Why Kevin Spacey’s accent in House of Cards sounds off

Kevin Spacey grew up in California, but in
House of Cards, he plays a politician from South Carolina. “As we used to say in Gaffney…”
The first thing you’ll notice about Spacey’s accent when he’s playing Frank Underwood is
what happens to a lot of his Rs. “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling
apart after 10 years. Power…” This is called r-dropping, and it’s a feature of several
well-known dialects. “He would rather the poor were poorer.” “The greatest wilderness
on Earth.” “In the tradition of bipartisanship.” “Metropolitan Museum of Art.” But it’s also
associated with the upper class of the plantation South. “This war talk’s spoiling all the fun
at every party this spring.” R-dropping emerged as kind of an affectation among posh people
in southern Britain in the 18th century — the English didn’t always talk that way. And then
it spread to elites on the East Coast of the US. At the same time, r-dropping was a feature
of the creole and West African languages spoken by some of the slaves in the South and their
descendants. But after World War II, new generations of white Southerners essentially abandoned
r-dropping, so today you’ll see it mostly in the very oldest generation, or more frequently
with African-American speakers from the South. Take Lindsey Graham as an example. Like Kevin
Spacey’s character, Graham is from the northern part of South Carolina, and his Rs are largely
intact. “going to sell the oil to another customer.” And that may be because language
in the Southern Appalachian areas was influenced by settlers from Ireland, where people aren’t
exactly shy with their Rs. “Seriously. Serious. How close does that sound to the Kentucky
accent where they talk like that and I’m talking like this?” Regardless, R-dropping probably
can’t be the shortcut that white actors use to sound Southern in the future. Instead,
the main feature that unites Southern dialects is something called /ay/-ungliding. For people
outside the South, this vowel has two parts. You can probably feel your tongue shifting
as you say the word “buy.” But in Southern speech, /ay/ is a one-part vowel in many cases,
sounding more like ah than ay. “Five” “and livelihoods” “terrified.” But there’s an important
distinction here that Northerners might not be aware of. Most Southerners only do ay-ungliding
before what’s called voiced consonants, or at the end of a word. The difference between
voiced and voiceless consonants is whether your vocal chords vibrate when you say them,
and ay-ungliding before voiceless consonants is stereotyped in the South as a less-educated
way of speaking. “But I don’t want your life.” Ay-ungliding triggers a shift in the vowels,
or in the space in the mouth where the vowels are formed. The ey-sound shifts lower in the
mouth. “And then blame somebody else.” The eh-sound moves forward to the front of the
mouth. “Just as strong and opinionated as men.” As do the vowels pronounced in the back
of the mouth like go and boot. “Thank you.” These vowel shifts occur to different degrees
in different parts of the South, and they’re certainly fading in cities where there’s a
lot of migration and generational change. But if you’re an actor from the North or the
West, the vowels are really the key to sounding Southern.

Maurice Vega

100 Responses

  1. He took on that role thinking he could deliver a believable accent, but I guess you could say Kevin was Kid-ding himself

  2. Accents are so overrated i don't know why people care about what a one is pronouncing R or whatever.

  3. I lived in Gaffney, SC as a kid, and I heard people drop their R's all the time.

  4. There are many inaccuracies in Hollywood's portrayal of the South. I don't think they're going to update the accent any time soon.

  5. As a Southerner I've heard only a few actors pull it off. It's Scarlett O'Hara, Aunt Jemima or Colonel Sanders. The key is the "i" sound, The long "i" changes to a kind of "ah" (five vs "fahve") and the short "i" becomes a soft of "ee + uh" (all in a single tone). Spacey got several things right and never sounded really "off" Bill Clinton is real, Hillary's fake accent for politics is not.

    BUT it must be noted – Southern speech varies widely. Virginia is as different from Mississippi as it is Ohio. Kentucky & South Carolina sound nothing alike. Hollywood mixed "twang" (Texas, Appalachia, etc) with dialect. And theres a racial component – almost all blacks talk "Southern" as far as vowels go.

  6. 1:28 SCOTCH-Irish settlements. Yup, in the 18th century there were Irish scotch settling in the Americas… fact checked that and it's actually completely totally undeniably verifiably true. (!)

  7. Kevin Spacey's accent doesn't sound off at all! That type of non rhotic southern accent is common in the tidewater region of Virginia, as well as in alot of Louisiana. It also used to be common in the Carolinas and Georgia too! People have spoken like that before and to an extent, still do! I'm a younger southerner who drops alot of his Rs

  8. The only places in the south you really hear R’s dropped is in Savannah and Charleston. And it’s mostly by elderly or older people.

