Do You Speak Like Your Ancestors? If You are from Raleigh, the Answer is “Probably Not.”

For more than half a century, the familiar Southern accent has been fading in Raleigh, North Carolina. Its disappearance has been so slow and so subtle that locals may not even have noticed. But for Robin Dodsworth, an associate professor in sociolinguistics at NC State, the decline tells the story of rapid social change across the urban South.

Dodsworth discovered that the vowels of speakers born between 1920 and 1950 were remarkably stable. Then, in the middle of the 20th century, Southern linguistic features began to steadily decline. But why?

Dodsworth states, “Language is part of the Southern tradition and culture, and across North Carolina you have all these pockets of linguistic diversity. These projects are an effort to make our research relevant to people who are proud of their heritage–or insecure about their heritage. We want to help people recognize the cultural value of how they speak.”

Some of the answers are revealed in an article by Alastair Hadden in the National Science Foundation web site at http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=135770&org=NSF.

3 Comments

I am surprised that there was no mention of the role that TV has played in changing accents . It seems to me that was significant in changing the southern accents.,,, along with the admixture of northerners that went south for work.

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Accent change works in the other direction too—growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1940s and 1950s I had friends whose parents came from Iowa and Pennsylvania, but my friends’ accents became the local ones, due no doubt to interaction with local kids like me. I lost my southern accent on purpose as an adult so I could do voiceovers and radio. But I can still speak Southern English.

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I can remember my husband, who in the 1950s purposely lost his Oklahoma accent when he realized it cost him wins on the high school debate circuit outside the state. But he still had a wonderful ear for accents. In the 1970s, when we lived near Akron, Ohio, which had its own accents, he asked a retail clerk if she was from San Antonio. Her face lit up. “No, but I’m from San Angelo,” which isn’t very far away. I wonder if the two accents are still that similar now? I’m a Yankee, but in the 1990s I lived and worked in north central Florida in a hospice. This meant I worked with every level of society, and heard every possible accent. That was just one fascinating part of the job. Some were “snowbirds” from the upper Midwest. Some were Cubans from Miami. There were poor whites, and poor blacks, with very different accents.

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