Regional road hazards

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This GEICO commercial reinforces the general impression that a southern accent is intrinsically amusing:

And here's a tree limb from New York City (?):

At least, it's from somewhere r-less with æ-raising before nasals (e.g. wham) but not before voiceless stops (e.g. happening)…

These are the only ads that I've seen featuring talking road hazards with cute accents, but surely there must be others: a roofing nail from Boston? A clogged fuel line from Minnesota?

Of course, GEICO's public face for years has been a spokes-gecko who speaks Estuary English:


  1. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 8:47 am

    There's a lot of speculation online about the identity of the woman doing the voiceover in the pothole commercial — some guesses collected on WikiAnswers include Stephanie Weir ("MadTV"), Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy the Texas Squirrel on "Spongebob Squarepants"), Emily Procter ("The West Wing," "CSI: Miami"), Jaime Pressly ("My Name is Earl"), and Kellie Pickler ("American Idol"). (FWIW, Procter, Pressly, and Pickler are all from North Carolina.) When asked, a GEICO representative on Facebook would only say that she's "a voiceover actress out of New York."

  2. John Cowan said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    Unlikely, then, that she's well known (except, just possibly, for voiceovers).

  3. Chris said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    The same ad series also includes a Russian-accented protruding pipe that someone backs into. (Actually, it's a Y-shaped pipe and each side speaks with a different Russian accent – one male, one female.)

    Is there an international rule for which regional accents are officially funny? Southern in US English, Kansai in Japanese, what is it in UK English? Or French? Or German? Or Chinese, with its profusion of dialects?

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    Surely part of the motivation behind the strong accents is to personalize these otherwise un-anthropomophic characters?

    But that raises an interesting idea also. Somehow we DO perceive a strong accent as more human or personable than a "flat," TV-announcer kind of voice.

    Somewhere, maybe one of the Cavett interviews, John Lennon complained later in his life that regional accents were disappearing. He liked the idea, as I recall, that voices should hint at backgrounds, value systems, and so on. An accent was part of your identity; negate it, and no one knows who you are, including yourself.

    Of course, caricatures of precisely this phenomenon have become shortcuts to characterization. Would Emily Procter, for example, be more than a pretty face without the southern vibe? Wouldn't DeNiro be less compelling in some of his roles with no accent?

  5. Josef Fruehwald said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    That tree limb is actually poorly done. It's obviously supposed to be an NYC accent, but the vowel in "off" is way too low and unrounded, and the the vowel in "Donny" was way too high and round. I'm guessing it's a merged voice actor we're dealing with.

    [(myl) You're probably right — that's why I added the question mark. But on the other hand, there are lots of NYC-area variants, and I don't know enough about the area to be sure that this isn't one of them.]

  6. Ben said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    I suspect that the tree limb is meant to be from Boston–that would also explain the merger. In fact, it's a fairly consistent Boston caught/cot merger (into caught, unlike out west, where it's into cot, or Canada, where it merges into the no-man's-land between the two): apology, toss, Donny.

    It does have some stray New York features though. Doing dialects is darn near impossible. I can barely even manage my own.

  7. language hat said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    This GEICO commercial reinforces the general impression that a southern accent is intrinsically amusing

    Huh? Is that what's going on? It just struck me as down-home, and I would have assumed it was just, as Spell Me Jeff said, an attempt at making the "character" (if a pothole can be so called) more personalized, more individual, than the standard "announcer" voice. Are you sure you're not just importing your own feelings about Southern accents?

    (Personally, I heartily welcome the use of regional accents on television, as long as they're not there for obvious mockery. Diversity is good.)

    [(myl) If I understand what you're saying, I agree with you, and also with Spell Me Jeff. The GEICO ads treat accents as quaint and endearing. And they also associate accents with interpersonal stereotypes — cheery, superficial politeness in the case of the pothole; gruff mock-belligerence in the case of the tree limb — roughly at the level of the more harmless kind of ethnic joke.

