Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Accentuating the positive

Having grown up in the Deep South (as my dad used to say, any Deeper South and your hat would be floating), I'm frequently asked why I don't have more of an accent.  I think there are several answers.  First, my dad was a career Marine, and retired when I was seven, so I spent the first few years of my life moving from military base to military base, amongst people who came from all parts of the United States.  Second, although my mom was what they call "full-bleed Cajun," my dad was a complete mutt -- his father was born in Louisiana and was of French, German, Scottish, and Dutch descent, and his mother was a Scotch-Irish Yankee from southwestern Pennsylvania.  The third reason, though, I think is the most interesting; when I moved north (to Seattle) when I was 21, I got teased out of my accent.  To this day my voice can assume the south Louisiana Cajun swing in no time at all -- all I have to do is talk to one of my cousins on the phone, or better yet, go back down to visit.  It's like I never left.

To this day I still find it rather appalling that I was teased for having a southern accent, but I've found (having lived in YankeeLand USA for almost thirty years) that the perception of southern accents as being comical, or worse yet, a sign of ignorance, is common across the north.  Of course, the media is partially to blame; witness television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, and the comic strip and Broadway show Li'l Abner -- all four of which, I must point out, were produced and written by Northerners, and all of which portray Southerners as ignorant, backwards bumpkins.  However, if that stereotype had not already existed, no one would have found them funny.  The South was already considered an uneducated backwater beforehand.

The fact that the Southern accent is considered a sign of ignorance was highlighted a few years ago with an experiment in which groups of college students were shown different video clips of a pre-recorded speech.  It turned out that the content of the speech in each clip was identical; the only thing that differed was the accent.  The students were then asked to rate the speaker on articulateness, presentation, and content, and to guess the speaker's educational level.  Across the board, the clip that featured someone speaking with a Southern accent was rated lower -- even when the experiment was performed in Georgia, and the students themselves were from the South!

I recall some years ago hearing students in the high school where I teach talking about watching some clips from Ken Burns' The Civil War, and they referred to one of the historians interviewed as "that hillbilly dude."  "That hillbilly dude" turned out to be the late Shelby Foote, a highly educated man whose expertise on the Civil War allowed him to author a number of outstanding books, both fiction and non-fiction, on the subject.  To my ears, his graceful Mississippi accent sounds cultured; to my students', it apparently sounded foolish enough that they hardly listened to what he said.

All of this is just a preface to my telling you about a study recently released by Portfolio magazine, identifying the ten brainiest cities, and the ten least brainy cities, in the United States.  (The determination was done using the average number of years of education for adults in the city.)  While the brainiest cities were scattered about fairly randomly -- the five highest were Boulder, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Washington DC; Durham, North Carolina; and Bridgeport, Connecticut -- the ten least brainy showed a distinct grouping.  Anyone care to guess what state hosts four of Portfolio's least-brainy cities in the United States?


Interesting, no?  Furthermore, while a couple of the least-brainy cities were in Texas, none of them were in the states of the "Old South" -- Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

It's nice to know that I have a little more hard data to use when I lambaste my students for laughing when I say "y'all."

I guess it's time to revise some stereotypes, eh, Yanks?

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