Do You Judge My Southern Accent?

Accent Judging

Jeff and I flew from Alabama to California last week. He was attending a work seminar hosted by German presenters.

After a conversation, one of his German co-workers asked him, “I haven’t heard an accent like yours. Are you not from America?”

We got a good laugh out of it.

As a southerner, we frequently hear jokes about our accents.

And the connection between our accents and lack of intelligence.

Just like we judge people based on their looks/weight/clothes/toys, we also can judge people based on their speech.

And not just accents. We also judge people by their grammar.

Grammar Snobs

As a child, my father wouldn’t allow us to use words like “ain’t.” He wanted us to speak proper English at all times, much to our dismay.

When my own girls were teenagers, I cringed at their use of “like” to talk about talking (“I was like, ‘No way am I going.’ And she was like, ‘Oh yes you are.’”). I pleaded in vain for them to break the habit (btw, they didn’t).

My current pet peeve is the ever-growing usage of “I” as the object of a preposition instead of “me” (incorrect: “Come ride with Jeff and I”; correct: “Come ride with Jeff and me).

Remember the Bible story of “shibboleth” in the book of Judges 12?

To distinguish outsiders from locals, the Gileadites asked each person wanting to cross the Jordan River to pronounce “shibboleth.” If they pronounced it “sibboleth” instead, they were killed.


Maybe we aren’t that extreme in our judgments, but we do often disregard what someone is saying because of how they say it.

And even worse, disregard who they are, inappropriately classifying them as “other” instead of “us.” We miss out when we judge.

Words on the Move

Below is an excerpt I read from Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally).

I hope my southern accent won’t deter from the importance of the book.

(And in case you don’t know what a quotative is, because I didn’t before reading the book, it’s a word used to introduce a quotation, like, “said” or “replied.”)

[Click here if you can’t see the video]

Words on the Move is an enlightening work (I loved it!) by linguist John McWhorter, not only about grammar and all things word-related, but also about releasing our judgments on what is proper and improper speech instead of simply alternative speech. (For grammar snobs, this can be painful, but, oh, so good for us to hear.)


Drop the Prejudice

Because we often judge a book by its cover, or a person by their speech, without even thinking about it, how can we change?

First, we have to wake up. Pay attention to your internal response when someone speaks differently than you.

  • Do you judge them as poor if they use “uneducated” grammar?
  • Do you judge them as gangster if they are street talkers?
  • Do you judge them as smart if they have a British accent (or is that just me)?

Language refuses to sit still. Words change. Accents migrate. Don’t get hung up on a word or voice and miss the person.

Once aware of our biases, we can then look deeper. Listen harder.

And thus love more.

More from John McWhorter:

“However, none of us is pretending that a society of human beings could function in which all spoke or wrote however they wanted to and yet had equal chances at success in life.

The linguist’s point is that there are no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense. To understand this is not to give up on learning to communicate appropriately to context.

To understand this is, rather, to shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many seem to harbor for people who use the forms we have been taught are ‘bad.’

See Everything; Judge Little; Forgive Much

My newest motto is an adaption from Richard Rohr’s words:

“See everything; judge little; forgive much.”

(He adapted it from Pope John XXIII’s words, “See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little.”)

By stripping away stereotypes we frame around people, we can actually get to know them.

We can be blessed by their stories, and perhaps can bless them with ours.

We can see them as another of God’s unique creations, special because they are fashioned in God’s multi-faceted image, not ours.

Last week in California, Jeff and I visited the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.

At the north side of the bridge were visitors from all nations, speaking many different languages. I couldn’t understand any of them (thanks for nothing, Tower of Babel).

But I could understand the laughter, the smiles, the excitement.

That’s the same in every language.

* * *

Do stereotypes pop up when you hear different accents? How do you shake them? Please share in the comments.



Young people have always used language in new and different ways, and it has pretty much always driven older people crazy.
Image by Renee Klahr

  • And finally, if you’re from the south, you’ll probably understand this southern-style GPS. For better or worse, I get it.


60 thoughts on “Do You Judge My Southern Accent?

