February 25, 2004

Those slurry, sleepy southerners

Cindie McLemore emailed about a profile of Lyle Lovett by Alec Wilkinson in the current New Yorker. Wilkinson writes

Lovett's voice is typically a bit raspy, and his diction is slurry. He often sounds as if you'd just woken him up. "Wire" becomes "wi-er." "Threw" becomes "thoo." (p. 72)

Cindie observed

I don't know what he means about "wi-er" ("war" would be consistent with "thoo") but my father says "thoo" for "threw" when he's talking about certain topics (as in "thoo the football"), and not because he's sleepy or slurry.

I don't think I've ever heard Lovett talk -- it's possible that he really does speak imprecisely -- but it seems much more likely that this is an example of sociolinguistic stereotyping.. Many people (including some sourtherners) perceive the accent of southern speakers as an indication of various moral shortcomings associated with laziness, carelessness, sleepiness and so on. Ignorance and stupidity also may come into the picture. I wrote about this a few months ago in connection with a CNN report that speech recognition technology failed in Shreveport LA due to "Southern drawl and what I call lazy mouth", and a Michael Lewis piece in Slate opining that "technology doesn't sound nearly as impressive when it is discussed in a booming hick drawl".

Wilkinson exemplifies Lovett's "slurry diction" and "sound[ing] as if you'd just woken him up" by giving two attempts at phonetic renditions of words that have pronunciations characteristic of the area where Lovett was born and raised (Klein, TX), making seem all the more likely that the issue is regional accent, not personal carelessness or low levels of physiological arousal.

I do agree that the pseudo-phonetic rendition "wi-er" is puzzling, since the expected pronunciation (I think) would rhyme with the typical northern U.S. pronunciation of "far". Maybe Lovett has learned that his native pronunciation is stigmatized and produces an exaggerated northern form? Or maybe Wilkinson is just confused -- about how to describe someone's pronuncation phonetically, as well as about how (not) to interpret it stylistically, morally and physiologically.

[Update: two Texans have expressed doubt about whether I should call Texans "southerners". This brings up all sorts of issues -- cultural identity as well as dialect geography -- that I'm not competent to survey. Let's say at least that from the point of view of Americans from some other parts of the country, there's a family resemblance in accent that tends to evoke similar stereotypes. And the Atlas of North American English defines the South as including most of Texas.

Robyn Stewart wrote from Vancouver, Canada, to explain that (at least some) Canadians have picked up the same prejudices:

A visitor to where I work had an accent from Alabama. He was highly intelligent, but the stereotype associated with the accent is so strong -- we've only really heard it on Forrest Gump -- that one of my students remarked "I know he's smart, but he talks like a MORON."

I suspect that seeing Forrest Gump is not enough in itself to form these stereotypes -- maybe Beverly Hillbillies, Foghorn Leghorn and a few other items of popular culture played a role -- but in fact, it's a mystery to me how these attitudes are created and maintained. As in the case of learning words, it does seem that individuals need only small amounts of "training" to pick up such stereotypes, at least once they're established in the community. And this insightful post by Geoff Pullum shows how different these stereotypes can be for someone from a different speech community -- he was raised in the U.K., and his associations with Texan speech patterns come from positive adult experiences.

We shouldn't exaggerate the degree of stereotyping in the Wilkinson quote. All he wrote was that Lovett sounds raspy, slurry and sleepy, with a couple of regional pronunciations given as examples. I ignored the "raspy" part, and associated the slurry and sleepy parts with a larger pattern of properties stereotypically associated with speakers from the the American south and south midland areas. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 25, 2004 05:47 PM