Where the Hell Is Kathy Bates’ ‘American Horror Story’ Accent From? A Linguist Explains

The takeaway moment from Wednesday night’s American Horror Story: Freak Show premiere was, justifiably, Jessica Lange’s cover of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” complete with powder-blue pantsuit. Lange once again plays the lead in the anthology series; this time, she’s Elsa Mars, freak-show proprietress, failed (but glamorous!) actress, and German expatriate. Mysterious as Elsa may be, though, at least we know where she’s from. The same definitely cannot be said for Ethel Darling, the bearded lady played by Kathy Bates.

We know that Ethel’s fanatically devoted to Elsa, and that she doesn’t mind her son making some extra money by manually stimulating housewives for 18 bucks a pop. What we don’t know, to judge by many, many recaps, is where she learned to pronounce her vowels like that.

Vulture’s Brian Moylan thinks Baltimore:

In a cage match of craziness, which do you think would win: Kathy Bates’s open-voweled Baltimore honk or Jessica Lange’s clipped nondescript German?

Time‘s James Poniewozik places it further north:

We’re also re-introduced to Angela Bassett, Frances Conroy, and Kathy Bates, as Jimmy’s protective mother the bearded lady, whose heavy accent, if I’m hearing correctly, I place somewhere in the greater Philadelphia area with a couple of detours to the south.

The New York Times goes for a different region entirely:

Other returning cast members include Evan Peters as a man with flipperlike hands; Angela Bassett as a three-breasted woman; and Kathy Bates as the bearded lady, whose accent wanders around the Southern states, periodically landing on something vaguely Appalachian.

And finally, New York‘s Matt Zoller Seitz has this far-out guess:

Kathy Bates plays a bearded lady whose makeup suggests an Amish Louie Anderson. She speaks in an accent I can’t quite place: Wisconsin Mennonite, perhaps.

Those are a lot of very different places! To get to the bottom of this, we sent some clips from the show to John McWhorter, Columbia professor, occasional political commentator, and linguist. You might know him from his excellent TED Talk on texting as “fingered speech,” an elegant defense of a form of communication that is definitely not destroying the English language as we know it, thankyouverymuch.

After McWhorter got past his initial impression (“What a weird show”), he told us exactly what Bates was getting at. Turns out one of the guesses above was right! Drumroll, please…

“She’s trying to do Baltimore, especially old-time working class Baltimore,” McWhorter wrote us over email. “It’s a little shaky — she has a way of slightly overdoing accents.” (But that didn’t stop last season’s New Orleans drawl from landing her an Emmy!)

For reference, McWhorter cited her turn in the 1995 Stephen King adaptation Dolores Claiborne, as the titular Maine woman. Here’s a compilation of Bates at her New England-iest:

Mystery solved! Now we can all go back to being terrified of Twisty the Clown.