America’s Loveliest Accents: Memphis

What does it take to have an accent – or not to have one? I thought I had a great example of a Memphis accent when I discovered that Aretha Franklin was born there. But then I found out she moved away when she was two. I knew Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, a hundred miles away, but he lived most of his life in Memphis. Do either of them have a Memphis accent?

In my experience, the bulk of a person’s accent is formed in their teenage years. That doesn’t mean that it’s always a copy of the people around them: many people rebel and try to sound as different as possible from their neighbors. If they’re especially attached to a childhood or family identity that clashes with their teenage situation, they may try to hang on to as much of it as they can.

From a cursory search, nobody seems to think Aretha Franklin has an accent of any kind other than “black,” but they definitely don’t associate her amazing voice with Memphis. Elvis, on the other hand, was occasionally described as having a “melodic Memphis accent,” and described himself as “just a poor-boy from Memphis, Memphis.”


When I started this series I decided that I wouldn’t go looking for speakers of any of these accents. I want to say nice things about the speech of these cities without having to look it up. I do some research to find good examples, or pictures to go with the posts, but I haven’t been pulling up the Wikipedia list of “Famous people from Memphis.”

Another name that came to my mind was Bobby Whitlock, who played and sang with Eric Clapton in Derek and the Dominos, on “Layla” and other assorted love songs. Here’s a recent reunion of the two men performing “Bell Bottom Blues,” where you can hear Whitlock’s accent:

In looking up details about Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and Bobby Whitlock today, I did sneak a peek at the Wikipedia lists, and they reminded me of another famous Memphis voice, Alex Chilton. I knew Chilton as the high-voiced lead singer of Big Star on songs like “September Gurls” and “In the Street.” Until today I didn’t know that he had already had a career as the lead singer of the Box Tops, delivering the gravelly lead on “The Letter” in 1967, when he was sixteen years old, and boy do you hear that Memphis accent! Here he is in 1985 (when there was music still on MTV) with an impromptu solo performance of “The Letter” at the end.

This is part twelve of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Louisville. Nextly: Atlanta.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Louisville

We talk about “Southern” accents, but dialectologists distinguish at least two major dialect groups: South and South Midland, sometimes known as “Upper South” and “Lower South.” The different histories of the Coastal and Mountain South are presented in Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer’s accessible history of early British migration to North America.

Fischer shows us that there were two distinct migrations: the Anglican and Catholic planters and their indentured servants crossed from the south of England to Virginia ports like Arlington and Jamestown between 1642 and 1675, spreading out down the coast and importing slaves from Africa. It wasn’t until 1717 to 1775 that Presbyterians from the Scottish Lowlands, Northern Ireland and the English-Scottish borderlands arrived in Philadelphia and after a few years in Pennsylvania began migrating down the Shenendoah Valley and throughout the Appalachian and Ozark mountains.

My grandmother’s family history follows this stream: in the birth, death and marriage records collected by my cousins we see each generation moving down the mountains: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and finally Texas, where my father was born. In Texas the Coastal and Mountain dialects merged to form something different from both.


The Appalachian dialect covers all of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley, including Louisville. I’ve known several people from Louisville, including my first college roommate, and my friend and neighbor Elaine.

Dennis Preston studies American dialects and our attitudes to them. He also has a lovely Louisville accent, having grown up in New Albany, Indiana (“N’Albany”), just across the river. His dialect still maintains different pronunciations for “witch” and “which,” and “horse” and “hoarse,” as he demonstrated to me at a recent meeting of the American Dialect Society. Here’s a great video of him and Robert MacNeil riding a train across the mountains and talking to people about accents:

This is part eleven of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Tallahassee. Nextly: Memphis.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Tallahassee

Shortly after I posted the first of America’s Loveliest Accents, Matthew Harrison tweeted, “This really is lovely. I hope you do some Southern accents!” As I told him at the time, the last seven of these sixteen cities are in the South, if you define the South broadly enough to include Baltimore (#16).

It’s hard to tell whether New York accents get more hate than Southern ones, but it’s close. I don’t think there are any accent groups whose speakers try as hard to cover them up. Being half-New Yorker and half-Southern, I’m happy to say that they’re both misjudged. My father was a master of the Texan strategy of deploying arch gentility and folksy wit in proportions finely calibrated to the situation at hand.