    But I think it's really true that some kinds of accents are quite generally perceived as amusing. Certainly that's what I observe in playing samples of regional accents in undergraduate classes: strongly marked examples of certain accents are greeted with laughter, while others are not. Obviously this is going to depend on the geographical and ethnic make-up of the class — but in a class of (mostly) non-southerners, strongly marked southern accents are likely sources of innocent (?) mirth. In contrast, for example, BBC English doesn't generally get a laugh, despite my own irrational tendency to associate it with Monty Python.]

  8. Thomas Westgard said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    My high school German girlfriend told me that all the comics and cartoons in Germany speak with a specific southeastern dialect, with the sole exception of Werner, who has a north coast dialect – I can only confirm that, based on my perusing comics in Germany in the 1990's, nearly all comics are written in regional dialect, not Hochdeutsch.

  9. Zoe Larivelt said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    Americans may be amused by regional accents, but they're terrible at placing them. My favorite example is Walter Brennan's high-Swampscott, which audiences for generations accepted as "Western," "country," or even Southern. And in movies set in very particular places–like Barry Levinson's Diner, in his hometown of Baltimore–the actors don't usually bother even trying to do the accent.

  10. Acilius said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    "BBC English doesn't generally get a laugh, despite my own irrational tendency to associate it with Monty Python"- Despite. Or, perhaps, because of…

    (Not that I don't love Monty Python myself, I'm the right age to have thought they were hilarious.)

  11. Mr Punch said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Boston accents in the movies is a perennial topic in the Hub of the Universe. The two poles ar often considered to be Matt Damon (good, of course) and Robin Williams (bad) in Good Will Hunting; The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) is pretty good across the board.

    One recurrent issue is that the standard Boston accent is clearly differentiated from that of New York — for example, "party" is "pahty" in Boston, "potty" in New York. Another is that (perhaps because of the Kennedys) some commentators to not realize that there is (still, though it's fading) a quite different patrician ("Brahmin") sppech that is what used to be meant by a "Boston accent."

  12. mollymooly said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    Is there an international rule for which regional accents are officially funny? Southern in US English, Kansai in Japanese, what is it in UK English?

    In the UK, I reckon West Country followed by Wales.
    In Ireland, it's Cavan: when they palatalize a velar, it stays palatalized.

    African American accents were funny in e.g. "Tom and Jerry"; then they weren't.

  13. Lazar said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    Worth noting is that the Gecko, when he was first introduced many years ago, actually had a posh RP accent, and took the persona not of a Geico spokesperson but as the harried victim of mass wrong number dialing ("It's Geico, not Gecko!"). I remember being quite amused when they recasted him as an Estuary lizard.

    [(myl) Yes, here's the original RP gecko. A very different vibe, at least for Americans — not warm and cute and trustworthy at all.]

  14. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    West Country or Birmingham/Midlands. I reckon Birmingham wins out for sheer perceived comedy. West Country has more yokel/hick connotations (cf Alabama accents in the US). Then there's Geordie, which is sometimes considered comic and sometimes just incomprehensible. It also allegedly has trustworthy connotations.

  15. fiddler said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    I live in Seattle, and I am 99% sure that the woman speaking as a pothole is my friend Lori, from Texas. (She, however, vehemently denies this.)

    For some reason I automatically associate southern accents, especially female, with ignorance and illiteracy (I have no idea why, and I try hard to overcome it). The high voice and the uptalk used by this pothole make the association even stronger for me. And the fact that it's a pothole?!

    The whole thing is insulting to southerners! Or at least to southern accents.

    [(myl) I have more positive associations with southern accents, maybe because my mother was raised in Norfolk VA, and my wife is from Texas. But your stereotypes are pretty common among Americans, e.g. Michael Lewis reporting on the Microsoft anti-trust trial back in 1998, where he describes the "over-ripe drawl" of Microsoft's lead attorney, John Warden, and says that

    it didn't take him long to prove that technology doesn't sound nearly as impressive when it is discussed in a booming hick drawl. As he boomed on about "Web sahts" and "Netscayup" and "the Innernet" and "mode ums" he made the whole of the modern world sound a little bit ridiculous.