  1. bethany mcilrath

    Lisa- silly confession. Some people are sympathetic sneezers. I’m a sympathetic accenter (is that a word??) Give me a day in a different country or region and I start to sound like those around me. That said- I love accents. I love that vernacular, accents, slang, and phraseology are part of cultural heritage, generational change, and even personality. Your post on this subject was fascinating to me : ) I hadn’t thought much about anyone discriminating over accents because I just love to hear the differences. Thanks for the insight!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      A sympathetic accenter—I don’t know if it’s a word or not, but you’re communicating quite well with it! 🙂 I am intrigued by accents but I can’t imitate them very well. It’s to your advantage that you love accents because it probably delays any sort of judgment!

  2. Michele Morin

    Well, my conscience has been pricked today . . . I don’t struggle with accents (you and Holly B. and all my southern friends sound so friendly and warm compared to this cold New Englander), but I do have a tendency to be a grammar snob. I’ve written down the title to this book — definitely a must-read for me, and I’ll be back to listen to the excerpt later.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I think you would likely enjoy this book as much as I did, Michele. I can tend to be a grammar snob myself and I shouldn’t be because really? It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of life.

  3. Kathy Erickson

    I am a grammar snob too, but the worst kind. I judge on a few things and have my own grammar problems that I ignore. This was enlightening and the book sounds like it needs to be added to my to-read list! I found you from Moment of Hope today.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I hear you, Kathy; I also am a grammar snob about some things, but on other things I think it’s perfectly fine for me to break the grammar rules. ha. I need to give the same grace to everyone else that I give to myself.

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Being British educated, I have to confess that some regional accents leave me nonplussed; not because I stereotype the speaker, but because I simply can’t understand what he of she is trying to SAY.

    Case in point – my wife’s family is rooted in Appalachia, and it took me some time to realize that a fur piece was a reference not to a stole, but to distance.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’ve noticed that you do occasionally use a British spelling, so your British education explains that. Laughing about a “fur piece” – yeah, I get that. 🙂 Not that *I* say it. ha. But I’d know what someone is trying to say if I heard it.

  5. Barbara H.

    Interesting! I think I am caught between two thoughts – yes, we shouldn’t judge, but then again, if we let slide all the grammar rules, we won’t be able to communicate clearly. On the other hand, there is a difference between wanting to use the best grammar possible to communicate clearly and effectively and not cause others to stumble over my meaning vs. the grammar snob who corrects (or silently judges) others or looks down on them because of how they speak. I’ve seen people post nasty little things on Facebook about people using their/there/they’re wrong, and I think, “Seriously, people, show some grace!” I know the difference, but sometimes I mistakenly put the wrong one, as I am sure many people do.

    I think, too, of the all too frequent use of the “F” word, and how some people excuse it, saying, “What? It’s just a word.” I know some people grew up with it and it’s just habit, but for others, especially authors whose books are otherwise good except for tossing in that word once or twice, I think, “Yes, but it’s a word that has a certain amount of shock value, and that’s exactly why you used it!” My husband thinks it is getting so common that it is losing its shock value. I sure hope not.

    I did not know what a quotative was, either.

    Thanks for that Southern GPS video – I had seen that on Facebook but had forgotten about it. My biggest directional pet peeve is when people say, “Turn right at the old Sears building” (or whatever old building). I’m new here, I don’t know what the building used to be! 🙂 I don’t know if that’s a Southern thing or if it happens all over, but I think I have heard it everywhere I’ve lived.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      The author addresses your concern in the book, Barbara, about wanting to communicate in a way that is clear, but yet not make it into a moral issue. He makes distinctions between our everyday conversational tone and professional speech. For example, with “like”, even though we know what people mean when they say it, he’d still advise someone not to say it on a job interview or in a public speaking situation.

      And he admits to having his own biases too…he doesn’t like to hear this when ordering food, “Can I get a…” The “get” sounds coarse to him. It’s something I probably say all the time. ha.

