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.