Much has been said of Kathy Bates accent in American Horror Story: Freak Show, but when it comes down to it, nobody really seems to know what to make of it. In last week’s recap I said that at times it almost sounded like something out of the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, which brought out a spirited debate in the comments — most people agreeing that it sounded like a Philly or Baltimore accent. (As a nearly lifelong resident of the Philadelphia area, I firmly disagreed on the former.)
Vox.com has thankfully come to our rescue, however, by sitting down with an actual linguist — an assistant professor of linguistics at Reed College who specializes in American dialects — to get to the bottom of this. The whole piece, which is pretty fascinating and fairly lengthy, is worth a read. But in the meantime, here’s a few excerpts with the quick and dirty answer:
She’s putting on accent, so where I think she’s trying to be from is the more appropriate question to answer. I don’t think she’s doing the best job of the accent she’s attempting, as people have seemed to note on the internet. There’s some variability, and she’s overdoing a couple of features. But the features she’s identified are relevant to the place where I believe she’s attempting to be from, which is Baltimore.
Okay so the first set of features that really jumped out to me is what I would describe as the fronting of back vowels. And those are the vowels “oooh” and “oh” — I would call them “goose” and “goat” vowels, which can help with pronunciation. So a standard American English speaker would say something like “goose”, and Kathy Bates is saying something like “gewse”, or the words I identified in the clip, I heard her fronting her “ooh” in a word like “foolish” and in words like “you.”
. . . She’s not a native speaker of Baltimore or Philadelphia English. So she’s using the “right” features, but she’s not a native speaker. Like most people who are not native speakers, when they put on accents, it’s not going to sound exactly right. It’s not going to sound native. So she doesn’t sound like a native speaker of Baltimore.
There you have it. Kathy Bates understands what the accent is, she just doesn’t know how to use it correctly. So to break it down in even simpler terms, a good analogy for “Kathy Bates and the Baltimore accent” would be “your parents and Facebook.” (I’m so sorry Ms. Bates, still <3 u)