Oak Ridge National Laboratory cancelled a “Southern accent reduction” class after it reportedly offended some of its staff. It would have taught employees how to speak with a more neutral accent.
The way people talk is loaded with hidden codes and connotations, says Nettie Kraft, a dialect coach for the TV show “Nashville.” For example, some people misinterpret the slow Southern accent as slowness of mind — “that in some way or shape, you were ignorant and uneducated and barefoot and walking around in the swamps or up in the hills,” she says.
That’s just a nasty stereotype, of course. But some people worry that colleagues will immediately focus on the way they talk instead of what they’re saying, Kraft says. So they might try to change their dialect to what’s considered neutral English.
“That’s basically what they trained people to sound like if they wanted to be on national news. And it kind of comes from Ohio or Indiana, kind of the heartland of America.”
On “Nashville,” Kraft helps actors master different regional dialects. But she also works with some Southern actors who feel that they’d be more marketable around the country if they had a more generic accent.
Movies and TV shows often perpetuate these negative stereotypes about regional dialects. But Kraft says, all an accent should say about you is where you’re from.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that it was already offering accent reduction training to non-native English speakers. In Nashville, Lee Martin, assistant director of Vanderbilt’s English Language Center, says the university also helps non-native speakers, but only to help them speak more clearly to their audience — generally, American college students.
“We do offer pronunciation classes, but our goal is not to eliminate their accent,” Martin says.