A reader wrote me recently with a question about his “fading” Southern accent:
I am a native, fourth generation Georgian who has lived in Roanoke, Virginia for two years. Before then I spent three years in Austin, Texas; two in Atlanta; and four in Athens, Georgia– all metro areas and college towns. I’m wondering why my Southern accent has disappeared without me trying to do so. Does living in cosmopolitan areas naturally mute regional distinctions?
In short, yes, living in cosmopolitan areas can in some ways “mute” certain accents. Although there’s a lot more to it than that!
One of the of the most brilliant yet simple concepts in sociolinguistics is Peter Trudgill‘s “gravity model” of linguistic diffusion. A good summary of the principle can be found in William Labov‘s article Pursuing the cascade model:
In Trudgill’s gravity model of diffusion, change spreads from the largest to the next largest city, in a predictable order, the influence of one city on another being proportional to the relative sizes of the city and inversely proportional to the distance between them.
In other words, larger cities tend to influence smaller cities rather than vice versa. Big City A spreads a feature to Slightly Smaller City B, which spreads to Even Smaller City C, which spreads to Small Town D. Geographical distance is not the only factor in the spread of certain dialect features (although it is important); the actual size of the urban areas in question is also relevant.
One side effect of this phenomenon is that you can often find two large cities several hundred miles apart that have more in common with each other, dialect-wise, than either does with the intervening rural areas. A middle-class person from suburban Atlanta probably has a dialect not dissimilar from a middle-class person in suburban Charlotte, while I would be very surprised if a middle-class person from Anderson County, SC, a rural area in between the two, didn’t have a much stronger regional dialect than either. (Although I’m just guessing.) If you look at all cities in America as being interconnected to some degree, it’s probably more likely that “General American” features have spread to the urban South than its rural counterpart.
This is not an ironclad rule, though, by any means. It’s much more common to hear the /r/ pronounced at the end of “car” in New York City nowadays than it was in 1920, even though this feature did not arrive to the Big Apple from a larger city (you can’t get much bigger than New York, after all). In that case, the feature likely came via transplants from many regions of the country that all featured post-vocalic /r/. I do think, however, that the gravity model is a pretty important factor in dialect leveling in Southern cities.
Of course, what may seem to involve “muting” local accents in the short term can end up creating very distinctive accents in the long run. Accents in the cities of Northern England are probably good examples of the gravity model (thanks to the industrial revolution), and those are some of the most distinctive Englishes on the planet. Nevertheless, you’re usually more likely to pick up features more typical of other parts of the country in a large metro area than in an isolated rural one.