The Southern US accent under siege

Achab   Wed Nov 23, 2005 11:02 pm GMT
The following is an interesting article I just finished reading about how the Southern accent in American English could fade away, and how a purported crackdown which may be experiencing is instrumental in this...

Whither the Southern Accent?

By JEFFREY COLLINS and KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press Writers
Wed Nov 23,12:57 PM ET

COLUMBIA, S.C. - "Y'all" isn't welcome in Erica Tobolski's class in voice and diction at the University of South Carolina. And forget about "fixin'," as in getting ready to do something, or "pin" when talking about the writing instrument.

Tobolski's class is all about getting rid of accents, mostly Southern ones in the heart of the former Confederacy, and replacing them with Standard American Dialect, the uninflected tone of TV news anchors that oozes authority and refinement.

"We sort of avoid talking about class in this country, but clearly class is indicated by how we speak," she said.

"Many come to see me because they want to sound less country," she said. "They say, 'I don't want to lose my accent completely, but I want to be able to minimize it or modify it.'"

That was the case for sophomore Ali Huffstetler, who said she "luuuvs" the slow-paced softness of her upstate South Carolina magnolia mouth but wants to be able to turn it on and off depending on her audience.

"I went to New Hampshire to visit one of my best friends and all they kept saying was, 'Will you please talk, can you just talk for me?'" Huffstetler said. "I felt like a little puppet show."

Across the fast-growing South, accents are under assault, and not just from the modern-day Henry Higginses of academia. There's the flood of transplants from other regions, notions of Southern upward mobility that require dropping the drawl, and stereotypes that "y'alls" and "suhs" signal low status or lack of intelligence.

But is the Southern accent really disappearing?

That depends what accent you mean. The South, because of its rural, isolated past, boasts a diversity of dialects, from Appalachian twangs in several states to Elizabethan lilts in Virginia to Cajun accents in Louisiana to African-influenced Gullah accents on the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.

One accent that has been all but wiped out is the slow juleps-in-the-moonlight drawl favored by Hollywood portrayals of the South. To find that so-called plantation accent in most parts of the region nowadays requires a trip to the video store.

"The Rhett-and-Scarlett accent, that is disappearing, no doubt about it," said Bill Kretzschmar, a linguist at the University of Georgia and editor of the American Linguistic Atlas, which tracks speech patterns.

"Blame it on the boll weevil," he said, referring to the cotton pest. "That accent from plantation areas, which was never the whole South, has been in decline for a long time. The economic basis of that culture started going away at the turn of the last century," when the bugs nearly wiped out the South's cotton economy.

Even as the stereotypical Southern accent gets rarer, other speech patterns take its place, and they're not any less Southern. The Upland South accent, a faster-paced dialect native to the Appalachian mountains, is said to be spreading just as fast as the plantation drawl disappears.

"The one constant about language is, it's always changing," Kretzschmar said. "The Southern accent is not going anywhere. But you have all kinds of mixtures and changes."

For a long-term study on whether the Southern accent is disappearing, University of Georgia linguists went to Roswell, Ga., an Atlanta suburb that is just the kind of transient place that leads to the death of indigenous dialects. It's packed with strip malls and subdivisions with no cotton patches or peach trees in sight.

"I don't hear it," 21-year-old Roswell native Amanda Locher said of the accent. She's never lived outside the South, but even Northern newcomers question her Southernness. "People tell me I sound like I'm from up North. To hear a true Southern accent, you'd have to go deeper south than here."

Adam Mach, a 25-year-old tire shop worker who moved to the Atlanta suburbs from Lafayette, La., has got a noticeable Louisiana lilt. But he said his accent seldom makes conversation because the area is such a melting pot of newcomers.

"Everybody I meet's not from here," he shrugged.

North Carolina State University linguist Walt Wolfram said it's a misconception among Southerners that Yankee newcomers are stamping out traditional speech. More likely, he said, is that newcomers pick up local speech patterns.

"When people move here and don't think they've changed at all, they go home and people say, 'Wow. You've turned Southern.' They pick up enough to be identified as Southern. So it's still there, still strongly identified with the South," Wolfram said.

But that doesn't mean that population change in the South isn't chipping away at old-timey dialects, especially in cities. Wolfram said the "dearest feature" of the Southern accent — the vowel shift where one-syllable words like "air" come out in two syllables, "ay-ah" — is certainly vanishing. Other aspects — such as double-modal constructions like "might could" — are still pervasive.

Kretzschmar, who has recorded Roswell speakers for three years, said his suburban Atlanta studies have backed up his suspicion that the Southern accent is morphing along with the urbanizing South.

"It's not really disappearing, but the circumstances of living make it different," he said. "People don't have connections with their neighbors to maintain their way of speech.

"The circumstances of how people get together and talk in the cities have changed; they're not constantly talking to people who talk just like them. But in the South outside the cities, you have a lot of similarities."

Georgia-bred humorist Roy Blount Jr. understands that people with strong Southern accents are often perceived as "slow and dimwitted." But he thinks it's "sort of a shame" that people should feel the need to soften or even lose their accents.

