Is the Southern Accent Dying? How New Research Shows Upper and Middle Classes Are Losing Their Drawl

Jennifer Madison, Daily Mail (London), May 20, 2011

The distinct drawls and twangs that dominate America’s Southeast as we know it may be dying off, new research suggests.

A North Carolina State University study has noted a gradual shift away from the drawn-out vowel pronunciations widely associated with Southern speech, which experts say is ‘disappearing’.

Linguists say upper and middle classes in the state capital of Raleigh have adopted a distinctly ‘less Southern’ drawl in recent years, and it’s a trend that will continue.

Robin Dodsworth, an associate linguistics professor at North Carolina State University, collected hours of recordings of people native to the capital of Raleigh.

She uses a software to break down the changes in vowel pronunciations across generations, determining how speech patterns have changed through the years.

She told NewsObserver.com: ‘Language is always changing, always in flux. Over time in Raleigh, the Southern variant is disappearing.’

But while an influx of northerners over the decades might suggest migration patterns can be attributed to the shift, New York and Chicago-area speech patterns are not yet being picked up locally.

In contrast, Dodsworth said the Raleigh dialect is becoming ‘less traditionally “Southern”‘, mostly in the middle and upper classes and urban areas.

NCSU professor of English linguistics Walt Wolfram said while Southerners are being influenced now more than ever by outside visitors, the region is not losing its identity, despite subtle changes in vowel pronunciation.

‘If a Southern person goes north, people are still going to say you sound Southern,’ he said.

Raleigh resident Jim Stronach, 83, attributed the change to improved education and increased mobility among younger generations.

Researchers at Raleigh’s North Carolina State University collected hours of recordings of people native to the region

‘The speech changes to the degree that you don’t really sound like you’re from Dixie anymore.’

Bob Tomb, 70, said the shift makes him reminisce about growing up in the region, when a Southern drawl was more distinct.

‘It’s very pleasant to run into an older person who sounds like they’re from Raleigh. The accent gives the place a little style,’ he said.

Despite shifting populations, Dodsworth said New York and Chicago-area speech patterns aren’t being picked up locally

Dodsworth, however, said the solution is a simple one.

‘The best way to preserve it is to keep talking that way.’

‘It’s not realistic to talk about “saving” a dialect or accent,’ she said, ‘because the fact of life is that dialects change.

‘The Southern accent the way we think of it now is different than the way people in the South talked 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and so forth.’

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  • Anonymous

    TV is part of the reason but the loss of accent is also due to growing cohesion of the American white community. In a uni-cultural society, there’s north and south and Irish and so on. But in a multi-cultural society, whites are just white and their accents will reflect that. No more of the classic World War 2 movie platoon which had your southern stereotype (usually named Tex) fighting along side your Brooklyn guy with his thick accent. That America is no more.

  • Anonymous

    I noticed this when I moved to Alabama six years ago. The southern drawl is rare among urban, middle to upper class whites under about age 50.

  • Toby

    I wish that ghetto language would vanish.

    Burffday, Axe, Hep are not real words to be used in public.

  • Martin L. Kuhn Jr.

    I noticed that when I lived in Central Georgia, but then when I got to know the twang-less southerners better, I learned that they only speak Yankee at work. They still speak Coonhound when they are among friends and family.

  • Robert Binion

    One who forsakes his dialect may no longer be Southern, but he is not really anything at all, is he? Jimmy Carter? When FDR sent scholars to map American dialects–and that is the correct term–the WPA found far more in the South than the rest of the country. This was not a sign of native ignorance. Though he may not know it, everyone speaks in dialect.

    (Grammar tips for bloggers: “Each should do their best,” one may hear. No, each should do his best, even if the his is a hers. This is a problem of rhetoric, not grammar. A look at the Old English root of “often” shows clear–“clear” is a good adverb, especially down here–that the “t” is silent. Remember, no one with any education EVER said “off-ten.”)

