Accents Make or Break the Man

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"Bond. James Bond."

Imagine those words delivered with a nasal Chicago accent a la Mike Ditka and suddenly the British superspy doesn't seem so super. And if 007 had to seduce exotic women while talking like he grew up on "Lawn Guyland," he probably wouldn't have bedded Pussy Galore or nixed Dr. No.

Conversely, a rangy Australian accent can give a bookish nebbish the appeal of a brawny gladiator, while a French accent can make a bus driver seem ultra sophisticated.

Accents, in other words, are sexy.

Ask Frances File (not her real name), a 25-year-old booker for a TV show who lives in New York. When she first heard her ex-beau cooing in French, her heart melted like nicely ripened Brie.

"I had the fantasy of living in France, raising bilingual kids, having a house in Provence. We'd go to French restaurants and he'd be chatting with the staff in French," she said. "It was very attractive."

That File favored a French twist was no surprise to Sam Chwat. He's the director of New York Speech Improvement and a renowned speech coach who's both given accents to and removed accents from such stars as Robert De Niro, Julia Roberts, Andie MacDowell, Patrick Stewart, James Gandolfini, and Jude Law.

"We have stereotypical reflexes," he said. "I say French, you think upscale, sexy, Paris by moonlight. I say Russian, and you're no longer thinking atomic bomb, but something sultry and slinky, blondes with ulterior motives."

But Walter Wolfram, a professor of sociolinguistics at North Carolina State University, said it's more than a simple matter of stereotyping. He's a specialist in perceptual dialectology, the study of how people define which dialects they like and which they don't.

"We tend to take accents for granted or minimize them, but in reality they are incredible symbols to judge everything from intelligence to trustworthiness," he said. 

That's why Americans almost universally like British dialects, which are associated with dry wit and charm, or the Australian and Irish accents.

"Basically, we still have a kind of colonial mentality," Wolfram said. "It doesn't make that much difference what kind of British accent it is — it might be a relatively stigmatized British accent, but it sounds erudite to Americans. I've run into academics who have British accents yet were born in Bloomington, Ind., and picked up the accent because it made them sound smarter.

"If women like an intelligent-sounding guy who can be charming, yeah, I guess a British accent is a good thing to have," he said.

The cultural significance behind an elongated vowel or clipped consonant is also why regional accents evoke markedly different reactions, depending on who's listening and the gender of the person who's speaking.

"It's more than a stereotype, it's a sort of symbological association," Wolfram said. "Behind the stereotype, there's a reality people are reacting to, or an historical association.

"Southern speech might be valued in terms of charm and emotive qualities but not in terms of competence, feminine for women but not good for men or lawyers. We're schizoid about our accents. Southerners attribute competence to Northern accents but for them it also carries the connotation of an impolite, superior-feeling culture."

In an informal Internet poll, men flooded an e-mail box with their raves about how a woman with a gentle Southern drawl made them "weak in the knees." One man, married to a Northerner for 20 years, called the dulcet voice of a Southern Mississippi belle "one of the most seductive sounds in the world."

"If the accent also happens to intone that I am the 'big strong man' while she is just slightly helpless, so much the better," he wrote. "They just don't make them like that anymore."

But, just as Wolfram could have predicted, another Southern man who recently moved to Colorado e-mailed that he felt that his accent was a detriment.

"I can tell you that a Southern drawl is not the best way of going about finding a mate," he wrote. "In fact, it is counterproductive. People who grew up in regions other than the South automatically assume you are stupid if you have a Southern accent."

A native Philadelphian, Wolfram himself has suffered the downside of accent bias.

"I've had students who said when I started teaching them they thought I was dumb because I talk like Rocky," he said, chuckling.

And even those endowed with sexy accents can find it more of a hindrance than a help. Chwat said he's worked with countless clients who opted to trade in their exotic enunciation for Plain Jane "American."

"We might find the Australian accent or the French or German accent alluring, but for them it's a distraction from the content of their speech," he said. "It objectifies them. They want people to listen to what they're saying, not to how they're saying it."

And that, Frances File said, is why accents ultimately prove to be nothing more than the icing on the cake.

"People aren't stereotypes," she said. "Relationships are relationships, no matter what."