Tallahassee is another of those cities I’ve never been to (the closest I’ve gotten is New Orleans or Orlando), but my neighbor, Teresa Ward, went to college there, and sent me this guest post:

Well, Tallahassee is a beautiful north Florida town. It should actually be part of Georgia, as it has a distinct Southern bent to it. It’s near the border with Georgia. It is also close to the Gulf of Mexico, so it is slightly “coastal” in feeling.

Their are roads in Tallahassee that are extremely romantic, canopied and dripping with moss. On a sunny day, the road can be cool and shaded by the canopy.

The nearby beaches have sand as soft and white as sugar and the oysters and shrimp are the best.

And the accents are warm and friendly. When I think of Tallahassee accents, I think of my friend Carol and how she says “Hey” over the phone when I call her. It is slow and cozy, and takes her about three or four syllables to finish it. And there is always a slight smile and generosity to her conversation.

I also think of another old friend from there, who had a much quicker way of talking than Carol. In fact, as Debbie herself might say, she could talk “ninety to nothing.” The voice would go a little high in the head and louder than Carol’s, but it too would drip with kindness and laughter. That’s how I remember it.

My brother, who is in sales, has a wonderful Tallahassee drawl now too. And I think it helps him continue to be one of the leading salesmen!

When I started school at FSU, in the theatre department, I do remember my voice teacher tearing out his hair to get me to hear and say the difference between “pin” and “pen” (and, of course, “tin” and “ten”), and as an actress I mastered it. But really, in daily life, does it matter? Down there, we know what y’all are talking about, it’s all in the context.

Speaking of FSU, students often come from out of state, or city, to go to school there, and end up staying. The town has grown quite a bit since I made it my home in 1978. And, I would say a number of the residents are former students who were swayed by the friendliness of the city. (You go into a grocery store, and they actually look at you and thank you and talk about all kinds of things before you can leave. . .)

I’m guessing that the Tallahassee accent is pretty close to the accent of nearby Gainesville, which you can hear in Tom Petty’s song “American Girl.”

This is part 10 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Los Angeles. Nextly: Louisville.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Los Angeles

When I think of Los Angeles accents, I think of three things: Chicanos, surfers and Valley Girls. I’ve only been to Southern California once, so these have all come to me filtered through caricatures in movies, television and music. The exaggerated Chicano accent performed by Cheech Marin. The surfer/stoner accent performed by Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and by Keanu Reeves as Ted “Theodore” Logan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The Valley Girls as parodied by Moon Unit Zappa, and as portrayed in movies and television set in the area like Clueless, Heathers and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

The surfer and Valley Girl stereotypes had a strong effect on my teenage years, not because I was directly affected by them, but because my classmates were. These characters had the glamour of sunshine, sex and disposable income. The San Fernando Valley took the country by storm in the 1980s, and teenagers everywhere were exclaiming “Dude!” and “Totally!” and fronting their high vowels like crazy to get in on the act. My high school was not immune.

This glamour engendered a tremendous backlash, one that started with the original “Valley Girl” song. The Valley Girls were desirable because they were well-groomed, high-class young women, and they derived a certain power from their desirability, their money and their family connections. But while stoner boys like Spicoli and Ted were well-meaning but clueless, the Valley Girls were a threat. The Valley Girls were judging you.

“Gag me with a spoon!” Judgmental, critical phrases recur over and over again in Moon Unit Zappa’s caricature of the Valley Girl. The Valley Girl may be high status, but she works hard to maintain that status by knocking down any potential competitors. The eponymous popular girls from Heathers embodied that ruthless competitiveness, as did the characters of Cordelia and Harmony on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The character of Buffy herself, as well as that of Cher in Clueless, were written against type, as a cheerleader and a spoiled rich girl whose compulsions to save others and openness to personal growth helped them to transcend Valley Girl judgmentalism.

The funny thing is that all this Valley Girl glamour did affect me to some extent. A blonde woman getting into a car with a fronted GOAT vowel will still turn my head to this day, even if I know she’s from Wappingers Falls. So it goes.

This is part 9 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Chicago. Nextly: Tallahassee.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Chicago

In my last post, I gave Prince as an example of a Minneapolis native with a lovely accent. Prince is black, and you can hear it in his voice because there are at least two different kinds of Minneapolis accent, due in part to segregation. But he doesn’t just have a black accent, he has a Minneapolis black accent. There’s also a Minneapolis white accent, and maybe a Minneapolis Hmong accent too.

