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The Disappearance of American Accents

Bruce Neben wrote yesterday:

“I live in Oregon (adult life), grew up in Calif (teens, 20’s and thirties), and (Cleveland) Ohio as a child. I hear none of these accents around the west, generally.”

“But the accents I do hear from people from around the country seem to be disappearing. People from New Orleans interviewed on TV or Radio seem to sound like me, as do many of those I hear from New York and elsewhere. I used to hear distinctive accents from people from Minnesota for example and those also seem to be going. It also seems to be a function of education. The more highly educated, the less the accent. Would you agree with these observations?”

Bruce is absolutely right. Regional accents are dying out, which is why we want to keep a record of them on the alphaDictionary site. In fact, we have been contacted by southern cultural heritage organizations who want to use our material in their activities. We are happy to do so.

However, little can be done to stem the tide of dialect (accent) mergence because there is no way to remove the factors causing that mergence. They include:

  1. Job mobility–people moving in both directions, south-north, north-south, following jobs;
  2. As Bruce points out, the educational system, whose job it is to teach pupils and students to speak the dominant dialect for social and economic reasons;
  3. Radio and television, which brings the dominant dialect to everyone and generally makes fun of the non-dominant ones.

As I mentioned in the NPR interview, the original dialects in this country were the results of the accents of the various immigrants who came to this country looking for a better life. They all landed on the east coast, which is why all the accents are currently in the east.

However, as they migrated to the west, all these accents merged into one, so there are no distinctive regional dialects west or north of southern Ohio (maybe southern Illinois and a bit in northern Minnesota). Accents extended as far west as West Texas in the south but not much beyond that. While there are peculiar pronunciations and slang vocabularies (Valley talk) out West, there are no distinctive dialects, like the Brooklyn accent, Texas accent or southern accent.

Now the regional speech differences are fading in the east, as well. Most of the differences in our Glossary of Quaint Southernisms are terms and pronunciations that I remember from my childhood, many of which already no longer exist.

16 Responses to “The Disappearance of American Accents”

  1. Lynda Says:

    Have you ever commented on the style of speech I’ve heard described as “up talk”? There seems to be a tendency (mostly in American speech) to end every sentence with the voice going up as it does when asking a question. It used to be that declarative sentences ended with the voice steady or even going down. This kind of up talk seems to be popular in the current generation, and I’ve heard it used both informally in conversation as well as formally in speeches and even in TV news. I find it distracting and rather irritating. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this. When and how did this trend begin? Is it typical of certain parts of the US? Do other language groups have up talk?

  2. Chris Says:

    Hi, I just fell over this page but could not help adding a penny worth. “UP TALK” – the voice going up as it does when asking a question” – I don’t know about the US but – that has to be New Zealanders, it drives you nuts listening to them sometimes, or should I say -“It drives you nuts listening to them sometimes – Eh!?” (up towards the end of the sentance – then, wait for it -Eh!?) – “find it distracting and rather irritating” – d’acore – It’s worse when they have been drinking -“Eh!?” or the All Blacks win.
    Mind you, I’m from Yorkshire where a man can still call other man “Old Cock” and “Love” and not get any wierd looks.

  3. Lena Brooks Says:

    I discovered this page in the attempt to try to settle a dispute with an e-mail friend. There is an American actor named Jake Weber who has an unusual accent. He was born in the UK in 1964 and according to reports, moved here with his family when he was a youth. There is a heated debate on an entertainment site concerning why he was allowed to play an American from Minnesota with a pronounced British-styled accent on a current television drama series. I love the accent. It’s a hybrid no doubt and I don’t know the linguistic term for when someone blends two accents/dialects? Is there such a term? Another actor who has a similar accent to Jake Weber is Christopher Plummer. What is really funny is that my e-mail friend and others, don’t hear an accent at all. Others who hear it are annoyed and folks like myself hear it. but don’t care, we find Jake incredibly sexy and the accent adds to his charm.
    What can you add to this debate?

  4. Tara Sanchez Says:

    American dialects are NOT becoming more and more alike. The most recent research on the matter is the Atlas of North American English, published in 2006, by the noted sociolinguists William Labov, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. In this extensive look (439 speakers from various areas were acoustically analyzed), Labov et al. conclude that regional dialects are actually becoming more and more different.

    It’s true that some expressions are falling out of use, but that doesn’t mean that all dialects are becoming alike.

  5. rbeard Says:

    Tara,

    I don’t see how a synchronic study of American dialects can show their change over a significant period of time. I know of no long-term demographically based research on dialects in the US that would disconfirm the anecdotal evidence we have that social pressure and job mobility are reducing the differences between dialects.

    I know for a fact that in the area of NC from which I come (Cumberland County) the children of people I know are speaking now the Midwestern dialect of radio and TV. I find it hard to believe that they are not indicative of the trend and know of no long-term research that speaks adequately to the question.

    –RB

  6. rbeard Says:

    Lena,

    I think you might be confusing your accents. I am not familiar with Jake Weber’s work but he was born in London and should speak either with received pronunciation (Queen’s English) or a cockney accent.

    The greatest display of the northern Minnesotan accent is in the Cohen Brother’s masterpiece, “Fargo”. Marge Gunderson and William Macy, two of the creative geniuses on the US screen, create perfect examples of that accent, which bears no notable commonalities with either British dialect. The northern Minnesotan accent is the result of Norwegian influences.

    Christopher Plummer? He is from Toronto, Canada. However, is has excellent breadth and has done many British roles admirably.

