free Press readers on Facebook, and the Chattanooga Theatre Centre posted the question on its Facebook page: What are the best and worst Southern accents you've heard in movies or on TV? More than 150 responses came back. Below are the frontrunners.

WORST

1 Kevin Spacey for "House of Cards" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Former Times Free Press reporter Adam Crisp, who lives in Savannah, Ga., said: "He has the slow coastal drawl, but there's just something about it that's off."

2The vampires and Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse on HBO's "True Blood." Especially Sookie. Kristi Davis calls the accents "HORRIBLE!," and Dana Chadwell echoes with "Gawdawful ... and each accent seems to hail from a totally different region of the South, none of which are anywhere near Louisiana. Pitiful."

3 Nicholas Cage in "Con Air."

4 Julia Roberts, who grew up in Smyrna, Ga., outside Atlanta, in "Steel Magnolias" and "Something to Talk About." Brooke Reynolds commented: "Julia Roberts took lots of classes to overcome her Southern accent and then uses a fake one in 'Steel Magnolias.' So odd."

5Emma Stone in "The Help"; in fact, any white actress in "The Help."

6 Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain"; Zellweger won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her role.

7 Jessica Simpson in "The Dukes of Hazzard." (Scott Boles: "A special kind of awful.")

8 Sandra Bullock, a Texas native, in "The Blind Side," in which she played a woman from Memphis.

9 Luke Kleintank who plays Finn Abernathy in "Bones," the TV forensic detective show. (Adam Smart says: "without equal, a hamfisted caricature of an accent varies from antebellum Georgia to bad Harland Sanders impression from episode to episode ... Adding insult to injury, the writers manage to shoe-horn in forced colloquialisms that are just crazier than a dog in a hubcap factory. I de-clare!"

BEST

10 "The Walking Dead Cast" and Tom Hardy in "Lawless." Stephanie Gravitt: "British actors do an awesome job of Southern accents." Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick in the show, is British.

11 Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday in "Tombstone."

12 Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club" and "Mud." "Alright, alright, alright! Matthew McConaughey is wonderful in Mud," says Anu Gona Cheemakotl.

13 Robert Duvall in "The Apostle" (Kristie Taylor's nomination snagged 12 Likes).

14 Tim Blake Nelson in " O Brother Where Art Thou?"

OTHERSome actors got votes for both best and worst.

15 Kyra Sedgwick in "The Closer," a role for which she won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series; she was Emmy-nominated for the role five times.

16 When the Hollywood Reporter polled voice coaches about the best and worst Southern and worst Southern accents two years ago, Vivien Leigh's turn as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" was ranked as merely mediocre. But it was also ranked one of the most influential, since so many non-Southern actresses across the decades since seem to regard it as the lodestar to guide them.

The pale, lime-green cottage with stone trim is tucked into a quiet residential neighborhood in Chattanooga, yet it attracts U.S. senators, governors, bank presidents, network news anchors and rising Wall Street stars.

The sign outside says "Talk Listen Communicate LLC." Inside, people pay Beverly Inman-Ebel $157 per hour to help them reduce the accents they grew up speaking. Overwhelmingly, her clients are Southerners.

"The clients who come to me feel that non-Southerners project biases about a person with a Southern accent, sometimes negative perceptions about education, life experience and leadership ability," Ebel says.

"It is unfair to judge someone's intellect or social graces based on something as superficial as an accent. It's unfair to judge someone on how they dress or wear their hair. But those judgments are made all the time in the business world. And when people come to me, they are feeling as if the Southern accent has become a distraction from who they really are."

She continues in a rush of words.

"And I know that an accent is a part of who we are as persons, sometimes a point of pride about the region we call home, I would never advise someone to pretend to be someone they're not," she adds, then pauses with a tiny sigh. "It can be a touchy subject."

Just last month, Knoxville's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a nuclear lab that recruits employees from all over the world, hired a speech pathologist to lead six weeks of "accent neutralization" classes. Workers objected so vigorously, it made national news, and the lab finally canceled the class because so many workers insisted that their Southern accents were not detrimental.

Ironically, in a survey by dating site OKCupid.com, 2,000 respondents said they found Southern accents the most attractive. Southern accents may well be an advantage if a guy is pitching a Yankee lady some woo. If he's pitching the non-Southern boss a project, however, many recent studies found a Southern accent can be an obstacle.

A University of Chicago study tested two groups of children -- one from Tennessee and one from a northern state -- by playing clips of someone with an Appalachian Tennessee accent compared to unaccented American English.

The results were eye -- and ear -- opening. Children from both groups consistently marked the speaker without an accent as "smarter" and "more in charge."

Interestingly, though, both the northern and Tennessee kids marked speakers with Southern accents as "nicer."

Becky Glover, owner of the Fischer-Evans gift boutique on Market Street, has found that her soft Georgia accent has occasionally been both a burden and an asset as she travels the world looking for art and jewelry for her store.

