By Dakota Collins
People love to make fun of the South, and as a born and bred Tennessean with family ties spanning both sides of the Civil War, I can say there are plenty of reasons to do so, but not numbered among them is this: the southern accent.
A southern drawl has become the go-to voice to adopt when ironically mimicking an ignorant opinion, creating a not-so-bright caricature, or, put simply, whenever the audience needs to understand that the character is an idiot. The bumbling hillbilly stereotype is so deeply perpetuated in modern media, it’s been ingrained in the human psyche that anyone who speaks with a southern accent must, therefore, be stupid.
Before delving into what’s harmful about this assumption, I would like to make it clear that it is simply untrue. Like any cultural group (and yes, hillbillies are a cultural group, most notably poor Appalachians, usually white, but not always), hillbillies come in a thousand-and-one types. To say that there are not a number of truly stupid people among those types would be a lie; however, to say that all thousand-and-one of them are stupid would be the far greater lie.
My mother is from Poor Valley, Tennessee, which is just as bleak of a place as it sounds, wrought with opioids and bad infrastructure. All her life, she’s spoken with a thick Appalachian accent, something she inherited from her parents. In addition to speaking with an accent, she is a breast cancer survivor, #1 songwriter on the Billboard charts, business owner, and international copyright law expert regularly employed by the USPTO. She has had a genius-level IQ since she was a child, and if she tells people any of that, their eyebrows fly right up their foreheads in shock, because she says it with a southern accent.
She is the kind of educated hillbilly that might be excused as an exception to the rule — “well, sure, it’s not okay to make fun of people based on their accent, but clearly, this woman is an outlier.” But the fact of the matter is, most hillbillies don’t have access to opportunities like higher—or even lower—education. Education in America is a privilege that comes with money; either one’s own, or, in the case of public schools, property taxes from one’s neighbors. Most of the American South is rural, most rural areas in America are poor, and most rural areas in the American South are abysmally poor. In stigmatizing the voices of southern Americans, one is, however inadvertently, stigmatizing the voices of poor Americans.
Yet, despite their lack of quality formal education opportunities, even those hillbillies who don’t go on to become scholars or hit songwriters can be and, overall, are geniuses in their own informal way. My paternal grandmother is from Missouri, and got married and had my uncle by the time she was nineteen-years-old. Her accent is so thick that she can barely use talk-to-text (although she perseveres), she’s missing one of her front teeth, and though she has yet to master the art of pronouncing the word “tortilla,” she is, undoubtedly, one of the smartest people I have ever known. She built her current home by herself, has a beautiful garden year-round, collects and correctly identifies fossils and arrowheads, and can fix anything from a leaky faucet to an eggplant parmesan.
It can be easy to fit southerners into one neat red box wearing a MAGA hat, drinking a Mountain Dew, beating their spouse, and calling someone a slur, but it’s just as easy to step back and realize that the American South is the nation’s most populous region. 114,555,744 people live here. To assume that all of them can be roped into one category is just as ignorant as assuming all fifteen-million people living in New York are the same, and certainly more ignorant than any handful of hillbillies are compared to what the stereotypes say.
So, the next time you need a funny voice to make fun of someone dumb, think about the implications of stereotyping a person based on how they sound. If you wouldn’t use the sound of your own voice as a punchline, would you use someone else’s?
The south decided to end public education. They essentially decided to be dumb.
What an ignorant statement! Do you know we have public education? We also have some of the best and most esteemed universities in the nation. People in the south are not stupid, not sure where you are but you might buy a mirror.
stereotypes are 80% true. Southerners are both dumb and racist. Sorry, not sorry.
Yes. I currently reside in Georgia, and the place is rife with idiots and cretins (or some combination of both). I will be moving back to the WC.
I enjoyed your article very much. I grew up in SC and despite my Sewanee education, I still pronounce some words with a Southern slant. I am proud of my heritage and southern manners.
You might be interested in researching the etymology of the hillbilly moniker. I read once it has its roots in those persecuted for their faith in Europe. They were followers of William of Orange so called Billy’s boys. They also wore red bandanas as badges of identity so were called rednecks. Anyway, thanks for your defense of my southern heritage.
