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The study uncovers how stereotypes about Southern accents in the United States can overpower the actual sounds people hear.

“I focus specifically on a type of convergence I call expectation-driven convergence, because what people are doing is shifting their speech to match what they think somebody will sound like — even if they don’t actually sound like that,” says study author Lacey Wade, an assistant professor in the KU Department of Linguistics, in a university release.

“If you tell somebody ‘You’re going to be listening to and talking to a Southerner,’ even if they’re hearing a talker from Ohio — which is what happened in this study — they shift their speech to sound more Southern, based on these sorts of stereotypes about what a Southern accent sounds like.”

One key focus of the study was the pronunciation of the “long I” sound in English, a diphthong combining “ah” and “ee” sounds. In standard American English, this sound is distinct, but those with a Southern accent often drop the second vowel, making the word “ride” sound closer to “rod.”

The study involved 118 participants playing a “Word Naming Game,” where researchers analyzed the pronunciation of the “long I” sound. Initially, participants answered questions in their natural speech to establish a baseline. They were then misled about the accent of the person reading them clues in the next phase, either being told the speaker had a Southern or Midland accent. In reality, the accents were always the opposite of what was stated.

Interestingly, the participants’ reactions differed based on their origin. Those from Southern states only altered their speech if they were actually hearing a Southern accent, while those from outside the South did so based on what they were told, showing a marked influence of stereotypes.

“People do generate these expectations, and the question here was: How strong are those expectations? And can they override what a person is actually hearing?” notes Wade.

The study is published in the journal Glossa Psycholinguistics.

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