For many years if you took an introductory linguistics course you might be forgiven for believing that there were several accents (all spoken by white people) and one black accent. Those of us who actually listened to African Americans knew differently, and now the documentation seems to be catching up, thanks in part to social media like Twitter and YouTube. A few weeks ago, Taylor Jones presented data from Twitter showing patterns of black English that corresponded to the three streams of the Great Migration: East Coast, Ohio River, and Mississippi River/Denver/West Coast.

My sense is that most regional black accents have some features that they share with other dialects spoken in the region and some features they share with other black accents, and some features that are unique to those accents. After reading Jones’s post, I would guess that they also have features they share with their particular migration streams.


I lived in Chicago for a year and came to appreciate all the city’s accents: black, white, Chicano and others. Chicago, being a big city, has its share of tough guys and actors who play them, full of /r/s and Northern Cities vowels. But the city also exports tough guys: as William Labov told ABC’s 20/20 in 1999, actor Dennis Franz played a detective on NYPD Blue with his native Chicago accent, and Labov seemed to be one of the few people who noticed.

This is part 8 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Minneapolis. Nextly: Los Angeles.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Minneapolis

One concept that I’ve found extremely valuable in recent years is the notion of “punching up.” I first encountered it in the context of rape jokes, but it applies to jokes about race and ethnicity, and really any joke that affects different groups of people disproportionately. Towards the end of the post, the author summarizes the concept:

The questions then become, “Who are you challenging and why?” Are you trying to challenge an established power structure, or are you going after people who are already mistreated on a regular basis? Are you trying to poke holes in a pristine facade that is carefully maintained or are you just recycling stereotypes like a shadow puppet Punch and Judy show?

Josef Fruehwald makes a strong case that accent shaming is almost always punching down, and Dayna Evans’s “America’s Ugliest Accent” tournament is no exception.

Want to see a tournament that punches up? For the last two years one of my favorite blogs, Streetsblog, has run a Parking Madness tournament. Readers submit aerial photos of cities that have large parking lots where they used to have vibrant, walkable town squares, shops and offices. These “parking craters” sabotage the working of the city and privilege driving, suburban elites over transit-riding, taxpaying citizens who tend to be poorer.

The practice of replacing walkable downtowns with parking is a shameful act deliberately performed by a city’s elite. It is perfectly appropriate to shame the elites of Rochester for what they chose to do to their city. This is criticism and ridicule targeted at conscious decisions made by an irresponsible, faddist elite. This is challenging the established power structure. This is punching up.

The only Minneapolis native I can think of off the top of my head is Prince. Prince, of course, has a tremendous singing range, and his speaking voice is pretty good too.

In terms of other Minnesota accents, I’ve been listening to Garrison Keillor for years. My friend Jeff laughed at how low Keillor’s KIT vowel was in one story about a chicken, but to me it’s just part of that Lake Wobegon charm.

More recently I’ve been listening to Chuck Marohn of the Strong Towns podcast. Chuck is a native of Brainerd, Minnesota, and he has all the famous Northern Minnesota features, especially the raised MOUTH vowels. Everybody likes listening to Chuck talk.

This is part 7 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Providence. Nextly: Chicago.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Providence

As Josef Fruehwald pointed out, attitudes towards language often are proxy for the attitudes towards the people who speak those languages. This is a case of what John Earl Joseph termed “prestige transfer,” and it makes sense. If you have negative feelings about your interactions with a group of people – for example, if your typical interaction with them consists of them giving you unreasonable orders, or harassing you on the street – you will tend to associate those negative feelings with their speech. Conversely, if you associate their voices with good times or your aspirations for prosperity, you will tend to associate those positive feelings with their accents.


Unlike Scranton, I’ve actually been to Providence, and even tried coffee milk, but I don’t have a strong memory of the accent. My wife is from just over the state line in eastern Connecticut, though, so I have positive feelings about that accent. I remember when we were first dating and she told me over the phone that her cats were playing in boxes. That fronted short /a/ in “boxes” reminded me that New England and New York are in different dialect regions, no matter how much else we may have in common. She also doesn’t lower the “o” in “frog,” and says “are you done your dinner?”