  6. Trudy

    I always learn so much here, Lisa. 🙂 This makes me think of how words that are often used eventually end up in the dictionary. 🙂 Also how words can change their meaning over time. Words are fascinating, aren’t they? I love the southern accent. Thanks for giving me chuckles today with the GPS video. 🙂 And don’t you love how smiles, laughter, and excitement are the same in every language? Sadly, so is crying. As a first grade teacher with students recently immigrated from Holland, it was hard sometimes. I always loved to see those smiles! 🙂 Love and hugs to you!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, it is interesting to see how words that start out slang or abbreviations or what not, still end up making it into the dictionary after a certain period of time. The author says we can rarely ever predict what the new words will be or which ones will stick around and which ones will fade away. Words are always on the move and we can’t tie them down. It’s all so interesting to me.

      Oh, you’re so right that crying is the same in every language too. 🙁 Blessings to you with the students from Holland. I pray that they’re assimilating better now!

      1. Trudy

        Those Dutch students did learn to assimilate. That was back in the early 1980s when I taught in Canada. A looong time ago… But some scenes are still so vivid in my memory. 🙂

        1. LisaNotes Post author

          Okay, I won’t be worrying too much about those students now! ha. Thanks for the update, Trudy. It’s funny how some memories stick with us for decades (and other things I can forget from last week).

  7. Jennifer

    Hi Lisa!
    I have to admit when I hear someone talking ‘street talk’ sometimes I judge them as a gangster, and that is so wrong of me! It’s hard for me to take someone serious who speaks that way, or to show them any respect, and my own sister talks that way and she’s not a gangster! Thank you so much for this post, and I can totally relate to being judge by a Southern accent, being from Texas 😉

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      So you’re quite familiar with y’all and other southern words. Texans and Alabamians have a lot of similar speech patterns.
      I don’t know what kind of speech someone like Snoop Dog would be defined as having, but he is one that I have a hard time figuring out his meaning. ha. Hopefully you understand your sister much easier. 🙂

  8. June

    I loved putting a voice to the face, Lisa! You sound exactly like the beautiful southern belle (inside and out) that I know you to be! I’m a word person, so this was a very fun post for me! I can pretty much take any type of talk except those who take the Lord’s name in vain and insert a swear word every 3rd word. I would definitely have a hard time getting past this kind of talk to get to know the person. I’m a sympathetic accenter like Bethany, lol and have collected various “sayings” from my time in Vermont, Arizona and now Texas. Still, I had a few things to learn from my Texas-born husband. My favorite is: “We only “like” about another 40 minutes.” or “Painting the wall is the only thing we “like.” Meaning, it will take about 40 minutes to finish the job and painting the wall is the last thing they have to do. Definitely a different use of the word from how the teenagers are using it now! My pet peeve? “those ones” – drives me nuts, lol 🙂 It’s funny, I was just reading that scripture in Judges just this morning. I sincerely hope our divisions don’t get that extreme! I have a lot more I could comment, including about how our new First Lady has been treated because of her accent, but I’ve kept you long enough. Fun post, Lisa, thanks!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Had to laugh because I so relate to your husband’s sayings, June. haha. “Like” can be used in so many ways, yes? 🙂 Oh, and my baby girl told me that she DID stop saying “like” so much. So I stand corrected. There are so many tangents we can chase after with word stuff! Fun.

  9. Barbie

    I love your accent! For real though. I never judge a person because of their accent. Sometimes though it can be a little hard to understand them, especially if they are talking fast and failing to pronounce. I think I’ve become a little relaxed in my use of grammar, so perhaps this would be a good read for me!

