By R. Douglas Fields

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.

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?

Adele - Live in 2009

Adele - live in 2009

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!

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