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Home » Discover Rackham » I came to Michigan to study Southern accents…or so I thought

I came to University of Michigan to study Southern dialects in the media. That's right. I left the South after spending the first 25 years of my life split between South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina in order to do research on Southern dialects.

The usual response I get when I tell people this is “Why?! Why leave the comfort and warmth of the South to come north and study dialects from the place you were before?”

The main reason I came here is pretty straightforward. One of the major researchers on language in the media is here. The more interesting reason I came here is that portrayals of media in the South aren't just shown in the South. After all, media is everywhere, so it's important to see what its effects are in multiple places.

I've had plenty of experience seeing how dialect in the media affects speakers and non-speakers of that dialect alike. I grew up seeing Southerners on television and in movies being shown as rednecks and hillbillies. That was also when I got to experience firsthand how some people saw and treated Southerners. Sometime in late elementary school, a family of six from California moved to my town. They were vocal about their disdain for the South. On the way to swim practice one day, we were talking about where we wanted to go to college. My mom's side of the family is from California, and I really liked it out there when we'd visit them, so at the time I really wanted to go to Stanford. When I told the family this, they openly laughed at me. A girl from the South would never meet Stanford's admissions requirements. I should have more realistic expectations for my future.

I know this family doesn't represent the entirety of Californians and how they view Southerners. I also know that they aren't necessarily an anomaly either. I started wondering where their attitudes came from, especially since it was their first time living in the South. A few potential sources came to mind, but one that stood out to me was media. Could media be contributing to their perception of my capabilities?

Because of this experience, I paid even more attention to what I saw in the media. It started to bother me. Sure, there are people who come close to the stereotypes in the real world. But the stereotypes were all I would see in the media, and it just didn't fit with what I saw around me. I couldn't see myself in these people even though they were supposed to represent my region.

There was a point too when I realized that if I felt like this with Southern accents, how must other dialects groups besides my own feel? What about dialects associated with other social features (ethnicity, for example) that are also stereotyped in media?

That's why I'm studying what I am now. I've moved away from studying production of Southern dialects in media and turned towards the perception angle. My dissertation looks more generally at the role media might play as one potential source of viewer attitudes by digging into what viewers take from different pieces of media. I want to see the ways viewers might be affected by what they hear and see in media from a linguistic perspective.

So, why did I come to Michigan to study Southern accents? It turns out I didn't, at least not solely. I came to Michigan to study language in the media with one of the specialists of the field. My research has taken a slightly different direction than I initially thought it would. I've expanded my focus to look broadly at language in the media. But I’m really enjoying what I'm doing here. Plus, being here at Michigan has given me the chance to apply for ample funding so my dissertation can be what I envision it being. I'll be getting enough funds to pay short-term research assistants with regional accents to record passages. I’m even going to be able to work with a longer-term research assistant (preferably able to speak with a Southern accent) to test regional accent reception. (If participating in this project is something that sounds interesting to you, shoot me an e-mail at heheaton@umich.edu. The scheduling is flexible.)

Studying the South in Michigan has been a fascinating experience. I've gotten a lot of really great responses. It's nice to see that not everyone is like that family from California I encountered as a kid.

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