  10. Nicki Schroeder

    I love southern accents! So I guess I’m a bit biased in that I think they are awesome, not associated with “ignorance.” I used to travel A LOT across the states when I was in the corporate world and one of the things I adored was observing accents and learning about colloquialisms. I was also fascinated when I met with CEOS from large companies that used ain’t like it’s nobody’s business in meetings. It made me chuckle. I didn’t think he was ignorant at all, but I did find it amusing. One thing I always struggle with is when people ask me how I am, I say “I’m good.” Because that’s how people answer that question in my area. And when I ask the question back, there are often people who will very emphatically say “I’m WELL.” And honestly, that drives me bonkers. As if I don’t know that is the correct, grammatical response. But I live in this area now and people don’t say it that way, they say “I’m good.” And when people have to emphasize the WELL, well, it irks me. lol I want to respond back, stop being so pretentious and speak like a northerner for goodness sake. haha

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I’m glad you appreciate southern accents, Nicki. ha. You’d be right at home here in Alabama. 🙂 I hear you about your take on “I’m good.” I typically say that, too, but occasionally–depending on who I’m talking to–I’ll dress it up with “I’m well.” ha. But with you, I’d say I’m good! Thanks for sharing and making me smile.

  11. Kristi Woods

    Too fun. Language is such a connector – or disconnector. Lisa, I lived in Atlanta for a few years in my 20’s. Walking downtown I had a couple of guys from Alabama asked me where “Barta” was. Poor guys! My little transplanted northerner self caused them repeat it FOUR times before I understood they were asking for MARTA! Oy. Language is powerful. #testimonyTuesday

  12. Dianna McBride

    Lisa, I absolutely love this post! I loved hearing your sweet voice as you read the excerpt from Words on the Move ! I need to get this book because I love words and you have made it so intriguing in your review! Thank you so much.

    Oh…and I laughed out loud…more than once…when watching the video at the end with the southern GPS. I’m certain how the northern GPS voices sound, but I do know that here in WV we give directions exactly like the southern GPS did. 🙂 No kidding! Up yonder, the sharp turn in the road, just past the second oak tree. lol

    Hugs to you, my friend!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Thanks, Dianna. You’re always so kind. Yes, you would likely love this book as much as I did! It was so fun. So whether in WV or AL, we’d probably relate to the same GPS. 🙂

  13. Pam

    This is great, Lisa, and a fresh reminder of the vast array of ways we can judge each other (too often without much thought). The book sounds like another great read, but it is never a surprise to find it so since your book suggestions are always appealing!

    BTW….I love the charm of a southern accent!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, isn’t it amazing how many different ways we can come up with to judge each other? Yet these very differences keep life so interesting and varied! This really was an interesting book. I learned a lot, yet could read it again right now and learn even more. ha.

  14. Charlie | MississippiMom

    I can’t wait to check this book out! The English teacher in me is definitely intrigued by it, and this Southerner knows just what you mean about having people judge your accent. Mine is much more pronounced than it was when I was younger. After living overseas and being a “sympathetic accenter” like Bethany above, when I moved home, I absorbed my Mississippi accent in a way I never had before! Oh, and the improper use of “I” as an object of a preposition is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to grammar. I have been known to stop watching shows in which the writers make that mistake because it grates on my nerves so badly!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Oh, if you’re an English teacher, you definitely will enjoy this book, Charlie! I hope you’re able to find it. My public library had it so I could borrow it for free. (I was actually born in Mississippi myself. Although I never lived there, many of my relatives are still there.)

      I’m glad to know I’m not alone about that “I”! It drives me crazy but I know we’re going to have to let it go because it’s becoming more and more acceptable. 🙂

  15. Lesley

    This is a great post, Lisa. Different accents are so interesting. I didn’t know what a quotative was either, but I will confess I use “like” as one a bit too much. I think I’m more fussy about grammar in writing and less so in speaking!
    It’s funny how much accents can vary even in places fairly close together. I have a Scottish accent and when I lived in the south of England people were always fascinated by it and would ask me to repeat certain words. One lady even insisted that my accent was Irish and argued that I couldn’t possibly be Scottish even though I’d lived there most of my life!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      “Like” has definitely become a normal piece of grammar now, so I just have to accept it. ha. I use it myself, too. I was listening to a teenager talk the other day, and she probably used “like” AT LEAST once or twice in every single sentence. ha. I was particularly in tune to it from reading this book, but it just made me smile instead of irritated me. So that’s progress! 🙂

      I’d love to hear your accent! Scottish accents are so beautiful!

