Do Southerners Speak Slowly?

US South

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One of the most commonly held assumptions about American accents is one with arguably negative connotations.  That would be the pernicious rumor that Southern people speak ‘slower’ than Northerners.  I put this assumption in quotation marks, of course, because it is very likely untrue.

Let’s turn to a relevant study.  In Joshua Tauberer and Keelan Evanini’s Intrinsic vowel duration and the post-vocalic voicing effect: Some evidence from dialects of North American English*, they find the following (emphasis mine):

The mean speaking rates (determined by excluding filled pauses and only consider- ing utterances containing at least five words) for 445 Northern and 1,421 Southern speakers … are both 193 words per minute.

Well, that didn’t take long.  It seems that after analyzing a huge number of speakers, Northerners and Southerners exhibit the same rate of speech.  Case closed?

You may notice that the above study is about ‘vowel duration,’ which is relevant here: listeners may confuse the length of vowels with the speed of speech.  And in this respect, the researchers indeed notice a gap between Northern and Southern accents, with Southern ‘word-final’ vowels** lasting 159 milliseconds, far more than the duration for New Yorkers, at 133 milliseconds.

One of the salient features of Southern drawls and/or twangs, of course, is that they lengthen or draw-out vowel sounds, rendering them diphthongs or triphthongs.  So in strong Southern accents ‘trap’ might almost seem to rhyme with Northern American English ‘pay up’ (i.e. IPA [tɹæjəp]).

You might expect this to equate to slower talking, but my (hardly unique) impression is that Southerners don’t draw out every single vowel, just ones that are prominent and stressed.  Hence a recent call to a customer service representative from below the Mason-Dixon line yielded “My name is Paaaaaat.  How may I help you todaaaaaay?”  Actors imitating Southerners will often make the mistake of ‘drawling’ every vowel (‘Maaaah naaaame eeeeeuuuz Paaaaat’), when I’m assuming most Southerners only do this with stressed syllables.

So my guess is that people perceive Southern accents as slower simply because Southerners pronounce certain vowels slower.  Not very insightful, perhaps. But I’ve yet to find evidence that this impacts the actual rate of speech.

*Tauberer, J., & Keelan, E. (2009). Intrinsic vowel duration and the post-vocalic voicing effect: Some evidence from dialects of North American English. Proceedings of Interspeech 2009, September 6-10, Brighton, UK, 2211-2214.

*A stressed vowel that appears at the end of a word: cat, attack, etc.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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15 Responses to Do Southerners Speak Slowly?

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    When people learn a foreign language they often complain that natives speak too fast for comprehension. What they are really saying is that they don’t know the language well enough to pick up what they are hearing. Getting back to northern versus southern, if a New Yorker says, “Awereyed,eyemowdaheer” when he leaves a room, i t’s going to sound fast to someone unfamiliar with the dialect. A southerner might say, “Ahmgointahleevenow” and give the same impression. Familiarity is a larger factor than speed when it comes down to it.

  2. Brooks says:

    My question is (for anyone who can answer it), if Southerners tend to pronounce (at least some) vowels longer than Northerners then how do they both still have the same mean speaking rate?

    @ Mark: I agree with your first point. I felt the same way about Spanish when I first started with it about 9 years ago. Now I think it’s just spoken at a normal speed, almost as slow as English (my mother tongue) actually. Dutch, which I don’t know except for a few words, sound quite a bit faster than Spanish and English to me. It really is though, according to the chapter about language speed in the book Language Myths (1998 Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill).

    • Brooks says:

      *sounds quite a bit faster… (I’ll master this language one day)

    • trawicks says:

      It’s a compelling question, Brooks, and one I don’t have easy answers to. It’s possible (although I have no idea) that Northerners use more pauses and discourse particles in their speech, or perhaps Southerners compensate for those lengthened vowels in other ways. I can only speculate!

    • Ellen K. says:

      Personally, my experience listening to, and trying to understand, Spanish speakers is that speaking rates vary and that some Spanish speakers speak significantly faster than any English speakers I’m familiar with (not counting auctioneers :)), but not all. And by faster, I mean the rate at which phonemes go by.

      Of course, it could be there actually are fast English speakers, and I don’t notice them, and that I’m unfairly comparing fast Spanish speakers with average speed English speakers.

      But, either way, for me, the Spanish speakers speak faster perception doesn’t apply to all Spanish speakers.

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  4. Jessica says:

    Thank you! This makes complete sense. I am a native southerner and one of our biggest complaints about tv/film is that the actors playing southern sound so fake, but we don’t really understand why. After reading this post, I have to say I think you hit the nail on the head here–we do not draw out every single vowel, only certain ones.

    • matt says:

      I have to agree from a new Englander perspective, tv and movies often potray our accent very very poorly. It’s so bad that even movies like good will hunting staring Matt Damon FROM BOSTON!! Can’t even get the Boston accent right. It kills me.

  5. Clarence says:

    Southerners do speak slower than Yankees. Speaking slower than I think is a habit that has been a saving grace at times. Yankees talk much faster than they could possibly be thinking. 😉
    Perhaps we also need a comparison of speech rates to driving habits, as related to speed and patience with other drivers? 😛

    I even chose “I Talk Slower Than I Think” as my book title because of this perception.
    As far as the lengthened vowel and same rate of speech: as a Southerner, I know I clip off or omit some consonants, especially trailing -ing. “I’m goin’ to pick up the Studebaker from the shop.” Lengthen the vowels, omit some consonants and you have about the same speed.
    On a more serious note, you present a great case. Nice article.

  6. Clarence says:

    Likewise, there is a zero-net relationship of letter “Rs” between Massachusetts and New York. Those not used in the word, “Hahvad” migrate south to show up in “Terlit.”
    It’s a physics-based system, where matter moves or changes form but is never lost from the system. 😉

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  8. Stephen says:

    I would like to interject into this discussion an objective observation as to why we (Southerners) seem “slower”. I am smiling as I attribute it partially to humidity.

    In a humid environment, our internal air conditioning systems are less effective because the air cannot cause evaporation of moisture off our skins nearly as efficiently as it can in a dryer environment. This causes less body heat to leave the body, therefore more sweating, still less heat leaving, therefore more sweating, etc ….

    This causes us southerners to move at a more leisurely pace, and just the right speed of leisurely pace. If one moves too fast, too much heat is created in the body that does not get to leave, so one sweats more. If one moves too slow, it is like standing in a steamer, so one sweats more. We find that JUST RIGHT speed to walk and move that is not too fast, and not so slow so we do not get that slight breeze.

    Another objective observation is that this affects our speech. Yes we draw out our vowels, but mostly the important ones. The ones not needing emphasizing will not get emphasized. In fact, we may just barely pronounce them. This may be the reason why our accent is so hard to get right by actors and the like. They TRY (TRAH) to hard. The actors are trained to make every word understandable, to form their lips precisely. Listen to how Jeff Daniels in the newer “True Grit ” production speaks when he is in court. Though this is not a southern accent in its entirety, it is as close to correct as I have heard an actor portray it.

    The southern accent is actually the easiest to adopt over time as it does not require one’s lips to move very much. Again, I am smiling.

    Southern society, southern culture, is a complicated thing.

    Stephen

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  10. I spent much of my life in South Carolina. My best friend in high school was working class. He spoke at a normal speed. Most Southerners didn’t seem to speak slower to me. However, a neighbor of ours was an official Southern Belle from an old family and she took her heritage seriously. She did speak with a languid slowness. There is definitely a class difference in Southern accents.

  11. Clarence says:

    Southerners only feel a need to speak slowly to Yankees. Just kidding, of course. 🙂