    The strange thing about this is that Lewis is from New Orleans. This doesn't necessarily mean that he's a self-hating southerner, though, since the accent of many people from New Orleans is not very southern, and there may also be some city/country issues here.

    Then again, there's his description of Warden's interaction with Jim Barksdale:

    Warden was a good contrast to the government's first witness, Jim Barksdale, the CEO of Netscape, who is from Mississippi. Barksdale retains only enough of the piney woods patter to offer a passing imitation of a good ol' boy when he needs to. But really all that's left of his linguistic origins is the just-below-upper-crust Southerner's habit of transforming soft consonants into hard ones. (For "mature" he says "ma-toor" rather than "machoor.") Of course, Barksdale has made his career in forward looking companies–Federal Express, McCaw Cellular, Netscape–and so perhaps he has been forced to make a business of not sounding like a hick. In any case, he seems to have arrived at a point where he himself doesn't comprehend hick speak. When Warden demanded of Barksdale, "Will you read the first sayntance aloud?" Barksdale replied, "The first SENTENCE?"

    Maybe "being forced to make a business of not sounding like a hick" was to some extent a self-description? ]

  16. Sandra Wilde said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    Could the Geico lizard be Ricky Gervais?

  17. Alan Palmer said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    I agree with Ginger Yellow. The West Country and the West Midlands (Black Country) accents are intrinsically funny to us in the UK. I suspect it's no accident that a goodly number of popular comedians hail from the Black Country.

  18. dr pepper said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    the West Midlands (Black Country)

    Why is it called that?

    [(myl) There's this neat new invention called "the internet", and the terrific thing is that you can search it. And if you search it for "black country", the top hit is a Wikipedia article that explains where the Black Country is and why people think it's called that. If you want more, a few lines down the list is a BBC page that also explains things. (Those differently-colored words indicate the presence of neat things called "hyperlinks", which you can click on in order to find things out…)

    Sorry to be a bit snarky, but it seems to me to be a breach of etiquette to ask people to explain something to you that you can find out for yourself with a few seconds of effort. Then you might be able to ask a question that would contribute to the discussion in a more substantive way.]

  19. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    To us in New Zealand, it's the Australians who talk funny. And it's not just their (various) accents. It's their extraordinary, highly inventive turns of phrase.

  20. Mark said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    Isn't the tree limb attempting to do a northern New England accent? It sounds to me like Adam Sandler on some of his comedy CDs when he is doing a New Hampshire-area accent. Here's one example (you'll have to excuse the bad language). The main character is even named Donnie, which sounds exactly the same:

  21. stormboy said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    @ Sandra Wilde: "Could the Geico lizard be Ricky Gervais?"

    Wikipedia says that it's Jake Wood.

    I always associate Brummie (Birmingham) and Scouse (Liverpool) with comedy in the UK.

  22. Bloix said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    Many Americans identify the gecko as Australian – presumably because they're familiar with only the RP accent as a "British" accent.

  23. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    I recently overheard a Geico commercial that specifically asked, "I thought you were Australian?" Since I didn't catch the whole thing, I just assumed it was poking fun at the changes the Gecko's accent has undergone over the years. After reading Bloix's post, though, now I'm not so sure.

    Nevertheless, Mark, you did leave it out in your post. (It's rather new, so I'm not sure if it's available anywhere online yet.)

  24. Lazar said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    @Gordon P. Hemsley: I don't know; they switched from RP to Estuary pretty early on and it hasn't changed much since. I got the impression that the guy in the ad was just supposed to be somebody who wasn't very knowledgeable on Commonwealth accents.