This is part 6 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Philadelphia. Nextly: Minneapolis.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Philadelphia

Science is objective, but scientists tend to like things they study; in a notable scene from the 2008 adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the characters emerge into a cave. One exclaims, “Diamonds!” another “Emeralds!” And then Trevor the geologist (played by Brendan Fraser) remarks, “Feldspar!”

It’s natural for geologists to delight in rocks, and it’s natural for linguists to delight in languages. This is why it’s not hard for me to come up with something nice to say about almost any accent.


Ah, Philadelphia, the gateway of the American Midland dialect! David Hackett Fischer tells us how Philadelphia was the landing point for the Quaker migration from the British Midlands to the Midwest, and also for the later Scotch-Irish migration from the Borderlands and Northern Ireland to the Appalachians and the Ozarks. My ancestors, the Dowdles, were part of that later migration. In my lifetime, several of my Jewish cousins from New York have moved to the area as well.

When I think “Philadelphia accent,” there’s one name that comes to mind, and that’s the Dead Milkmen. A friend gave me a tape of theirs in high school, and I was particularly intrigued by the boyish, melancholy voice of Joe “Jack Talcum” Genaro, who sang lead on a number of their songs, including their biggest hit, “Punk Rock Girl.”

I was fascinated by the accents of both Joe Jack and the band’s other lead singer, “Rodney Anonymous,” particularly what I would now refer to as the raising of the PRICE vowel (which you can hear in “wild” and “child”) and the fronting of the GOAT vowel (in “although” and “know”). These guys were from England? No, that’s just the Midland accent undergoing the same shift as in the southeast of England.

A few months ago I discovered this 2002 interview with Joe Jack, where he discusses what it was like to be a gay man in a macho punk band. What about the “Punk Rock Girl”? “With the Dead Milkmen I was collaborating with three guys who were not gay, so I did not feel comfortable writing anything from an obviously gay point of view. ‘Punk Rock Girl’ for instance was written with Dave [Blood], who sings backups.”

The late eighties was not a great time to be queer, especially in the punk scene. “I can honestly say that for part of the time with the Dead Milkmen I was making an effort to not be queer, though it did not work,” Joe Jack told Mark Prindle. When I was most listening to the Dead Milkmen I was also most conflicted about my own queerness, and it didn’t work with me either. I’m glad to know that Joe Jack Talcum made it through too. And just so you know he’s done other stuff, you can also hear him playing the Guitar Song.

This is part 5 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Pittsburgh. Nextly: Providence.

America’s Loveliest Accents: Pittsburgh

I think it was an important move for linguists to divorce our field from aesthetics. There can be a science of taste, but science itself is not the arbiter of taste. It is not the place of linguists to judge accents or languages. Just as biologists study animals and plants that many people consider repugnant, linguists may study words and phrases that alarm or disgust people.

That said, objectivity doesn’t mean you have to like everything. Linguists have the right to our own personal tastes about languages. For example, I think German can sound very cool at times, but there are other linguists who disagree with me, and that’s okay.


The Pittsburgh dialect, with its Northern Cities-shifted vowels, is pleasant enough, but what I really love about it is its grammar. They have their own second person plural pronoun, “yinz,” from “you ones” – it’s like our “you guys,” but shorter. (Some of my neighbors have “youse,” but I never heard it in my family.) Their “an ‘at” corresponds to our “and stuff.”

The best thing about the Pittsburgh dialect, though, is that they drop the useless “to be” from certain phrases, notably “that coat needs washed.” When I visited Pittsburgh, the friendly bus driver was chatting with me on the way in from the airport. We passed a bus stop with some people sitting on a bench, and she said, “Oh, they don’t want picked up.” I wish my dialect had that! Who needs that “to be,” anyway?

Musician and comedian Mark Eddie, a native of nearby Steubenville, Ohio, plays up all these features of the Pittsburgh dialect except the “needs washed” construction in an adaptation of “Downtown,” the song made famous by Petula Clark. There are a couple of objectionable lyrics – objectifying “Shadyside chicks” and referring to transgender people as “trannies” – but beyond those you see that there’s nothing mean in his teasing; you hear a real affection for Pittsburgh and its dialect.

This is part 4 of a series where I say nice things about all of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: New York City. Nextly: Philadelphia.