I hear Southerners complaining all the time about Southern accents on television; while I don’t have much of a Southern accent, I have been around it for long enough to have a good feel for what makes a good one and what makes a really, really bad one. Southerners are constantly amused by television’s attempts to represent their dialect. They either exaggerate or lump all the features together, or they characterize the person as a backwoods hick.
Then there are TV shows that are supposedly set in the South, but there’s nary a [pɪn] for [pɛn] to be found.
Welcome to Mystic Falls, Virginia, the fictional town setting of The Vampire Diaries. For those of you who don’t watch trashy TV, the basic premise is your typical, century-old vampire from the Civil War Era falls in love with teenage mortal, who happens to look exactly like the vampire that he was in love with when he was human. Thrilling stuff, I assure you, but I’ll keep the summaries to a minimum from here on out.
When I began watching the show, I noticed how the actors manipulate their language and accents to underscore shifts in time periods (as with all good shows, there are lots of flashbacks) and to convey the “oldness” of particular vampires. Initially, it seemed simple, but after re-watching the episodes armed with my newfound understanding of phonology, I began to pick up on some interesting trends.
First of all, there is a distinct lack of Southern accents. This seems unusual if you think about it: all of the characters are descended from old families who founded the town pre-Civil War; one main character (a vampire) fought for the Confederacy; it would appear on the surface that they should all identify themselves as Southerners who would have strong social motivations to have some markers of a Southern dialect. Antebellum culture is a source of pride for many of the characters, with various town celebrations occurring in Civil War-era costume and celebrating events from that time period. According to Rick Aschman’s dialect map, Virginia residents should have the pin/pen merger. Yet the actors and actresses use unmarked, “General American” English.
When the show begins providing back stories for some of the characters, including flashbacks to 1490, things start to get interesting, especially from a phonological perspective. The earliest place we find Katarina (later Katherine) is in Bulgaria in 1490, so she speaks…Bulgarian. This choice seems logical if you know that Nina Dobrev, the actress who plays both Katherine (the vampire) and Elena (Katherine’s teenaged human doppelganger and show’s heroine—see isn’t this show intriguing?) is Bulgarian and speaks French, English, and Bulgarian fluently. Katherine’s family name is Petrova, and instead of using the Anglicized [pɛtɹo͡ʊvə], she says [pətɾɔvʌ]; all of the vowels are a little bit more back than in the Anglicized pronunciation, and the /ɹ/ is a flap (which sounds almost like a trill). Whenever Elena (played by the same actress) says “Petrova,” she uses the Anglicized version. This distinction would seem to indicate that the show consciously manipulates phonetics for certain effects, at least on fairly minor levels.
In the story line, Katarina leaves Bulgaria for England and “becomes English,” which (somewhat hilariously) means adopting a horrifically fake British accent. And if there’s a British accent in a show for an American audience, it’s most likely to be an RP British accent, which is what all of the actors from these scenes use. Historical linguistics may be amused and/or annoyed when this pops up because it is not the dialect in use in the late 15th century, but it is the dialect perceived by American teenagers as “old” and “British.” All of the actors employing RP pronunciation drop /ɹ/ between a vowel and a consonant and in word-final positions. Nina Dobrev’s accent is so bad because this feature and the pronunciation of vowels is exaggerated a bit too much; it’s recognizable as British, but if you’re paying attention and listen to the other native-RP speakers in the same scene, you hear how affected it is.
Interestingly, there is a character, Elijah, who exists in the 1492 timeline and the present, and his language patterns shift depending on which time period he is in. 1492 Elijah speaks with a “stronger” RP accent (dropped /ɹ/, vowels); however, in the present, he speaks with a “weaker” British accent—/ɹ/ is used, and his pronunciation is closer to “General American,” though with some distinctions that give his speech a vaguely British feel. (As it turns out, he’s from Canada, but lived in New Zealand for much of his young life.) For instance, he says, “I believe the term you’re searching for is OMG,” and he pronounces the /u/ a bit lower than an American might, and his /ɹ/ in “term” sounds a bit more deliberate.
The show also flashes back to the 1864, Civil-War era Mystic Falls, and the language patterns shift to match. Initially, I struggled to pick out distinctive phonological features of this time period, but then I realized that there were none; the actors simply used archaic phrasings that we hear as “more proper.” For example, the actors used the following phrases that stood out to me as archaic or formal: “I wish” or “For a short while,” “Until tomorrow,” “You must hurry,” “I shall go too,” and “It will get the best of you,” avoiding the contraction “I’ll.” Otherwise, fairly standard “General American.”
Only one character had any phonological markers of a genteel Southerner; George Lockwood, member of one of the founding families, tended to drop /ɹ/ medially and in word final positions, such as [cɑnvɛsa͡iʃn] for “conversation” and [ji͡ə] for “year.” His character existed in the 1864 timeline, however, and was subtle enough to not be overwhelming. (He’s also a werewolf[i], just so you know).
Finally, I was able to identify one character in the episodes I watched that had a few phonological features of the Southern dialect. Two witches (yes, there are witches, and unfortunately, for some reason on this show all the witches are black) moved to Mystic Falls, supposedly from Louisiana: Luka and his father. Luka displays a few subtle variations that are characteristic of a Southern dialect; for example, he says “here” not as [hiɹ] but as [hi͡ə], dropping the final /ɹ/. He also has the characteristic pin/pen merger (saying [bɪnɛt] instead of [bɛnɛt]), though it doesn’t seem consistent. His father, however, showed none of those features in his speech, so it seems likely that the actor who plays Luka has some of these features in his native dialect.
So while it seems that, in an attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience, the show’s producers avoid using Southern dialects for their supposedly Southern characters, they do seem to manipulate accents and language use. These uses convey shifting timelines, reinforce the “oldness” of some of the vampire characters, and add an intriguing dimension to what might be dismissed as trashy TV. Although some of the features I picked up on are unlikely to be consciously written into the show, the fact that the same actors/characters use different ways of speaking demonstrates that much of it is deliberate. And perhaps we should be grateful they refrain from using the Southern dialect since so many shows fail miserably when they try.