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Disney's Animated Films and Southern Accent

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In the field of sociolinguistics, cultures and societies are studied to examine the influences they have on the ways language is used. Some aspects of sociolinguistics includes slang, dialects, accents, and vernaculars. For many individuals, language plays a big role in defining who someone is, highlighting different aspects of one’s individualities. However, it can also be the case that sometimes, language is misused to define individuals, and to an even greater extent, groups of people. Often times, people play off of language, and the cultures that are associated with it, to create stereotypes surrounding a group of people. “Speech can serve to mark the distinctiveness of people not just in terms of their region, but also in terms of their sex and social standing.” (Mesthrie, 74). All aspects of language and speech are seen to index something about any given individual’s identity, regardless of whether that indexicality is intentional or not.

The research conducted in this project aims to clarify the role of language in children’s animated films and how language may be used to aid in character building. For the purpose of this project, accent was looked at in two Disney films, specifically the use of accent for characters who are meant to define different characteristics related to stereotypes and discriminatory facets in language. It is particularly significant to observe the use of accent and stereotypes in children’s films because it exemplifies a misuse of language that is prevalent in multiple aspects of one’s life, even those aimed at children. Due to the fact that accent may used in the wrong ways to demonstrate a culture or a group of people, and because this is done on so many platforms, it becomes much easier for people being exposed to such platforms to have preconceived notions about people, simply based on how they speak.

For many people, their accent is a way in which they identify and associate themselves with. A lot of what comes with and is included in the use of an accent is related to culture as well as a person’s individuality. Often times, one’s language has close ties to their nationality, beliefs in their culture, as well as more broad aspects such as the people they speak to and interact with. “In speaking in a particular way, a speaker is saying something about the kind of person they are, and constructing a certain kind of relationship with others. In engaging in conversation, speakers are necessarily doing a certain amount of ‘identity work’, through their use of conversational style as well as their use of a particular accent…” (Mesthrie, 199). By way of one’s speech, they not only index aspects of themselves through what they say, but also they ways in which they say it. Such aspects of language include slang, syntax, and phonology, but accent in language is probably most prominent because it is likely the first thing people notice when someone speaks.

Using this knowledge, this study investigates the possible correlations between accent and character variables in Disney animated movies. Besides just looking at the character’s speech in the movie, other variables such as: setting of the film, gender of the character, age of the character, nature of the character, and the size of the character's role in the movie are also taken into consideration. This information is important to acknowledge because it is often the case that, outside of an animated film, some of the variables listed above, as well as many more, are included in the stereotypes and preconceived notions that accompany accent in language. “By investigating the possible correlations between accent and character variables, this study attempts to provide clarity as to whether accent is used for character building by Disney, and if so, how strong and significant those correlations are.” (Van Lierop, 7). By looking at such correlations, one can begin to notice how language is used in animated films to create an image for a character.

Disney’s animated films have been appreciated, especially recently, for making efforts to tackle issues such as gender, race, age, and sexual orientation in their films. However, language in Disney films is a topic that has not been heavily addressed, but plays a role that is equally important in teaching children about culture. “Although cartoons are entertaining and worldwide appreciated, studies have demonstrated that they are not neutral, and are likely to convey messages about society linguistic ideologies.” (Soares, 2). By looking further into how accent in language is specifically used to convey meaning, this study doesn’t aim to understand why films use such techniques, but instead aspires to provide a window in which people can begin to notice how accent is used in different contexts.



For the purpose of this project, two Disney movies were looked at in great detail: Cars (2006) and Zootopia (2016). These specific films were chosen for this research because, as mentioned before, Disney has gained appreciation for making attempts to address issues in society, through their films, including concerns related to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Therefore, Cars and Zootopia were chosen to be looked at, one being an earlier Disney film, and one being produced later, to see if there have been any appreciable changes (in the ten year gap between the two movies) in how Disney uses the language of their characters to build their identities.

        In the movie Cars (2006), I chose to look at Tow Mater, one of the main characters in the movie. This is because in the film, Tow Mater is a character that is given a thick redneck southern American English accent and often uses syntax that can be seen as incorrect. The analyzation of this character and his language was especially interesting for this research due to the ideas and stereotypes that already exist surrounding southern accents in the U.S. In the movie Zootopia (2016), I chose to look at Gideon Grey, whose character in the movie is a fox. Even though Gideon doesn’t play a major role in the movie, I felt it was important to look at his character because throughout the movie, Gideon Grey presents phonological patterns that can be connected to a southern American English accent, similar to Tow Mater in Cars.

        In regards to the actual analyzation of the language, the research process consisted of three major steps. The first step for data collection encompasses watching both films (Cars and Zootopia). While watching each film, I took note of general observations regarding each of the characters (Tow Mater and Gideon Grey) that were presented as speaking a dialect categorized as different from the Standard American English (SAE). Some of the general observation I made included details about the plot, setting, and main theme of the movies. I also made sure to note the role each character played, making observations in regards to the characters’ interactions with others in the film.



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