"In the late 1960s, I went to the University of California in Berkeley for a summer program, and I hesitated to raise my hand because of my accent," Glover recalls. "I was worried that it made me sound like a stereotype of a dumb blonde. And even though my roommate in Memphis was black and I had black friends, I was concerned that people would project the civil rights battles onto me.

"But as the years went on, I found that my accent reassured people that I was gracious. That was the word they used to describe my accent and me. I love that," she says. "My personal belief is everyone who walks into my store, whether they have a dollar in their pocket or are a millionaire, deserves to be treated with grace and kindness."

Glover is amused when her accent is mistaken as Bostonian or British by some non-Southerners. She is blessed with a Southern accent that Ebel describes as "lilting with clear, crisp enunciation. That is the sort of Southern accent Americans and Europeans love because it sounds rather aristocratic and educated yet welcoming."

Ebel has heard Virginia, Kentucky and even non-Delta Mississippi accents share that lilting cadence combined with clear pronunciations. It's the Southern of "Gone With the Wind," with drawn-out vowels and dropped "r's" as in "bettah" for "better." What tends to turn people off are Southern accents with a sharp nasal twang and sloppier pronunciation, she says.

"There seems to be more bias toward Appalachian Tennessee accents and the Macon, Ga.-area Honey Boo Boo-type accents because non-Southerners find them hard to understand and they have a nasality, a twang that is associated with lower education," Ebel explains.

Some forms of Southern grammar don't help, especially when it comes to phrases such as "I think they done went" or "We're fixin' to go to the store" or "We useda have us a' ol' dog."

Linguists note that there are several dialects in Southern accents. In a 2004 essay, C. George Boeree, professor emeritus at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, noted seven different dialects in the South: Appalachia (western Virginia, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee); Arkansas-Oklahoma; Virginia (eastern); North Carolina (eastern); South Carolina; Georgia-Florida and Mississippi-Gulf (including Alabama, Louisiana, eastern Texas, western Tennessee, western Kentucky).

In a 2012 radio interview, Walt Wolfram, a professor of English at North Carolina State University and director of the North Carolina Language and Life Project, counted as many as six different Southern dialects just in that state.

Greg Rambin's colleagues at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre marvel at his ability to mimic accents from Cajun to Cockney. But when he was studying to be a radio DJ decades ago, his instructors urged him to eradicate his Southern accent. In conversation, he sounds Midwestern.

"But I believe that thinking may be in the past," he says. "Now, journalism instructors seem to be telling students to sound like the people they cover -- well, yes, until they get into the top 20 national markets. Then anchors and radio personalities sound like they could come from anywhere."

The book "Gender, Power and Communication in Human Relationships" rounds up landmark linguistic studies, including one that compared Americans' reactions to Southern, Midwest and Bostonian accents. Non-Southerners rated people with a Southern accent as less likable and less competent than others -- unless the speaker made one significant change. If he or she increased the clip at which they spoke while retaining the accent, ratings zoomed. It seems that a drawl can be a drawback.

One Southern bank president told Ebel that he relished being dismissed as a gullible hillbilly during negotiations because he could stay under his opponents' radar and negotiate deals they never dreamed he was smart enough to cut. She advised a Southern gubernatorial candidate to keep his accent and focus on imbuing his words with emotion and passion.

Ebel also is fascinated by the number of young Southerners who can easily switch their accents off and on. Linguists who are tracking this trend attribute it to the easy access of TV and the Internet. But it takes a certain amount of skill and concentration to reduce a Southern accent if it's the primary accent one has heard all one's life, she says.

Ebel sounds like she could come from Anywhere, America. A petite strawberry blonde who loves playing the Irish harp, she is not an intimidating figure. But then she picks up a gift from a client, a small watercolor painting of a green dragon, tummy bulging from a big meal, surrounded by white bones.

"This was a gift from a client with a thick Bronx accent who called me The Dragon Lady because I was so tough on him," Ebel says, smiling brightly.

She points to the bones, "Those bones are him after I got done with him.

"He says that was what he felt like after I was done," she says, smiling broadly. "But after our classes, he won his dream job. He had been working with clients from all over the country and some of them perceived a Bronx accent as being angry. Now he can use it when he wants it -- or turn it off when he needs to."

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391.

WORST
Julia Roberts "Steel Magnolias"


Kevin Spacey "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"


Jessica Simpson "The Dukes of Hazzard"


Emma Stone "The Help"
NOTE: Embed disabled


BEST
Matthew McConaughey "Dallas Buyers Club"



Dixie Carter "Designing Women"


SPLIT DECISION
Kyra Sedgwick "The Closer"


MOST INFLUENTIAL
Vivien Leigh "Gone with the Wind"
Southern Accent
about Lynda Edwards...

Lynda Edwards has covered just about every beat there is while working for The Associated Press, PBS as a Frontline and Nightly Business Report associate producer, Gannett in the heart of Louisiana Cajun country as well as newspapers in Miami, Tucson AZ, Colorado and Arkansas. She has freelanced for The New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, Vogue, Rolling Stone and The Washington Monthly. While at the ABA Journal, she won a Fourth Estate Award, Lisagor ...

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