  16. Anita Ojeda

    Ouch! I confess that I suffer from grammar snobism (it’s ok if I make up new words, though ;)). I once put my iPhone on Australian accent and then asked Siri where Hobby Lobby was. Her response? “Which hubby would you like to call?” Talk about a misunderstanding! I’ve only ever had ONE hubby! ;).

  17. bluecottonmemory

    I used to tell my college writing students that dialect is great, but they need to be able to move to standard English in the workplace because people do judge. It can affect job evaluation (at least standard correctness in writing). Dialects are individual flavor to an area – just like recipes and dishes are to an area – they can enhance the experience. We would have such fun over coffee talking “grammar” – but, like you encourage, I need to make sure I don’t let my opinions of perfect grammar take away from the story or its teller!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I agree with you, Maryleigh. For better or worse, there still is a standard in the workplace and when in Rome, it’s often beneficial to speak as Romans do. “Individual flavor” – I like that imagery; we can add a little bit of sugar or salt or other flavors depending on our culture. 🙂

  18. Joanne Viola

    I enjoyed this post so much as I recalled how I was poked fun at for my accent when I moved to Boston from the Bronx. To this day, there are words which will still give away my place of origin. The GPS video had me laughing as I totally give directions based on landmarks and I am not the least bit southern 🙂 Always good to be your neighbor!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It is funny how certain words can give away our hometowns without us having to spell it out. I can imagine you’ve had some interesting accent mixes between Boston and the Bronx. 🙂

  19. Debbie Wilson

    Lisa, my small group is discussing James. And last week we looked at not showing favoritism. You thoughts could have contributed to our discussion. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I do tend to associate certain traits with ways of talking. Since I’m Southern, I think Southern accents are friendly!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, this discussion would fit perfectly into a discussion on James. Of course we would both understand each other during that discussion since we both have southern accents. 🙂 When we were in California last week I didn’t hear many southern accents…until we got on our flight to Nashville. ha.

  20. Lois Flowers

    Lisa, I have to admit that, somewhere along the way, I completely missed that you are from Alabama. (Did I judge from your lovely face that you are a Northerner? Upper Midwesterner? I don’t know.) Anyway, it’s always fun to hear someone’s voice for the first time, so I’m glad you included that little clip of yours. 🙂 I occasionally try to get my girls to stop saying “like,” but I’m beginning to think it’s a losing battle. And the “I” instead of “me” thing also gets me, especially in song lyrics. Lots of good thought fodder here … plus a new word for me (“quotative”).

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I agree that it’s so fun to hear each other’s voices, especially when we’ve had a different “voice” in our head that we’ve been imagining. It’s sort of like seeing a radio personality for the first time, after imagining their face by only hearing their voice. They rarely match up! ha. “Like” is definitely a losing battle. I made a small dent with my girls, but culture was too strong.

  21. Dolly

    This: “Don’t get hung up on a word or voice and miss the person. ” Love it!

    And I just finished the book Brown Girl Dreaming and in it, the author Jacqueline Woodson writes how her mother beat her brother because he didn’t speak “properly”…I think the word was “ain’t”… so your post made me think of that and how it affects how people parent

  22. Betty Draper

    Love the video and post. I gave up a long time ago trying to fix my southern accent. My neighbor, much younger then me got on to me one day because I used the word, Ant, instead of Aunt. She said I am not an ant, I told her that was sad because those little tiny ants could lift more then any aunt I knew. Of course I was joking, well sort of but she has not corrected me again. I use to try to correct myself till a loving saint of God corrected me in the fact God put me in the south, in a small town and I needed to embrace that. Still saying ant instead of aunt.

  23. Valerie Sisco

    Oh I love this (and I must read that book!) but how hilarious about your southern accent and someone thinking you weren’t American!! If you’ve ever met anyone from Pittsburgh, they have a very unique way of speaking and after growing up there, I’ve tried hard to remove any traces of that accent, although I can recognize it immediately! I’m guilty of judging on appearance and speech but I also know it’s part of what makes people unique and often is what connects us. Love this! xoxo

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      When I think of Pennsylvania, I typically think of Rocky Balboa’s accent (but that was Philadelphia, right?). ha. But I’m guessing there are lots of different accents represented in Pennsylvania other than his. 🙂 My neighbors growing up were actually from PA and, now that I think about it, they sounded nothing like Rocky. I’m guessing you don’t either. 🙂

  24. floyd

    What a great post! The real crazy part is how different even parts of the south are when it comes to accents. I’ve always found the ones with your accent are actually calming. It’s like a cool drink of water on a hot and humid day.