"My father, who was a surely intelligent man, would say `cain't'. He wouldn't say `can't.' And, `There ain't no way, just there ain't no way.' You don't want to say, `There isn't any way.' That just spoils the whole thing," Blount said.

"I just think that there's a certain eloquence in Southern vernacular that I wouldn't want to lose touch with ... you ought to sound like where you come from."

But never fear. There are still plenty of professions that thrive on a good Southern twang — from preachers to football coaches to a certain breed of courtroom litigators.

And South Carolina's Tobolski, an Indiana native who came south eight years ago, can help there, too. As a private coach she has even taught a politician she wouldn't name how to ratchet up his Southern accent to make him appear more folksy before certain crowds — a technique she calls "code switching."

"He didn't want to lose his dialect entirely. He just wanted to be able to adapt."

"I don't think that any regional accent is going to be eliminated," she said. "There's still people who want to hang on to how they sound. That's who they are. That's their identity. And that goes from New Jersey to Minnesota to Wyoming to Georgia."

EDITOR'S NOTE — Kristen Wyatt reported this story from Roswell, Ga.; Greg Bluestein in Atlanta and Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, N.C., also contributed to this report.
read it and say what you   Thu Nov 24, 2005 2:29 am GMT
ok ?
Brennus   Thu Nov 24, 2005 7:41 am GMT
Achab - I also believe that the Southern accent is either under siege or close to it. When I hear Southern politicians being interviewed on the Jim Lehrer News Hour and they don't have Southern accents, or people calling talk show programs from Atlanta and Louisville with no regional accents, I know its in danger. I'm sure that most of these people are transplanted Northerners and not Southerners who have artificially modified their accents. In fact, I'm not certain that it is really possible to learn to speak with an accent different from the one we were born with on a regular basis. Child speech experts claim that we learn our specific language sounds basically by 10 months of age.

When I took debate in high school back in 1966-1967, there was an incident in Tacoma, Washington where some of our varsity debaters debated a guy on a debate team from another high school who spoke with a fake British accent. The judge was not impressed. While the phony accent may not have been the main reason why his team lost the debate, I'm sure it didn't help.
Mxsmanic   Thu Nov 24, 2005 4:59 pm GMT
There are "child speech experts" who seriously claim that we learn our "specific language sounds" (whatever those are) by ten months of age?

Are these the same people who advice Korean parents to have the frenums of their children removed?

As for Southern accents, the sooner they are gone, the better. There are more than enough crutches for prejudice to lean upon as it is without leaving Southern accents among them.
Lazar   Thu Nov 24, 2005 5:39 pm GMT
<<As for Southern accents, the sooner they are gone, the better. There are more than enough crutches for prejudice to lean upon as it is without leaving Southern accents among them.>>

Mxsmanic, I just love the slimy and cowardly approach you take toward prejudice. Rather than trying to eliminate it, you just advocate that people mutate their identity so that there will be nothing left to be prejudiced about.
Rick Johnson   Thu Nov 24, 2005 7:27 pm GMT
Accents rarely die out under pressure to conform. Usually they disappear because the work and the community move away
Uriel   Thu Nov 24, 2005 10:42 pm GMT
When I was in Georgia, I heard native Southerners whose accents ranged from heavily Southern to practically nonexistent (general American). Some of the latter had parents who spoke with much heavier Southern accents. However, since Southerners tend to be proud of their accent (ESPECIALLY in the face of adversity), and it is very much bound up with their cultural identity, I would expect that tales of its imminent demise are somewhat exaggerated.
Kenna D   Fri Nov 25, 2005 3:40 am GMT
''Accents rarely die out under pressure to conform. Usually they disappear because the work and the community move away''

Not true, Plattdeutsch (Northern dialectal group, close to Dutch language) disappeared from Northern Germany. It's been replaced by Hochdeutsch (Southern German). So, in Hamburg or Hannover
(originally Northern/Platdeutsch speaking region) everyone speaks Standard German with no dialects of Standard German, while in Munich (Southern German / Hochdeutsch region) Standard German is rarely used, people tend to mix Standard German (Hochdeutsch) and various dialects of Hochdeutsch. That's why the ''purest'' Hochdeutsch is spoken in Northern Germany (Hannover, Hamburg, Munster), a region in which it has been introduced some 100-150 years ago replacing Dutch-like Plattdeutsch, and not in the original Hochdeutsch region (Southern Germany) in which language is normally mixed with local dialects and therefore it is more distant from the standard...

So, you can kill the language by decrees.
Gjones2   Fri Nov 25, 2005 5:37 am GMT
Achab, I live in the state where that article was published, and from what I've seen few persons here are trying to lose their accents. Of course, I can understand why announcers and actors would want to. A few others may believe that losing their Southern accent will enhance their chances of success in other parts of the country, but most persons have no desire to lose their accents and would be ashamed to try. They may occasionally mispronounce words -- according to their own standards of correct pronunciation -- and want to get rid of those mispronunciations (e.g., 'dutn't' for 'doesn't, 'liberry' for 'library'), but they intend to keep their basic accent.