    Most white Southerners, like me, have learned to speak multiple dialects. To my fellows, I speak pretty much as I want in a tenor. To those of importance, I may drop half an octave and articulate more plainly. Blacks who have irritated me will hear consonants uttered with extreme precision–just to rub it in. “Those doughnut raiders are doin’ what my Confederate ancestors could not,” I fry in deep fat diphthongs for Yankees. And for the pretty, young woman who does not reject a man with a little gray in his hair, I can sound like Ronald Colman.

    Peace, y’all–or you uns in the mountains.

  • Anonymous

    I worked for a large telephone company in Canada for many years. We often had to call Atlanta. I usually could not understand a word the people said to me. I don’t recall ever having a single conversation where I didn’t have to say “what”, “pardon”, or “excuse me”, at least half a dozen times. They never had any trouble understanding me. Whenever I drive through the USA, once I get south of Pennslyvania I encounter difficulty understanding what the people say, which steadily increases the further south I go. Once I was at a diner In Mississippi and people were at tables all around me. I couldn’t understand a word the people were saying. I wasn’t eavesdropping. I couldn’t help but hear. It was like gibberish. I occasionally wonder if the CSA had achieved their independence might southern English have evolved into a separate language or dialect? English is my mother tongue incidentally.

  • Cant Drive Motor Cycles

    Hey ya’ll, it’s not that Southerners are talkin less Southern but that there’s more Yankees down here thanks to the advent of air conditioning. It is my experience that even New Yorkers start losing their accent after living down here awhile. You can tell a true southerner though without them even speaking — by the way they take the heat.

  • NBJ

    I think it depends on where you live in NC. I still have family that live in very rural areas and their Southern drawl hasn’t changed a bit. However, I moved away and lived in Charlotte for several years, and all but lost my accent over time. My family pick at me all the time about this and swear I sound too much like a Yankee. Still, when I visit back home those Southern accents are like music to my ears!

  • Anonymous

    Upper and middle class’s are in decline and are being replaced by everything else thats not southern,very easy to see why its dieing

  • olewhitelady

    #4 Martin L. Kuhn makes an excellent point. Some folks tend to unconsciously mimic the accent and speech patterns of people around them. I personally have a WV twang that deepens all the more when I’m talking to homefolks who are even more stone hillbilly than I am!

  • Anonymous

    It doesn’t exactly evoke confidence when the surgeon who’s going to be operating on you walks in sounding like Jeff Foxworthy.

  • P Norman

    Obviously, the ‘Times’ hasn’t been to Louisiana in a while.

  • Anonymous

    I lived in the South years ago and noticed that most of the television announcers did not have a Southern accent. One wonders if this is another nefarious impact of television?

  • Anonymous

    It is not only the accent that is disappearing but the values and manners as well. Mostly it is the influx of large numbers of immigrants from mexicans to pakistanis, what we were is now being destroyed. Large black ghettos steamy with ugly vicious punks while whites, if wealthy enough, huddle behind walled in communities. The South, like the quaint New England picture potcard, is becoming a thing of the past and this country will be less for it. I no longer wonder if there are those whose role in this country is simply to destroy it.

  • Anonymous

    #7 How wrong you are. It is the Leftist media which has perpetuated this stereotype of those with Southern accents. Southerners are just as smart as anyone else in this country. Do you have statistics to prove that Southerners, after excluding minorities score less well on standardized tests? On a lighter note, who doesn’t prefer the speech of a sweet Southern lady over that of a northern harpy like Elena Kagan or Nancy Pelosi? Northerners have accents as well, many of which I find absolutely horrible. The Baltimore-Philadelphia accent is filthy-sounding.

    This article has made me resolve to speak in a more Southern way.

  • Robert Binion

    #6, are you aware that the “Hamlet” of Andy Griffith would be closer to its phonetic source than that of Olivier?

  • Smith

    Poster #7 is correct. NC has had alarge influx of northerners the past twenty years or so, particularly in the triangle area. Also, the colleges are filled with out of state students who found it cheaper to come here rather than the northern colleges.