Sure, rural southern hill folk are geniuses, lol. At what? Standing around and saying “we don’t like yer kind round hea?” Carrying AK47 to Walmart for a normal grocery shopping trip? Are they geniuses at “no fat chicks” bumper sticker having? Or perhaps at shouting “Ma, get mu gun.” Or overalls and no shirts? Or not owing shoes? Or missing teeth? Really? What are they so genius at? Getting hit by tornado in a trailer park?
I’m from the south myself, but don’t have much of an accent. I just got off the phone with a relative, also from the south, who has a fairly thick accent. He owns his own business and is quite accomplished. However, he annoyed me when he pronounced window “winder”. He calls his daughter “Anner”, her name is Anna. He was also commenting about his “Tesler” stock (Tesla). Reading your article calmed me, for now, LOL. I can understand an accent, but to straight-up pronounce a word incorrectly drives me nuts. My relative knows how to spell window, Anna and Tesla, but it just comes out wrong.
Hillbillies are dumb as a MAGA hat.
Ngl I dont think of idiots when I hear a southern accent. I think, “wow these people will probably kill me if i breathe a little too gay”.
U.S. southerners will always be viewed as somewhat “stupid”. But to be fair, many of them are. To deny that is, well, mindless denial. There are stupid people everywhere these days, the plague is certainly spreading. If this country would pass legislation against ATVs, modified mufflers and large trucks, maybe we could drive all the dumb rednecks out.
I never knew that! Wow. But I was told NEVER to believe what you see on the Internet. How am I SURE? Thanks!!
i dont take any one word for being intelligent, I need to converse
and I understand southern accent.
I’m from Chicago but my mom is an Alabama southern belle, and I recently moved to NC. The southern accent, while unheard in the north is quite charming and warm, unique and intriguing. It’s on the same footing as some who find British accents endearing. It’s usually the individual, not the way they speak which is or isn’t stupid.
People also believe deaf people are stupid when they speak.
I went to a school with deaf kids, learned ASL and had many classes with them. I could not pronounce my R’s , my wife had the same issue as a young child and we were both sent to a speech therapist to correct this. Many people have asked if I was raised in the south because my Mother instilled manners and respect for women (but I am 2nd generation German Jew), Maybe we should have been born down south and we could have been allowed to speak the way we wanted.
Many people make fun of Asian and Spanish accents, my wife’s mother was born in Poland, raised in France and married an American GI in WW2, she was often mistaken for Asian on the phone by ignorant arrogant people, she did not teach her kids anything but english so they could make it further in life. America is supposed to be a melting pot but has never been very accepting of its new emigrants.
I often wonder if the Southern accent is from a speech impediment that was allowed to flourish instead of being forced into mainstream speech, similar to when my mother had her left hand tied behind her back as a child forcing her to be right handed. Thankfully she allowed me to stay left handed to avoid the trauma she went through.
Our society still has a lot to learn, with acceptance of diversity being the biggest lesson to learn. If Southerners want more respect of their local dialect, perhaps they should begin by being more accepting of others as well. Respect is earned through action, not words.
Both sides do this, but focusing on Southerners – I blame the politicians Southerner’s elect to office. Whenever I see something ignorant (simplistic solutions to complex issues), cruel or border-line racist blatted out on Fox, OANN, or Newsmax, 99,0% of the time, it’s coming from a conservative Southern politician – HAMMING up their southern dialect to gain points with an extremist base in order to win primaries – they don’t believe half the sh** they say. It makes it easy to ridicule if you’re not conservative, and not from the south (while reasonable conservatives just hang their head, and grin & bear the embarrassment). I’ve visited 80% of the South – from Texas, all the way to the Virginia. Mostly I find the people (white and black) to have good manners, often more well-read than their “Yankee” counterparts, BUT the representatives “represent” the worst in that society. Similarly, one could say the same of the extreme progressive left (just maybe not using any accent in particular – but same ignorance in the opposite direction).
Transplanted Southerners without manners and a forced drawl are the worst….. so there, I said it. I have known wiley attorneys that hide behind a dumb good ‘ole boy attitude and make a killing from lawsuits against corporations America, and mechanics that can fix any type of engine, but can’t pronounce the name of a third of the parts, but all and all, most Southerners are good people, caring when you are sick and the show up when you die….the salt of the earth.
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