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.”

9 replies on “A Linguist Explains the Baltimore Accent (and Kathy Bates)”

  1. My daughter is “making” me watch AHS with her and the only thing that gets me past that friggin’ terrifying clown is listening to Kathy Bates. She is fantastic and her Bawlermerese lightens the load of that …clown.

    1. Let me guess, you’re from the county? She’s over doing it but BARLEY. Head down to Hamden or spead an hour with my Overlea raised grandmother and you’ll realize this is pure Balmer hon.

    2. Also AA County = not Baltimore. Chesapeake Bay = Not Baltimore. Gotta love everyone from within 100 miles of Towson claiming Baltimore.

  2. I live in Hampden and I think she is over doing it a bit. It almost sounds like a parody of a Baltimorean accent. It is, however, starting to warm up on me but only because I think I’m getting used to it. But the first time I heard it, it was kind of grating.

  3. If you don’t think that is a Baltimore accent, please come to east Baltimore and the towns that border the city there. Her accent is almost perfect.

  4. Baltimore accents do not sound like that, only if you live downtown. Baltimore accents make the i in Baltimore into an ah sound so its like baltahmore or baltemore and usually use words like sick and mean as a good thing. I know because I am from Baltimore city.

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