Urban Southern English

798px-Atl_skyline_from_Piedmont_Park

Photo: David Cole

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.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

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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14 Responses to Urban Southern English

  1. Sam Huddy says:

    Los Angeles is another good example: The city evinces a much stronger accent than the rest of Southern California, approximating something that sounds like a cross between Boston and Mexico. Which raises the question: how sound changes that manifest in one small part of a big city manage to expand?

  2. bill says:

    Regarding changing English regional accents, it seems we’ve seen two processes at work. On the one hand, many of the specific, local accents have largely died out, but on the other, the “larger” regional accent seems still to be dominant. For example, we hear more and more a “London” accent – while Cockney, which to many people sounds quite similar, has pretty much disappeared as a specific local accent. My understanding is that it’s hard to detect specific accents in places like Coventry and West Bromwich any more, but the Birmingham accent – Brummie – is universally heard. Or is this simply an example of my Southern English bias?

    • Ed says:

      I think that’s probably true. The trouble is that it’s usually only local people who can notice the subtle differences, so it’s hard to know if this is the case everywhere in England. To my ears, Cockney still seems quite common in London. Bob Crow died recently. Surely he was a Cockney?

  3. Ed says:

    There are a lot of factors that influence accent change, but I think that how “cosmopolitan” an area is, has to be one of the biggest factors. You wouldn’t speak in your broadest dialect to someone who is new to your town and, as more and more people move in, you’re likely to use it less and less without being conscious of this change.

    In Yorkshire, you can contrast the decline of the local accent in Bradford, which was one of the first English cities to have a large Asian population, to the old mining areas of Yorkshire, where some people still use “thee” and “thou”.

  4. Timothy says:

    Isn’t this just common sense? Everyone knows that noticeable Southern accents are more common in small cities and rural areas than in big cities. The fact that a Southern accent was often referred to as a “country accent” in suburban Charlotte (where I lived for a few years) speaks to that fact, I think.

    • Jamie says:

      Are you saying that the way Miss Werthan, an upper-middle class Jewish lady from Atlanta, speaks in the movie Driving Miss Daisy, would be termed as “country” by most people in Atlanta ?

  5. bill says:

    Ed, regarding Bob Crow, I’d agree he was as Cockney as anyone you could find, but if you listen to East Londoners today it really doesn’t sound the same accent as it was during the War, for example. To me, the accent has changed and has morphed into more general “working class London”.

    Intriguingly, the original Cockney had a lot of “Essex” in the accent. Nowadays, a lot of genuine East Londoners have moved back to Essex, leaving the East End to the Yuppies. Jack the Ripper would be turning in his grave!

    • Ed says:

      I’m sure that’s true. I imagine that this might also be linked to the loosening of the British class system and the decline of heavy industry. If you work in an ironworks, you probably only need to speak to your colleagues, who probably all live locally. If you work in a call centre, you need to speak to people from all over the country. This must have an impact on accents.

      In addition, some people define the “East End” for Cockney very narrowly. I think that Ben picked a good Cockney example with Steve Harris from Iron Maiden but, when I tried to add him to the list of examples on Wikipedia, it got rejected on the grounds that he’s from Leytonstone, which was in Essex until 1965.

  6. Charlie Doyle says:

    I don’t understand the final paragraph of this post. I suppose I just don’t know enough about British accents to get it.

  7. bill says:

    Ed – I used to live in Leytonstone, back in the last century (!). In those days, I can assure you the locals did not consider it the East End!

  8. Kendra says:

    The low back merger is spreading across the South.

  9. Dianne says:

    The southern accent seems to be fading throughout the south, unfortunately. Until I was 10, I lived in a rural southern town in NW Florida (just this side of Alabama). During this period, the 1960s, we spoke with strong southern accents and used many southern colloquial expressions. During a recent visit, I discovered much of the “southerness” is gone. Like many people of the south, they seem to be acquiring the nondescript accent so prevalent on TV.

    As a dialect hobbyist, I’m very happy to have found your blog. It’s fascinating.

    Incidentally, my grandpa came from Nottingham around 1920, and his American neighbors always called him Scotty because they thought his dialect was Scottish, not English.

  10. Graham says:

    To quote Ben:

    “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.”

    If so, why? Do people from Atlanta talk to people from Charlotte more than they talk to anyone from in between the 2 cities? I would guess that Atlanta has a larger percentage of transplants than Charlotte, which has a larger percentage of transplants than Anderson County, etc. I’m sure that’s part of the story too. That’s the most common explanation people give me for why people from big cities in the South don’t sound as southern as people from rural areas.

  11. new says:

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