The Death of the Southern Accent? (At Least in These Parts)

And the rise of a new way of looking at language


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To trace the death of the Southern accent, we must first know that the Southern accent was most alive when it was a whole mess of different Southern accents. Regionally, Georgia-speak stood apart from Alabama-speak, and Alabama-speak stood apart from South Carolina-speak. Even within North Carolina, a generation ago, when a high school football team from the Outer Banks faced a team from the mountains in a state championship game, players couldn’t understand each other, brogue on one side of the line of scrimmage, twang on the other. Just in the Charlotte area, there were once at least four distinct accents.

But to outsiders, and especially to Northerners, one Southern accent is another Southern accent, and it all represents one assumption—that we’re slow and ignorant. Their opinions, like most opinions, say more about them than us.

The death of an accent, though, doesn’t begin on that sweeping scale. It starts local, in places like Charlotte, where change has always happened first. It starts in neighborhoods like Myers Park, on the front porches that built the accent.

Here, for decades, people stood for classiness and against hard “R” sounds and “I” sounds. Here, “far” was “fah,” and “time” was “tahm.” To a Northerner, that may seem Southern. To a rural Southerner, it may seem uppity. But it’s a little of neither.

For centuries, the British used the “R” sound, according to the book Talkin’ Tar Heel, by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser. In the early 1800s, the Brits began to drop it.

At that time, Southern aristocrats sent their children to England to be educated, and those students brought R-less sounds back here. That also happened to be when Africans were brought to the South, and they, too, were R-less. In other words, the language of the Southern elite was strengthened by slaves.

“One generation’s socially prestigious pronunciation may turn into the next generation’s stigmatized production,” Wolfram and Reaser write.

Wolfram, a professor at North Carolina State, has teamed up with linguistics professors across the UNC system to conduct the North Carolina Language and Life Project, a comprehensive look at the way we talk in the state. The project, Wolfram says, is a public awareness campaign, to teach people about the changes in language, “why they’re happening and what it says about society.”

In North Carolina, the connection is clear. The language is fading because the demographics are changing because new people are moving here.

It’s more pronounced in cities. In 2010, a third of the state’s population was made up of people from other states. In the two largest metropolitan areas, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, that number was about 55 percent.

Boyd Davis, a linguistics professor at UNC Charlotte, says three of the Charlotte area’s accents can still be found in parts of Gastonia (more nasal and a touch of Appalachian), Davidson and Matthews-Mint Hill (more like old, rural Piedmont North Carolina), and Myers Park (Maahhs Paahhk). But they’re increasingly hard to find.

As she explains all of this to me, Davis pulls out a map of Charlotte and dips in and out of the various accents effortlessly, just by shifting her eyes to a new location.

Then, she does something without thinking.

“Now go get you that book,” she tells me, referring to Talkin’ Tar Heel. “And look at that: I said, ‘Go get you.’”

Southern-ness happens like that. Whether you’re planning for it or not, whether you’re from here or somewhere else, it can escape from your pores.

***

Most people talk like their parents talk, and because of that, we don’t just drop accents easily. To a Northerner, the big private university in Durham is Dook. To a Southerner, it’s Dewk. Over time, as the populations merge, the two accents will, too.

Of course, Southerners always stand up for something, and when they do, they stand up for the things they hold most dear. Take the word “y’all,” that iconic headlamp of Southern-speak. It doesn’t exist on the subconscious level like Dook or Dewk. When we say it, we know it, and we’re trying to prove something. For Southerners, it says, “We’re from here.” For newcomers, it says, “We’ve moved here, and we fit in.” The increasing use of words like “y’all” or phrases like “fixin’ to,” then, isn’t necessarily a sign that the Southern accent is alive and well. Instead, it’s an overcompensation for the fading nuances of dialect.

“People are indexing and identifying their Southern identity, but in a more iconic way,” Wolfram says. “It’s an intriguing picture of what people think is happening versus what is really happening.”

Maybe it’s best, then, to look at the recession of the Southern dialect another way. Think about the people who move from the Midwest to Charlotte. They come here, pick up a few pieces of the Southern accent, and when they go home to visit family they unknowingly slip, and “ten” becomes slightly more “tin.”

“When these Northerners go back to where they came from, the people there think they sound Southern,” Wolfram says. “Nobody here thinks they have a Southern accent. They don’t even think they have a Southern accent. But they do.”

I’m a Maryland native, but I’ve lived in North Carolina for most of the past 18 years. And I know that, at least in some small way, most people who move here want to have a piece of the accent, because who doesn’t want to be a part of where they are? For decades after the Civil War, the South wasn’t a place where others chose to live, for obvious reasons. Out of the worst times, though, grew one of the most renowned and notorious and beautiful and complicated accents in the world.

Now people want to live here, which can only mean they don’t want to live somewhere else.

And guess what’s happening in those places. The Northern dialects, Wolfram says, are growing stronger. In Rust Belt areas, “pop” is now a longer “paap,” and “lock” is more “lack.” As the population drops in those areas, the accent rises.

That’s the thing about the South: When we lose something, others gain.

And that leads to another thing about the South: As these newcomers leave behind their homes, we’ll be the first to appreciate how those places cling to their accents, because if there’s anything the South wants for folks, it’s that they never forget where they came from.

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