    I’ve noticed that, in the triangle area, southern culture is routinely celebrated and denigrated at the same time, resulting in a pick-and-choose faux culture. Hopefully they’ll eventually ‘get it’ concerning the southern white attitude towards blacks and vice versa.

  • Anonymous

    While in the military, I met a friend who was from the South. His skin was a coffee-with-cream color, and he did not have kinky hair. I didn’t think he was black until one day a bunch of us were in the lounge talking when he said he was. After I got to know him better, I asked why he didn’t speak either with a Southern accent or black Southern English. He said that when he was a kid, he would listen to the radio and imitate the announcers. [Radio and TV would hire mostly Northern accented personalities for some reason.] “But,” he went on, dropping into black Southern English, “Ah cun swich inta dem drawls lahk raht nowah!”

    Years later when I was back in civilian life, our office had a secretary who was born and raised in Southern CA where we were located. She married a GI, and he was transferred to Florida. About two years later, she came back for a visit, and, hunny, you’da swore she was born and raised and spent all her life in Dixie!

    Bottom line: Your speech imitates those you admire and wish to be a part of.

  • Anonymous

    Midwestern English is considered standard English in the U.S. It is clearer to understand than some of the extreme dialects of New York and Boston, and follows more conventional rules than southern English, which varies widely.

    As some posters have noted, though, the white accents are merging into one given that with so many non-whites around us speaking Ebonics, Urdulish, Arabish, Orientalish etc that we are being compacted into one mono group. This is about group solidarity in the face of otherness.

  • sedonaman

    Robert Binion:

    I was born in Wheeling where “you uns” comes out “yoonz”.

  • Anonymous

    Regional accents began to disappear with radio and TV. I knew a man from Western Massachusets who served in WW2. Because of his accent many assumed he was a recent immigrant. He said many soldiers could barely understand each other because of the regional accents. His family had been here for 300 years.

    That whole Duke university Rice Reducing Diet came about because a born and bred Brooklyn New York Dr moved to Raleigh and treated a patient who could not understand his accent. Apparently he gave her a list of only 4 foods she was supposed to eat for a month. She could only understand the word rice. She was overweight and ate only rice and lost a lot of weight.

  • tobytylersf

    Fascinating story. I was born in southwest Louisiana, to a Cajun father and an Arkansas Hillbilly mother. I also had relatives who were what they now call Native American but we used to call Indians. Growing up in that milieu, I ended up being able to imitate any number of dialects; otherwise I wouldn’t have been understood by anyone.

    I’ve lived in northern California for nearly 30 years now. Most people who meet me are surprised to find out I’m from the south, because “I don’t have an accent.” I learned early on that people in other parts of the country assume that anyone with any kind of southern dialect in his speech is ipso facto a buffoon, so haven’t used one. In fact, when I call Louisiana these days, I’m told they always know who I am because “I’m the one who don’t have a southern accent.”

  • Michael C. Scott

    I was also going to bet on television as the culprit, Anonymous (13). The US major network television newscasters all appear to come from Colorado or Nebraska, and a lot of the local network people do as well, or at least in the midwest.

    My most entertaining encounter with foreign accents was in graduate school in Australia. Two of us from the lab drove to the Sydney airport to pick up a visiting Canadian scientist. Trahn and I introduced ourselves, and our Canuk took a look at me and started laughning, saying that I was the first person he’d met since the plane landed who’s accent he could understand.

    Accents do change, however. My family lived in Edinburgh, Scotland for a year when I was little, and I started school there. When we returned, it took me almost an entire additional year to shake the Scottish burr my speech had picked up.

  • Anonymous

    I used to be from Eastern Mass, near Boston. I had that distinct accent when I was growing up. When I moved to California, I deliberately lost it. If I spoke the old way, I was always asked “are you from somewhere else? are you from England, Europe, etc.?..that’s a really interesting accent”. At work, over the phone, sometimes people couldn’t understand me. Sometimes, people would demand from me, “say park the car in your accent, I love that!”. I HATE that. I lost the accent because it was annoying.