Some folks over at Vox decided they were not satisfied Kathy Bates’s Twitter announcement that she is, indeed, attempting a hardcore Highlandtown accent for her role as a bearded lady on American Horror Story. So they enlisted the help of a linguist to go deeper into this particular attempt at dialect. The answer? Baltimore, yes — but also “back vowel-fronting,” it turns out.
Linguist Kara Becker points out that Bates’s accent sounds weird because she’s not a native speaker: “So she’s using the ‘right’ features, but she’s not a native speaker. Like most people who are not native speakers, when they put on accents, it’s not going to sound exactly right.”
The key feature of the Baltimore accent is identified by a sound change called “fronting back vowels.” It’s an accent feature that probably started in the South, according to Becker, where vowels that are usually pronounced with the tongue in the back of the mouth (like the “oo” in goose”) are instead pronounced with the tongue in the front (“gewse”).
Becker also points out that one reason so many people outside of Baltimore were baffled by Bates’s accent is less because she’s doing a bad job, and more because “the larger television audience is not that familiar with a working-class Baltimore accent.”
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