  25. George Amis said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    I discovered years ago that people who assume that southern American accents indicate ignorance, illiteracy, stupidity, and a general lack of sophistication can quickly find themselves outfoxed, outmaneuvered, even cheated, very very quickly. I suspect that some people, including some politicians, use southern accents as a way of encouraging others to underrate them.

  26. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    It sure would be nice if Seth Edenbaum's idiosyncratic rants on his three or four pet topics were collected in one place, such as his own blog, rather than distributed widely throughout the left blogosphere and (unconvincingly) masquerading as responsive comments. Then they would be much more easily avoided.

  27. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    (Whoops, I think my Firefox look-ahead plug-in is breaking this particular comment submission form. That previous comment belonged in a different thread.)

  28. Aaron Davies said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    @Acilius, myl: I was hard-pressed to keep a straight face the first time I was in an Anglican church during services–the priest's voice was a dead ringer for Brother Maynard's.

  29. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:57 pm

    @George — Some Southern accents have worse connotations than others. People in Cincinnati who had come from Eastern Kentucky reported being treated poorly because of their accent. Other Southern accents are considered desirable, especially for women, because the accent "sounds so pretty."

    I think the idea that the accent camoflages a clever person is just as much a stereotype as the belief a particular accent reveals ignorance.

  30. Gregory said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 12:37 am

    As a native of the area, I can confirm that the tree limb does indeed have a Boston accent. And an authentic one at that. Very few imitators can get the low-back vowel, which has a distinct semi-rounded quality. Even the best actors (see: Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin in The Departed) have wild inconsistencies when they attempt this sound, with respect to both the merger and rounding. One of the rare films with spot-on Boston accents in recent years is Gone Baby Gone.

    @Mark — The Boston accent belongs to the same dialect region as New Hampshire, which explains the similarities to Adam Sandler's stuff. But the tree limb strikes me as distinctly Bostonian — I'd have to think carefully about what phonetic characteristics trigger this judgment.

    @Chris — With respect to France, I think the accents most likely to tickle a Frenchman's funny bone are those of the "Ch'tis" in the North, as well as the neighboring Belgians. Although in my experience most speakers' accents in these areas do not differ dramatically from the Parisian standard these days. Southern accents (notably Marseille) seem to trigger either charming or disdainful feelings depending on the listener, but are more "goofy" than "funny." Similarly, Europeans seem to view Canadian French as either incomprehensibly weird or wonderfully quaint.

  31. sleepnothavingness said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 12:47 am

    Has the Minnesota accent ceased to be amusing?

  32. Rubrick said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 3:25 am

    The Japanese routinely make fun of the Hyundai Accent.

  33. Terry Collmann said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 5:16 am

    Gordon/Lazar: it's a commonplace among Londoners with accents other than middle-class that when they visit the US they are frequently mistaken for Australians, which caused one Londoner I overheard in a pub, asked on holiday in Miami if he came from Melbourne, to reply angrily: "What d'you think we are – fahkin' cwiminals?". There's an episode of the comedy show Only Fools and Horses in which this is a running gag involving the Londoners Rodney and Del-Boy while they in the US – see this clip at 4:33, for example.

  34. Adrian said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 6:43 am

    It would be natural to expect that the name be pronounced "gay-co", but even before I watched the videos I guessed that the company (and its staff) wouldn't like that.

    Still, it's not a good idea to have a name whose pronunciation you have to explain to people.

  35. Steve said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 8:15 am

    The complaint in the original RP gecko ad has been nicked by the present series of meerkats ads in the UK

  36. Cameron said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    Re: Chris and Gregory on funny accents in France

    Another accent that the French tend to find intrinsically funny is the French spoken in Switzerland. It has a sing-song quality, and Swiss French speakers tend to speak a little slowly (they drawl a bit).

    On British funny accents, I agree that West Midlands and West Country accents are the obvious ones – they can sound downright medieval, though it's not clear why that should be funny. People above have cited Scouse and Geordie accents as funny in some contexts. I wonder if that's due specifically to the influence of Ken Dodd, and the comic magazine Viz, respectively.

