ATLANTA — Then Candia Lee moved to California in the 1980s, she was often teased when she opened her mouth.
Out came expressions like "fixin' to" and words pronounced with long syllables. But although the native Memphian's Southern drawl tickled co-workers, their good-natured jibes eventually ticked off Ms. Lee.
"It's funny a couple of times, but then it gets real old," says the merchandising analyst. "People tend to not take you seriously as a professional."
So after Lee returned to Memphis, she did what Southerners from North Carolina to Texas are doing, she enrolled in courses to tone down the twang.
"There are a lot of Southerners who want to work on this," says Michael Hall, author of "Twelve Secrets of a Great Voice," who has had to turn people away from his sold-out voice class at the University of Memphis.
To be sure, the courses aren't a new phenomenon, and most of the region's residents aren't rushing to transform themselves into modern-day Eliza Dolittles. Still, linguists say the number of courses and coaches has grown as employers seek workers with better communication skills and as Southerners feel pressured to distance themselves from Hollywood stereotypes.
"Large companies are sending me people who are brilliant, but can't be understood," says Charles Hadley, an English professor at Queens College in Charlotte, N.C.
Experts say it's hard to guess how many courses there may be nationwide because they're hard to track - often offered at community colleges or by speech pathologists. But research indicates that they exist in Chattanooga, Tenn., Memphis, Charlotte, and Columbia, S.C. They're also in Atlanta, Greenville, S.C., and parts of Texas.
Their existence, however, has at times unleashed criticism from citizens who deplore anyone tinkering with their tongue. In 1984, for example, Beverly Inman-Ebel, a speech pathologist from the North, received hate mail when her class, "Success Without the Southern Accent," made its debut in Chattanooga. "It caused a lot of uproar," says Ms. Inman-Ebel. "They said, 'Yankee, go home. There's nothing wrong with us.' "
Linguists say the classes are cropping up for a couple of reasons. One is that companies are becoming more sensitive about who represents them. "There's a strengthening ideology in the corporate world that unless you speak a certain way ... you're just not as good," says Michael Montgomery, an English and linguistics professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "And there are Southerners who buy into this."
Some New Yorkers also subscribe to that philosophy. An institute in the Big Apple offers a course on how to drop Brooklynese. But Southerners are more prone because the media ridicule their accent, fostering insecurity, Mr. Montgomery says. Mr. Hall concurs. "Folks come to me and say, 'I am not being taken seriously on the telephone.... People from the North ask me if I have a moonshine jug on my desk,' " he says.
Still, some Southern accents are so strong that an interpreter is almost needed to translate. In such cases, companies have told employees that unless they reduce their accents, they'll lose their jobs, Mr. Hadley says.
Lee wasn't in that situation. In fact, she has just a hint of a drawl. "I lost a lot of it in California, but I was concerned about picking up things again," she says. "I don't want to sound like I serve lunches at a truck stop."
Speech pathologists use different techniques to smooth out the accent, which is distinctive in many ways. Southerners often change their pitch and rhythm, Inman-Ebel says. Instead of "Hi there," it comes out "Hiiiii there." They substitute vowels, such as an "i" for an "e" (tin dollars versus ten dollars), drop g's on gerunds (goin'), and put stress on different syllables.
In Memphis, Hall has students record themselves talking on the phone. He then analyzes their voices and coaches them. Carol Webb, a marketing coordinator for Aramis, a men's fragrance, took Hall's course to "sound more authoritative and not so Southern." Ms. Webb says she learned to control the tone and speed of her voice.
Still, some are skeptical of the effort to de-twang. "There's no chance of ever getting rid of the dialect you grew up with," Hadley adds. "It's not refining the accent; it's showing them a second language, which we hope they can take off and put on."