    Being from the south, I grew up with the accents and descriptive words. I slip and use them occasionally and people look at me like I’m from another planet, which gives me a good chuckle.

    The one word I always despised though, and took me decades to break the habit of, is “fixin”, as in “getting ready to do something. I think I’m the only one in my family that actually pulled it off!

    Some of the wisest people with the most God given common sense spoke in a language the supposed enlightened turned their nose up at and their ears off to…

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, even regions in Alabama have different accents. We are in north Alabama, but our oldest daughter Morgan has now lived in mid-Alabama for several years; the accents there are much more southern. She’s picked up even more of a southern accent as a result.

      I’m afraid I do still say “fixin” myself from time to time. 😉 It’s too hard a habit to break.

      I wonder what kind of accent Moses had, thinking himself unable to communicate clearly, and look how God used him!

  25. ~ linda

    Lisa, I love this! Being a Navy kid, I lived all around and loved accents, but never tried to imitate. I did pick up teen vernacular though. I lived a lot of my childhood and youth in California and found that people in other areas of the country would ask me, “Where are you from? Your accent is not one I know.” I smiled to myself, thinking that Californians had no accent! Still think that! : )
    I loved hearing your lovely voice. It makes me know you a teeny bit more! And the video with the GPS cracked me up! Thanks.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I wouldn’t be able to pick out a California accent myself. 🙂 I have trouble distinguishing between all the accents in our country. We’re quite diverse. As a Navy kid, you definitely heard many of them!

  26. Jean Wise

    as a word lover this post is wonderful. can’t wait to read that book and your stories and cartoon made me laugh. We are at my sister in laws right now – her hubby is Puerto rican so I have problem understand his accent. fun but thoughtful post, Lisa

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      This book will likely interest you too, Jean. For all us word-lovers, it’s our cup of tea. 🙂 I met a family of Puerto Ricans just last night. The grandmother spoke very little English, and combine that with my very little Spanish, and we didn’t communicate very well. ha. Thankfully the granddaughter knew the most English. The youngest always seem to pick up the quickest.

  27. GGMandy

    I love different accents! I tend to pick them up and start talking with the same accent as the person with whom I am conversing. I’ve often wondered if that insults them.

    I don’t do it purposely it just happens! I’ve picked up so many accents that I often have people say, “I know you aren’t from here, but where are you from?” ha!

    I definitely do not just them against it, but I am sure many do. 🙁

  28. Sarah Donegan

    Listen harder. Ouch. It is so much easier to write someone off than we want to think, isn’t it?
    I don’t judge southern accents, because half of my family lives in Tennessee. (we don’t hear deep accents here in Atlanta.) My husband sure can judge them though, and he has lived in Georgia all of his life. I have always found that interesting.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      If you have a lot of family in Tennessee, you are indeed quite familiar with southern accents. 🙂 I have a lot of family in Mississippi, who we often think are even more southern than we are in Alabama. Funny how that works. ha.

  29. Ashley Davis

    Behind on commenting. This happened to me when I worked in the call center at CPSI. Since we had hospitals all across the USA, people up north automatically knew I wasn’t actually there at the hospital. “You’re not from here are you?” “Where are you from?” I had a few tell me I sounded like I was from the Midwest, and I had a few people judge me based on my accent. Sadly, I do this with people as well, especially the deep Southern accents. It’s definitely something I need to work on. Thanks for this post. ?

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Ha. It is funny how people know when we’re “not from around here.” And vice-versa. I wouldn’t say you have much of a southern accent (but then again, I don’ think I do either, ha). But I guess it’s all in the comparison. 🙂

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