Imagine meeting somebody randomly on the street. He or she might dress differently and have different interests or values but if you engage them in conversation and discover that you share a common native land, there’s a good chance of a connection. In terms of U.S. regional accents, the Northeast, South and upper Midwest are particularly distinctive and I’ve grown to like them all. I am partial to the South however and a strong southern accent on a woman who is attractive and intelligent will make me smile every time. The only ones that I dislike (no offense) are the standard reporter voice and the valley girl/surfer that is unfortunately common among Millennials from coast to coast.
There are lots of variations within each region as well as within the same state. I can tell the difference between north Alabama and south Alabama. Same with Upstate and Low Country South Carolina. Tidewater Virginia is VERY much different from its Appalachian region especially west of Roanoke. However, all of them can be identified as Southern. Within other regions, the story is the same. A trained ear can distinguish between Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Same with Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago but again, the region is easily identifiable.
I have a pretty strong southern accent myself but it’s difficult to pinpoint it because I’ve spent at least 2 years in 4 different states (AL, SC, WV, PA). In my travels, people have guessed that I was from anywhere from Kentucky to North Carolina and I’ve heard Texas and Louisiana as well. It’s basically a non-issue for me here in Alabama and that’s how I like it. In 10 years, I’ve only had 3-4 people comment on it at all and it was noticed to be “just a little bit different.” Maybe someday, I’ll post a YouTube clip for anyone who is curious.
Can you pick up a southern accent later in life if you were not born and raised here? Some people will pick up different accents easier than others but my answer is yes. It does depend on when and depends on where you move. Most linguists say that your native speech sets sometime between about 13-15 years of age. In my experience, that’s not always true. One of the CPAs that I have dealt with at work claims that she moved here from Kansas City at 21 but you could have sworn that she was born and raised in Alabama. Another is from Michigan and you can tell but there is a definite twang mixed in there. A college friend from Maryland went to grad school near NYC and could have passed for a New Yorker within a few years but lost it when he moved back to the Mid-Atlantic. I had more of an Appalachian sound in West Virginia but lost some of it back in South Carolina. Once you are into your mid-late 20s however, it probably won’t change very much.
A lot of it depends on actual contact with native speakers. If you were to move to a city such as Dallas, Charlotte or Atlanta with a high percentage of transplants, your speech probably will remain the same if not become more neutral. Children who grow up there probably won’t have much of an accent either especially if their parents are transplants. On the other hand, if you moved to Mississippi or Alabama where most of the population is native to the region, you probably will pick up some of the speech patterns even if you move there as a young adult. In the Birmingham area, you are more likely to hear southern accents in outer suburbs such as McCalla or Gardendale than Homewood or downtown. I do think that if you really like the region, you will be more likely to adopt its speech patterns at least subconsciously.
Reaction to me when I travel outside the South:
Mostly positive overall. I’ve gotten a lot of kind and flattering comments. My favorite was from a guy who said that he would pay money for an extended audio recording. LOL. I’ve made several friends randomly as a result of it as well. However, there have been some negatives too. I’ve been called a “hick” many times by northerners, which I find offensive because it implies that I am uneducated and have been stereotyped as such. Good natured imitations are fine even if poorly done but if you carry it on for several minutes straight, it gets old and tired. At the end of the day, I don’t mind people commenting on it but just don’t obsess. I can have a sense of humor but expect to be taken seriously when the situation calls for it. For those reasons, I don’t think I would want to live where my speech would be an issue. Alabama is where I belong.