Skip to comments.The Southern Accent: We're Losing It
Posted on 04/30/2002 7:12:45 PM PDT by foreverfree
The Southern Accent: We're Losing It
By Rob Marus
The Moose Is Loose
Have you ever noticed that people in our generation seem to be losing their Southern accents? "Hold on," most of y'all are now thinking, "I haven't noticed any lack of Delta drawls or backwoods twangs here at Rhodes."
But stop for a second and listen very closely to the inflections of your peers. Now compare their accents with, say, your father's (or, if you're from the North, your roommate's father's). See the difference? And his accent is even a little milder than your grandmother's, isn't it? She probably still drops her "R"s.
Linguists tell us that, more rapidly than ever before, English-speaking Americans are losing their distinctive regional accents and dialects.
You're much less likely today to find an Atlantan using the word "supper" in reference to the evening meal than you were 30 years ago. By the same token, you're less likely to find a Bostonian pronouncing the word "can't" like a Kennedy would.
But this phenomenon is most widespread and insidious in the South, the linguists and sociologists tell us, and particularly on college campuses. Each generation has gotten a little bit farther away from the previous generations' adherence to a Southern accent; in the 60's people stopped dropping their "R"s (a la Scarlett O'Hara); in the 70's, they stopped using "that-a-way" and "over yonder" as directional aids; in the 80's they stopped saying "fixin' to" and replaced it with "about to."
And now, here we are in the 90's, and our generation in particular is dropping the last vestiges of our accents-a lot of us won't even drawl out our long "I"s or use "y'all" anymore.
But why are we doing this? What's the point? People used to relish, even nurture their Southern accents. Why has our generation chosen to do the very opposite - eradicate the very last vestiges of it? I'll tell you the main reason: classic Yankee imperialism.
Hollywood, Wall Street, and Madison Avenue have pelted us, in this "Information Age" (which, if you ask me, is a misnomer that could be more accurately replaced with "Misinformation Age"), with a barrage of images and sound bytes that not only set up a nondescript, sterilized accent as the normative pattern of American speech (think about the way most TV journalists talk), but also create stereotypes that completely disdain Southern accents as purely the domain of hillbillys, rednecks, and racists.
Think about it; recall what you've watched on television or in the movies in the past week. Almost invariably the character with the thickest Southern accent in any movie, television show is one of two things. In drama, he (rarely are women portrayed in these roles) is the "bad guy": the KKK leader, the escaped convict, the philandering preacher, the corrupt government agent trying to cover up a UFO landing. In comedy, he (once again, women are rarely presented in these roles) is invariably the ignorant yokel: the trailer-park trash, the bumbling small-town sherriff, the provincial good-ol'-boy politician.
If a woman is ever portrayed with a Southern accent, she is either the passive, abused, blue-collar wife or the manipulative Southern belle. And, for the most part (with the major exceptions of shows set in New York City), that sterilized TV-news-anchorperson non-accent is the standard pattern of speaking for the "serious" characters and "good" characters that Hollywood gives us.
But in English there is no such thing as a "non-accent." The pattern of speech that Hollywood has set up as normative is no more than a Midwestern dialect. Any Englishman or Englishwoman would not hesitate to say that Tom Brokaw and Diane Sawyer have definite accents.
To be any sort of famous actor or actress the first thing you must do is learn how to sound like someone from Iowa. Nowadays, if you maintain your Southern accent, you're not very likely to find a job in Hollywood. You'll probably be surprised to know that Andie MacDowell, Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey, Kim Basinger, and even the guy who plays the mailman on Seinfeld are all native Southerners. To be a TV journalist you have to do the same thing (unless you're a complete bad-ass, like Bill Moyers).
Therefore, it's understandable that we, as open-minded, free-thinking young people who are trying to be urbane, sophisticated, and worldly-wise, should have difficulty accepting our inherited accents as something we shouldn't hide. After all, our generation is the one most shaped by the Northern media.
You see it all the time at Rhodes; think about all the people who come here from a small town and then begin to lose their drawl over the months beause they hang out with accentless folks from places like Dallas and Atlanta (two cities absolutely overrun by Northern immigrants in recent years).
So don't conform, dammit! Don't let the Northern establishment grind you beneath its heel; stand up to the attacks of Yankee capitalism and commercialism upon who you are as a person. Just because you speak differently than the mass-media norm does not mean that you are inherently inferior. If the South would just give up its inferiority complex, I think we could come a long way in solving some of our social problems.
Young Southerners, take the first step towards respecting yourselves as a people and don't assume that your accent means you are a redneck. And do it now, before it's too late. God forbid we end up a nation of people who all sound like Roseanne Barr.
