Oh mah Gawd! I really wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me that on a tour, or its variation "You don't sound southern." I would have enough dollars to pull a Scrooge McDuck and swan dive into a vault full of them (much softer than gold coins). Do people in other parts of the country get asked that as often as Southerners? Do Canadians go to Chicago and ask the folks there "Where's your midwestern accent, eh?" (Not a stereotype. Canadians totally say "eh"- I've heard them.) Do Hawaiians visit New Jersey (though why you would trade Hawaii for Jersey is anyone's guess) and ask "Hey, how come you don't sound like that guy from Cake Boss?" I wasn't even doing one of my own tours last week, but training with the Savannah Slow Ride, when a lady from Philadelphia asked me that. I especially love the way people say "You don't sound southern," accusatory emphasis on the "sound," as if I'm an imposter infiltrating the Old South for some nefarious purpose or maybe just screwing with them in particular. I used to get that a lot when I worked as a cashier at Cracker Barrel years and years ago. I think diners at the restaurant felt cheated because here they were in the most countrified eatery they could possibly find and the cashier didn't even have the courtesy to sound like a good little redneck.
Look, people, Southerners don't live in a vacuum any more than you do. We're really just like you except we survive in a hotter, sweatier part of the country. Also, our food is better. There are many factors affecting my accent. For one thing, Savannah is a city. Not an especially big one, but it's not a podunk hick town either. Just as with any city, especially one with a port, Savannahians and their accents have long been been influenced by the myriad people with their myriad languages and dialects going to and fro. We have never been isolated. Within the city itself, accents vary depending on class, level of education, and outside influence. If you were born here, but your family had moved from Virginia, you might not sound the same as your neighbor whose family has been here for 5 generations. So, the local accent can vary from household to household and even within the same family. My sister sounds noticeably more southern than me and we grew up together! Similarly, my dad and his sister (my aunt June) were both born and raised here and grew up in the same house; their speech is very different, however. She sounds just how you'd expect a southern woman to sound, but he sounds like he could be from anywhere. In his case, it may have something to do with a lifetime of high academic achievement, including two college degrees. I don't know why, but higher education tends to refine regional accents. As for me, I think it's because I have been involved in theatre since I was a kid and part of the process is learning to speak clearly and without an accent. Also, lots of reading and high academic achievement.
I know some of you have been led far astray in your expectations by the media, especially Hollywood. Let's start with the grandmother of all bad, bad Southern accents- Gone with the Wind. If you love that movie, that's just fine. It is a Technicolor American masterpiece. It is a classic. But Vivian Leigh's Georgia accent was rubbish. Pure, putrilaginous, infuriatingly persistent rubbish. It's been a while since I've watched that movie, but I don't remember being convinced by anybody's fakety-fake accent. Scarlet herself sounded the worst, though. Nobody down here talks like that. Nobody ever talked like that. The only people who talk like that are gay men named David and Blanche Deveraux. And it's an affectation for both of them. What drives me nuts about Gone with the Wind more than anything is it set the tone in Hollywood from that point forward. Actors portraying Southern characters would just lazily adopt Scarlet O'Hara's idiotic style of speaking without any consideration for regional differences in accent. They couldn't be bothered to put the work into getting it right. For everyone in the country who didn't live south of the Mason-Dixon line, that was usually good enough. For everyone who did live south of the Mason-Dixon line, it was an insult. So, for decades movies have only acknowledged two kinds of Southerners: affected society belles who talk like Scarlet O'Hara and inbred bigots who are barely comprehensible. I'm here to tell you there is a lot of variation in between those two extremes.
So, let's discuss where media portrayal of the Southern accent is going in the 21st century. To address the Savannah connection first and foremost on your mind, Paula Deen, let me go ahead and tell you what any native Savannahian will tell you: She ain't from here. Paula Deen lives on Wilmington Island now, but she's originally from Albany, GA (or "Al-benny," as they pronounce it there). Albany is straight west and a little bit south of here, in the middle of the state. I've never been there, but I have driven west all the way to Americus and I can tell you that part of Georgia ain't nothin' but two-lane state roads and pecan groves. It's exactly where you would expect to find a more isolated population with a more pronounced accent. But also, Paula Deen has an image to maintain now and that image is Southern and sassy, so I'm sure she dials it up a little bit for the cameras.
Outside The Food Network, Southern characters have been developing a stronger and less cartoonish presence on TV. Gone are the days of Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith; arrived are the days of Sherrif Rick (The Walking Dead) and Detective Amanda Rollins (Law & Order: SVU). These are characters who happen to be southern and who play an active part in their respective series, not southern "characters" whose only job is to lighten up the situation by acting like ignorant rubes. Basically, the southern straight man has finally become a reality, at least on TV. Feature films still kind of seem to lag behind. The most recent cinematic release I can think of that portrayed a bunch of southerners living in the Deep South was Beautiful Creatures and that thing was a mess. Plus, Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson are English, as was Vivien Leigh, and we all know how that turned out. Oh, wait, there was also Beasts of the Southern Wild. That one's set in Louisiana, and Louisiana is a very special case when it comes to accents (or anything, really). Still, everyone sounded convincing to me, though I remain ambivalent about the movie as a whole. Anyway, Hollywood is still a bit of a wasteland when it comes to taking people with southern accents seriously, but television has really opened up. There are characters with noticeable accents on Law & Order: SVU, CSI, CSI: Miami; there are multiple shows set in southern states like Justified (so I've never watched it, but it is set in Tennessee), The Walking Dead, and True Blood (which I have also never watched because I'm too poor for HBO, but it's set in Louisiana). And it may surprise you to learn that silly fluff like May Name is Earl also scores pretty well on the accent-meter.
So, fear not, dear Yankees! You are not being cheated. The truth is, I do speak with a southern accent. You just don't know what that accent actually sounds like. You have been mislead for years. It looks like popular culture is coming around, though, so maybe the next generation will have the right idea when they visit here.
Then again, while southerners are portrayed more realistically in fictional TV shows, they are becoming more ridiculous in reality TV shows (Swamp People? Myrtle Manor?!). Looks like we're still screwed after all.