  37. Jen said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    How could you forget the Geico commercial featuring the speakers with the Russian accents, where a car crashes into talking pipes?


  38. Ellie said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    Regarding the Louisianna accent: I am a native Ro-Dylindah (Rhode Islander), and on my recent first trip to New Orleans I was struck at how much the accent reminded me of Rhode Island. It has considerable twang where as RI has nearly none, but it still felt familiar in other ways. Unfortunately, neither do much in terms of impressing intelligence upon the listener.

  39. Andrew F said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    On funny Scousers, I suspect Harry Enfield's sketches have something to do with it.

    The use of Estuary English for a trustworthy mascot puzzled me, as I associate it with dodgy characters, as in programmes such as Eastenders and Only Fools and Horses.

  40. rpsms said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    I thought they chose those accents for their negative connotations: certainly there was meant to be humor in the commercials, but I doubt they would have used those accents at all if they were not looking for a decidedly negative overtone from the character.

    The characters are flippant and annoying and they chose the accents to accentuate that.

  41. evandra said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 11:39 pm

    @Ellie: New Orleans / Louisiana have the Acadian heritage, from Maine. There are delightful echoes of this connection in the regional dialects.

    RE int'l funny accents: A German friend showed me how the Bavarian accent was pretty much always considered hilarious, like an Alabama or Eastern Kentucky bumpkin accent is in the US. (Oddly: though my friend speaks excellent English, he finds southern US accents almost totally incomprehensible. It's something about how the word boundaries seem to merge or glide over each other; the enunciation isn't like newsreader-midwestern or New England accents.)

  42. Tom Matthews said,

    October 30, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    I think the actress doing the pothole was going for the dumb/self indulgent/Louisiana sound of Britney Spears.

  43. Max said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    On the subject of English accents being mistaken for Australians:

    I'm South African (from Cape Town). I spent a few months working in the US (San Francisco) and after a month or so I was surprised to discover that my co-workers all thought I was English. While I didn't expect anybody to know what a South African accent sounded like, I did think it was much closer to Australian.

    I must admit that even some of my compatriots have told me I have an unusual accent (and I have had people guess which high school I went to based on it).

  44. Espy said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    Whenever some ignorant sepo asks me if I'm English, I politely reply, "Not at all. Ten thousand miles away in Australia, as a matter of fact. What part of Canada are you from?"

    Far too many Americans need to take the time to travel OVERSEAS and actually pay attention to the local culture, rather than hang out with countrymen and learn nothing. You can save a lot of money and watch NGTV to do that.

    As far as those god-awful GEICO commercials go, it was bad enough when the silly, little green thing said "pooma" for "puma"; only in America is the "u" pronounced so poorly in words like this. ("puma" is pronounced "pyuma", "emu" is pronounced "eemyou" and "Tuesday" is pronounced "Chewsday", etc, etc, ad nauseum. Are there any examples in English, outside of America, where "u" is pronounced "oo", except when it begins a word?

    Back to GEICO, that absolutely ridiculous "I thought you were Australian … I'm actually from…." commercial is the icing on the cake as to why I will never do business with that company, even if they ever were the cheapest insurance option which THEY NEVER ARE.

    'scuse me ranting. I've been dealing with this for a while. :)


  45. Nicholson said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    I thought the pothole was meant to be Britney Spears upon first playing, and i assumed it was playing off her driving issues and general public image. I'm going by the accent she used in the WIll and Grace episode where she was a co-host on Jack's show.

    @Espy: Do Australians really say /pjumə/? I'm a New Zealander and i say news: /njuz/ and emu /i:mju/, as well as Tuesday and dew with jod-coalescence, but i've never said puma with a /j/.

    As a New Zealander i typically get mistaken for English or Australian by foreigners. It doesn't help that people sometimes haven't even heard of my country.

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