Is the Southern Accent Leaving the cities?

Immediately upon posting yesterday’s dissection of “y’all,” I came across a recent piece in North Carolina’s Cary News, titled Y’alls’ accent is fading. The article discusses the erosion of the traditional “Southern Accent” in urban areas. This passage sums it up:

Walt Wolfram, NCSU’s William C. Friday distinguished professor of English linguistics, says the South isn’t losing its identity in terms of speech – it’s reconfiguring. The South, particularly in urban areas, has transformed itself during the past 30 years, Wolfram said. Cities have been more influenced by outsiders, and this vowel shift is partially a product of that change. And it’s more subtle than natives might realize.

The piece focuses on Raleigh, North Carolina, near where the Cary News is based. That the Southern accent is mild in Raleigh isn’t surprising, since it’s a huge college town (the prestigious Duke University is nearby). Cities with large concentrations of academics and students often become strange little dialect islands due to the presence of so many outsiders.*

But the main point is clear. There appears to be a growing divide between the speech of rural and urban Southerners.

My own direct experience has suggested this. I’ve met middle-class people from cities such as Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, and even Charleston with only the mildest of accents. In particular, I am rarely surprised anymore when I meet someone from Texas’ larger towns (Dallas, Austin, Houston) with no discernable twang.

On the other hand, I’ve encountered transplants from rural parts of the South who still boast thick dialects. I had a co-worker from Eastern Tennessee some years back who had an accent so strong it sounded almost affected. Outside of the South’s major corporate hubs, these dialects don’t appear to be dying out anytime soon.

But those are my own perceptions. I live up North, so I have little direct experience. Any Southerners out there care to share insights about this urban/rural divide?

*The most notable example of this is Oxford. Although we associate this city with the poshest of British English, the local population of nearby Oxfordshire once spoke with a radically different dialect that survived well into the 20th-Century. You can find samples of this accent at the British Library’s Archival Sound Recordings.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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5 Responses to Is the Southern Accent Leaving the cities?

  1. C. Hillis says:

    Growing up in a southern town with a great deal of engineers from other places, I was acutely aware of the way my accent was perceived. A thick southern drawl was seen as proof positive that you did not come from college educated transplants. I believe that I, and many of my peers, learned to lose our accents in an effort to be accepted, taken seriously, and treated as equals at school and in the workplace. People often deduct points from a person’s IQ when they hear them speak with a southern accent. It is sad to want to change something about yourself in order to be accepted, but I believe that is the reason for so many southerners losing their accents.

  2. too.day says:

    All depends where u live. Southern accent is not the only accent fading in the wind in major cities. Atlanta would be a good example for the southern accent fade. Chicago good example for northern accent fade.

  3. AUDIO NOIR says:

    I think, unfortunately, regional accents through out the u.s.a. are fading. i’m 44 and when i was younger regional accents were strong and quite noticeable. i’m from l.a. where you have people from every part of the states (to say nothing of other countries) living and when you met somebody from dallas, memphis, boston, st. louis, pittsburgh, etc. it was instantly obvious they weren’t from cali. nowadays, however, i regularly meet people from all over the states who don’t sound “regional” at all. i frequently have to ask people where they’re from because their speech is so neutral. even the traditional old candian accent (which used to sound somewhat like an american who had lived in northern ireland for many years) seems to be on the way out. i would attribute this quite simply to the endless advancement of modern communications and the fact that in a world that’s getting smaller and with the states being the dominant force in that arena it’s kinda inevitable. even people in other english speaking countries seem to be growing more americanized especially in terms of slang expressions although not necessarily accent itself. australian kids, especially, seem to be a sponge for american slang and the british not real far behind (although, again, the basic accent itself is intact). the more people are exposed to others the more “levelling” you’re gonna find.

  4. Maura B. says:

    I was born and raised in Charleston, S.C. and I can tell you that for the most part my fellow Charlestonians have never had much of a Southern accent. I don’t know if this is an effect of time, as your entry proposes or if it’s the effect of mass media exposure to my generation (I was born in the 1980s). When I worked in retail, tourists often wouldn’t believe me when I told them I was born and raised in Charleston. “But you don’t have a thick Southern Accent!” is what they would say. I had one woman insist I was flat out lying to her. Her reasoning? I didn’t sound like any of the actors or actresses in Gone With the Wind.

    That isn’t to say that people from Charleston don’t speak with an accent, we do. It just isn’t what most people think of as a “Southern Accent” probably because it isn’t thick or incredibly jarring. I’ve noticed that one way to tell someone who is from Charleston is actually in how they pronounce “Charleston”. Transplants who moved into the area pronounce the “Char” with the ‘r’ sound clearly. Where as those from Charleston, often will pronounce it more like “Chawleston”.

    • Mike says:

      People can’t hear their own accent. You would have to ask northerners if you sound southern. If you say “Chawleston” then I (a notherner) would probably think you have a very thick Southern accent.