>"The Upland South accent, a faster-paced dialect native to the Appalachian mountains, is said to be spreading just as fast as the plantation drawl disappears...." [Whither the Southern Accent?]

Some Southern accents vary less from General American than others, and have for a long time. When Southerners speak that way, they're speaking naturally. My accent, for instance, is rhotic, and I have only a slight drawl. This is true of most of the people in my section of the state.

I believe this is the predominant accent in more than half of South Carolina, not just in the Appalachians. The rhotic-slight-drawl accent has extended all the way down to the coastal plain since at least the early 20th century, and as far as I know long before that. I have some Scotch-Irish ancestors -- presumably rhotic -- who settled in the middle part of the state in the early 1800s, and I've read that many early immigrants to inland South Carolina came from rhotic regions of Great Britain. The previous two generations of my family had this accent well before the advent of the "New South", with its large national and international companies, and the possible effect of Southerners grooming their accents for use in other parts of the country.
Gjones2   Fri Nov 25, 2005 5:42 am GMT
There are a few aspects of particular Southern accents that carry negative associations even in the areas where they occur. I suppose that a good many persons do consciously try to avoid them, but that's a far cry from trying to sound General American. On the whole people try to maintain their accents.

I support adhering to a common standard of correctness in formal writing (which varies slightly from country to country, of course), but I don't believe in stigmatizing regional variations in accent. I like to hear a variety of accents. Of course, just as some persons have negative associations with Southern accents, I have negative associations with a few accents too (some American -- Northern and Southern -- and some from other countries), but my reaction usually depends on the individual. For instance, I enjoyed the accents of the actors in the movie My Cousin Vinny -- Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Fred Gwynne (the judge, better known as Herman Munster), and Lane Smith (the district attorney). Those accents were probably exaggerated for comic effect, but they didn't annoy me. Also the movie illustrates well the mistake that people make when they underestimate somebody because of an accent.
Mxsmanic   Fri Nov 25, 2005 5:41 pm GMT
Language is not a part of identity; it's a tool for communication. People who consider it a part of their identity suffer from "linguistic ego," which is one of the things that makes it very difficult for such people to learn new languages.
Lazar   Fri Nov 25, 2005 6:55 pm GMT
<<Language is not a part of identity; it's a tool for communication.>>

I don't see how those two are exclusive. Language is a part of identity, and it's a tool for communication.

<<People who consider it a part of their identity suffer from "linguistic ego," which is one of the things that makes it very difficult for such people to learn new languages.>>

Your language is as much a part of your identity as your culture, political views, or religion. All of those things are mutable, but they're still part of your identity.
Rob   Fri Nov 25, 2005 7:33 pm GMT
Southern accents wither? I think not, they tend to run in the family.

Why can the Police not solve murders in West Virginia? Because all the DNA is the same and there are no dental records!
Gjones2   Sat Nov 26, 2005 12:52 am GMT
>Language is not a part of identity; it's a tool for communication. People who consider it a part of their identity suffer from "linguistic ego," which is one of the things that makes [make?] it very difficult for such people to learn new languages. [Mxsmanic]

I don't see where you acquired the authority to tell others what they can and cannot have as part of their identity. Besides, in the case of Southerners you underestimate the importance of the other reasons for our linguistic ineptitude -- inbreeding that causes a decline in our intelligence and toothlessness that causes difficulties in articulation. Thanks, Rob, for your acute analysis (though West Virginians supported the Union during the Civil War, so maybe you should count them as Northerners :-).
Gjones2   Sat Nov 26, 2005 12:56 am GMT
I agree, Mxsmanic, that some persons have to contend with a psychological barrier that makes it difficult for them to imitate the sounds of other languages. I believe this has more to do, though, with how much pride they place in being mature and acting in a dignified way. People are often embarrassed by the strange sounds that they need to make when learning a foreign language. Playful persons -- and children -- who are used to acting immaturely aren't as sensitive about sounding silly. Likewise they aren't as likely to be afraid of the ridicule that they could suffer if they keep their Southern accent when speaking English.

Some of the persons who value their accent in their native language will also insist on keeping it when speaking a foreign language. I won't deny that. There are others, though, who are quite willing -- even eager -- to sound foreign when speaking a foreign accent. When I was learning Spanish, I worked extremely hard at acquiring a good Spanish accent. I studied entire books on this subject (e.g., Navarro, Manual de Pronunciación Española; Quilis, Curso de Fonética y Fonología Españolas) and listened to thousands of hours of shortwave broadcasts from Spanish-language stations. Eventually my accent became very close to native.

My Spanish-speaking friends and I used to try to fool people into believing that I was from a Spanish-speaking country. They'd often introduce me that way, and then we'd see how long I could fool the other person. Sometimes I'd manage to keep up the pretense for several minutes. I had part of the conversation prepared ahead of time with things that I knew I could say perfectly. I always had to adapt it, though, depending on what the other person said. Note again the role of immaturity and playfulness in this whole silly pursuit. I saw no contradiction between that kind of silliness in one area and holding on to my Southern accent in another (and my Confederate money :-).