That said, I will tell you that I've lived south of Mason-Dixon for 17 years (though I lived all my life prior to that in Pennsylvania) and tend to pronounce George Wallace's state as "Ala-bayama" not "Ala-bamma". Just a tendency. "Birming-hayam, Ala-bayama". :-)
On the other hand, Kristina Abernathy of the Weather Channel, who's from Albany, GA, tries her best to suppress her GA peach accent but just can't pull it off. :-)
Here are the birthplaces of the actresses and actors rattled off in the article:
Andie MacDowell: Gaffney, SC
Julia "Hairy Armpits" Roberts: Smyrna, GA (this link will take you to the main page; there, click on info, then click on biography)
Matthew McConaughey: Uvalde, TX
Kim Basinger: Athens, GA
The mailman on Seinfeld: Sorry, I never watch Seinfeld, dunno who he is, can't help you. :-/
Anyway, fawr ya'll's informashun...
P.S. When I was in a Family Christian Store recently, I heard a cashier who said she was from Louisiana (I think) - and sounded it. The Dixie accent is alive and well!
"Dropping your R's", as it is known colloquially, is not a linguistic pattern found over the entire South. It is confined to certain regions and people groups, and has never been universal. I never hear it here in South Mississippi, though it is common among black folks and all folks in the Delta and Prairie regions.
My own premise is that Southern lingual pattersn will survive, particularly in rural areas, where they continue esentially unchangedtoday. Certainly the younger folk will sound different from the older ones, however, the unique speech patterns may not have significantly changed. I imagine the typical Yankee would find my young and middle aged neighbors to have as "hick" and countrified speech as they ever have. I've found that my own speech patterns vary: when in the company of out of state folks, I tend to drop down my accent, but when in the company of local, home folks, my accent is thick and drawling with Mississippi red clay and hot summers. (And, by the way, the hot weather has nothing to do with some Southern dialects being slower than others)
which. . . is amazingly close to blue nose land, a.k.a. the great white north!
In business, I use it to refer to "your corporation" without sounding like I have something stiff stuck somewhere painful.
For this New Yorker, the most "vanilla" accent belongs to the people who prounounce "Orange" as OOr-enge, rather than Are-ange, as we in New York (and those in the UK) do. Remember, its not FlOOrida, its FlA-rida.
I use y'all all the time - I even type it! (the correct way). Fixin' is my most overused and one of my favorite words. My boss from Chicago teases me constantly about it.
There are only 3 real meals - breakfast, lunch and supper. Northerners had to slim it down to two words - breakfast and dinner because they couldn't remember a third. hehe.
Let's chat! LOL!
I wouldn't know how to respond if I was approached by youngsters who sounded like Strom. If they sounded exactly like him I would probably be a little creeped out.
Virginians never really had the Scarlet O'Hara type southern accent. What you're referring to is more likely the Virginia Tidewater accent. West of the Blue Ridge, where I'm from, you get more of a "mountain" dialect.
I certainly don't. Anyway, I thought you were gonna take a swing at me, so I backed off.
I know people all over that great commonwealth, and I have certain impressions of the accents in different areas. Tell me if you agree. In No. Va., they sound mid-atlantic but with a slower cadence. In the tidewater area they have a kind of aristocratic drawl, like Foghorn Leghorn. In the western part of the state they have a highland southern accent, more melodic and twangy. I'm generalizing of course, but there do seem to be distinct differences.
As in "Are-ange you gonna fix supper?
Where I come from, if you want something out of the "dressa," you pull out the "draw."
whereas myself, on the other hand, having grown up in the backwoods of Na Hampsha (Swamp Yankee), a yankee is someone from New England, and more specifically Maine and Na Hampsha (of course, our definitions become even further defined - in my neighborhood, the word 'Yankee' actually meant Earl Jones, the guy who lived uphill from us...) :0)
You've got the regions basically right, but you left out far Southwest Virginia where there is more of a twang. And I wouldn't describe the Tidewater Accent as "Foghorn Leghorn," but you're going in the right direction.
More like west of Mississippi and north of Nashville.
The normal upper midwest accent that is common in the lower half of the state.
A Southern Drawl. Go to parts of Monroe County. A lot of people moved from Kentucky to Michigan in the early-mid 1900's to work in the auto factories.
North Michigan/Yoopers - Say yah to da UP, eh? It's a blend of Wisconsin and Canada.
LOL, I know, I know, but that's who I sound like when I try to imitate that accent.
A friend of mine from Olivet, Michigan told me that when he took a trip to upstate New York a few years back, he was struck by how similar the accents were to Southern and Central Michigan.
Of course, when this downstater visited Cooperstown, NY when he was ten, he thought he landed on another planet, let alone another state. I have noticed since that upstaters sound more like midwesteners than they do downstaters or New Englanders.