Home Me ‘n ol’ Stephen Colbert hide our accents to try to sound smarter: Here’s why

Me ‘n ol’ Stephen Colbert hide our accents to try to sound smarter: Here’s why

stephen colbert
(© Ovidiu Hrubaru – Shutterstock)

I have something in common with Stephen Colbert. We both, at a young age, thinking ahead to trying to make it big on TV, decided that we weren’t going to have a Southern accent.

Colbert, a D.C. native who grew up in South Carolina, said in a 2015 interview that a Southern accent would probably hold him back, which is the case for everyone in broadcasting not named Marty Smith.

I made the same call after deciding that I wanted to give broadcasting a try.

Colbert, of course, got a little further into the broadcast world than I did – the highest rung on the ladder for me was regional ESPN+ college sports broadcasts, not quite my own late-night TV talk show.

(I haven’t given up yet.)

I bring this up in the context of a study released by the University of Chicago and the University of Munich confirming that people with strong regional accents face a wage penalty of 20 percent compared to those who speak with a “standard accent.”

This wage penalty, which equates to about $9,000 per year on average, is equivalent to that of the gender wage gap, according to the researchers.

Those of you reading this from my native Virginia think you have it tougher than most in that respect. According to another study, from the Writing Tips Institute, we’re the most likely to try to hide our accents in job interviews – 45 percent of us do.

I’d be more prone to having the Southern Appalachian accent, which is defined as non-rhotic, meaning the “r” sound at the end of words is often dropped or softened.

The accent also features a distinctive pronunciation of certain vowel sounds, such as the “i” in “like” sounding more like “lak”.

I can’t talk like that if I tried, and I’ve tried.

Which is to say, I don’t sound like my mom, whose deep Southern accent was something that I’d not noticed until I was a first-year at UVA back a million years ago, and she left a voicemail for me that had my jaw dropping.

“Chri-us, this is your ma-wum,” she began, and it hit me like a brick – how many extra syllables there were in her way of talking.

(And she was born and spent the first seven years of her life in Pennsylvania. Go figure, right?)

My wife has noticed that I can switch back and forth between having an accent and not depending on the situation, which is something that I haven’t even noticed about myself.

But then, she’s from Minnesota, and yet she’ll occasionally sound more Southern than me trying to say the word for the number five, which she’ll sometimes pronounce “feyeve” – emphasis on the “eye.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].