Sounding out the accents of Virginia politicians

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Does it matter anymore where Virginia politicians are born or what type of accent they have?

That was a question raised earlier this month by James Hohmann of the Washington Post. He noted that Gov. Bob McDonnell “sounded more like a Yankee” than his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Creigh Deeds of Bath County. 

McDonnell is a native of Philadelphia who grew up in Northern Virginia. He follows two Democratic governors who also lacked Southern drawls. Tim Kaine was born in St. Paul, Minn., and grew up in the Kansas City area, while Mark Warner, an Indianapolis native, went to high school in Connecticut. The last Virginia native to reside in the Executive Mansion was Jim Gilmore.

“Can a decidedly Southern way of speaking create a handicap for candidates trying to win a statewide office?”  Hohmann asks.

His point is that, because so many Virginia current residents are from other parts of the country, they might not be inclined to vote for someone with a deep Southern accent.

But the real question might be: Is there really a Virginia accent anymore?

Many people in other parts of the South think Virginians speak with a Tidewater accent, pronouncing “house” as “hoose,” for example. But if you travel the state extensively, you rarely hear that accent, even in the Hampton Roads region.

Another accent that people notice is the “twang” of Southwest Virginia. This was the accent that supposedly hampered Republican Jerry Kilgore in his campaign against Kaine.  But truthfully the accent is more Southern Appalachian than Virginian. Natives of mountain regions of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia sound very much the same to my ear.

Perhaps there is no distinctive accent common to the majority of Virginians. It seems that the Southern accent has faded in recent decades as more “outsiders” have moved in. In fact, some Virginia natives that I meet talk very much like Bob McDonnell. Maybe he acquired his “Yankee” accent in the Old Dominion.

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