  9. Linguistics is SO fascinating (if you're a language nerd like me). I learned to speak in Buffalo/Rochester upstate NY but moved often as a kid. I lived in NC for a number of years as an adult and got to know the South a bit. There are so many regional sounds in the South (and all over the US of course), and I really hate bad "Southern accents" by actors (eg: Liz Taylor in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Charles Laughton in "Advise & Consent"). I think the WORST version of a Southern accent ever was Robert De Niro in the remake of "Cape Fear"; he was almost unintelligible. I heard a radio piece a few years ago about a famed dialect coach in NYC, considered one of the best in the acting biz, and she was responsible for De Niro's dialect in Cape Fear. All I could think was "FAIL!!" (tho some good actors just aren't very good at dialects [see: Harvey Keitel!], so maybe it wasn't all the dialect coach's fault)

  10. I seemed to understand something, the second time round I watched, it was confusingly explanatory, but then I thought: what does Kevin Spacey smile so hard, when he himself is explained as Northern?

  11. So basically African slaves talked like this because of their African accent, then their overseers started talking that way too. Then, other middle class people started modeling it because only the "elite" slave plantation owners talked like that. The "lower" classes wanted to impress and seem more wealthy to others.

    So it all started in vain because plantation owners unknowingly picked up on their slaves' accents, then other people started copying the plantations owners to seem wealthier.

    Interesting how things come to be.

  12. I thought this was an interesting video and then I realized it was Vox, so more of it started sounding like weird, slightly off, bullshit.

  13. I notice I’m from Georgia near Athens and it’s seems that just my ken talk with the draw and none of my generation do it’s only the older people I really hope we don’t lose our tongues y’all

  14. The accent Kevin Spacey used in House of Cards is not off at all! The non rhoticity is primarily found in the elderly in most areas of the south, but in Louisiana and to an extent Virginia, there's plenty of younger people who drop their Rs! Also, though most southerners today largely rhotic, most drop their Rs every now and again. Plus, you can't generalize all southern accents into one large monolith! There's greater New Orleans accents which are basically like non-rhotic New York accents with some southern features, there's your standard stereotypical hillbilly accent, and everything in between.

  15. As a South Carolinian, the accent really doesn't make much sense to me. It also doesn't help that I don't have much of a Southern accent at all, But the ay-ungliding is something I hear quite a lot.
    Would've been a nicer touch, Frank doesn't sound like Kevin, and it's so offputing

  16. I don't think the accent Kevin spacey used in House of Cards is off, it's that the particular CharlestonChahleston accent isn't as common as it used to be.

    The non rhoticity is primarily found in the elderly, except in parts of Louisiana and the tidewater region of Virginia, where the younger southerners have non-rhoticity as well.

    The accent Kevin spacey used in House of Cards is actually pretty accurate for his age group, as that's the age group that generally has the stereotypical Charleston Savannah type accent.

    You really can't generalize when it comes to southern American accents as there's just so many of them! There's the non-rhotic Savannah Charleston type accent that's almost exclusive to the elderly natives of these areas, there's the non-rhotic Cajun and New Orleans accents which even younger people have that sort of combines some features of New York City accents with southern accents, there's the vast majority of southern accents which are semi-rhotic or largely rhotic, the stereotypical hillbilly accents of the Appalachians, Texas accents, etc.

  17. I speak English fluently as my second language but I don't get the difference in accents except some exceptions that are obvious to anyone.
    I think that you've done a video about this

  18. My girlfriend’s landlord who she lives with sounds like that. Her landlord lives in a small farming community 45 min outside Charleston

  19. Press F to pay respects

    Only Call Of Duty AW fans will understand
    Or if you played all the game at least

  20. Greatest accents in politics, Tywin Lannister, Cersei, Roose Bolton, Michael Corleone and of course Frank underwood

  21. My late husband came home from visiting his family in Boston one time. First day home he said: "I need my shots." ME: "Why do you need shots!? Are you okay? (something like that…I was worried in any case because he said he need his "shots". He said: "No, my shots", then walked out of his closet with his shoRts! We laughed for years recalling that. 🙂

  22. R-dropping was also popular in french society After the french revolution. The R of R-evolution was dropped during the directoire to denounce the murders during "La terreur"

  23. Classic buzzfeed-esque video. Hardly any useful information, but tones of additives and cheery background music.

  24. First, there isn't a single Southern dialect. Texas isn't Mississippi. NW Arkansas doesn't sound like Baton Rogue or Mobile sound like Western NC. The Delta is different than folks who grew up in the mountains. And yes, it is heavily influenced by the Scots-Irish or English. Even in families, my sister has a much stronger "country" sound than I do. I find nothing wrong with Frank Underwood's somewhat effected speech which is more syrupy in personal dealings than in his public speaking. But if you don't think Clinton, Gore, and George W. lay it on heavy when they're "back home," you don't understand either the South or politicians.

  25. I am from Kazakhstan and I don't really understand… what I'm doing here )
    I just love Kevin Spacey and happy they dropped charges against him!
    Underwood 2020!

  26. Another funny thing related with the Southern accents is "double negativity", i.e. "I'm not feeling good either." VS "I'm not feeling good neither."

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