  7. Lena Brooks Says:

    rbeard,

    Thank you so much for your response. The thread that I mentioned about Mr. Weber’s “accent” has 69 responses. As I said, the role that he plays is supposed to be of a Minnesota native. However, Weber sounds like Christopher Plummer. So, what accent/dialect does Mr. Plummer have? When Plummer does the British roles, he is speaking the Queen’s English?

    By the way, I loved the movie “Fargo”. The Cohen Brothers have done some great work. Another favorite of mine is “O Brother Where Art Thou?” I’m from the south and found some (but not all) of the actors speaking a believable southern drawl.

  8. Heather Says:

    Hi,

    I just wanted to add a little bit of information to the Northern Minnesota comments. I grew up on the border of Minnesota and North Dakota, and I lived in Fargo for several years. I am attending graduate school for sociolinguistics, and I recently bemused studying the change of the Northern Minnesota dialect for a project.

    All that being said, I decided to compare the speech of my boyfriend (native Fargoan) to the movie Fargo. While the movie itself had a lot of cleverly inserted nuances to our dialect, I have to say it was inaccurate. The dialect these people spoke is absolutely overdone and stereotyped. Nobody except maybe very rural and elderly farmers or miners from the northwoods would speak that way.

    Also, a little side note: the accent is not only influenced by Norwegian, but Swedish, Finnish, and German, and our peculiar word choice/order (“Ya comin with?” or “Fer cute!”) is influenced by these languages as well.

    Just my two cents.

  9. Susan L Says:

    I was born in Northern Minnesota (60 miles from the Canadian border) and lived there for the first eight years of my life. I have lived in Oregon for the last 30 years and am now 50 years old. I have been approached by more than one person who has asked me if I am from Minnesota. Also, I had a total stranger ask me if I was born and raised in northern Minnesota. She informed me that she had studied various dialects and that one of them had been the northern Minnesota dialect. She picked up on something I had said/pronounced after 30+ years being out of the state. I have lost some of the distinctive parts of speech, yes. Also, I believe education does play a part as I gave up some of those distinctive phrases/words as I worked through to my Master’s Degree. My relatives that still live in northern Minnesota speak with a strong and distinctive dialect. It is not fading.

  10. Kyle Says:

    I grew up in Central Oregon (Bend) and haven’t lived there permanently since I left for college when I was 18.

    Growing up I never thought that there was an accent in my part of Oregon (at least, no accent that was distinguishable from the rest of the West Coast) though I did think there were some people in small Eastern Oregon towns that had a strong “hick” accent. I wouldn’t describe this “hick” accent as Southern though.

    After college I left Oregon and I’ve lived in California and New York. From time to time (especially in New York), people assumed I was from the South or otherwise commented that I had an accent. This surprised me at first but now I accept that I speak with an accent.

    I have to say that as time goes by, whenever I go back to Bend or talk to my childhood friends on the phone, it sounds more and more like they have that “hick” accent and I realize what I must sound like to others.

    I’m not sure if my Oregon accent is going away with time but my wife (not from Oregon) tells me that when I get together with my old friends I somehow talk differently.

  11. rbeard Says:

    In addition to dialects, there are also idiolects, slight variations from community to community, family to family, even person to person within a family, depending on age, occupation, general interests.

    There are certainly idiolects everywhere but the dialects are quite noticeable: Brooklyn accent (dialect), Southern accent, Texas accent are not coincidental terms. They refer to a set of differences noticeable over a wide area. We don’t heave of an “Oregon accent” or “Northwestern accent” because the variations in these areas are so slight they can be included under the rubric of “idiolect”.

  12. Frank Gerace Says:

    Isn’t that UP TALK restricted to white, or white talking, young people, mostly women? It drives me as crazy as what was called “valley girl” talk.

    Moving to something more meaningful… Accents are a serious matter for the new immigrant. Great discussion. I teach English to immigrant adults and am interested in helping my students overcome some of their great pronunciation problems. We must recognize that the current anti-immigrant mood and its consequent discrimination is not a theoretical issue for immigrants.

  13. rbeard Says:

    The alphaDictionary website has many resources for language learners: the Good Word series, the Good Word Junion series is especially good for language learners. We also have the most frequently mispronounced and misspelled words as well as the most often confused words, which come with quizzes that allow visitors to test their knowledge of the confused words.

    There is more, too.

  14. TLimon Says:

    In response to rbeard, may I venture to say that the idiolects may be something of a socio economic variety. Lets for a moment assume that you are correct that there is no monolithic ‘Northwestern’ accent or ‘Oregonian’ accent and also assume that the notion of an accent is not a sociological construction. Do Oregonians speak with a certain rural or working class accent versus more bourgeois oriented ‘folks’ such as the difference between the coastal hills ‘folk’ and ‘people’ who live in Portland? I would have to agree with Kyle that there are in fact some discernable Oregon accents ie. South/South Eastern Buckaroo accents. Also, that area of the state spanning S. OR, N. CA, and N. NV have different politics and higher levels of religiosity than anywhere else along the west coast. These folks even tried to secceed from their respective states to form the state of Jefferson in 1941. Not to mention the fact that most of the state of Oregon was settled by southern whites seeking some form of racial seperatism. In many ways the social norms and even accents live on in many people in Oregon. Oregon is more than Portland and the Willamette Valley and so is Oregon’s ‘accents’.

  15. Miriam B. Says:

    The most annoying trend is among women trying to sound like girls by imitating uptalk, adding a grating “Think you” not even “Thank you” every so often and in my head not deserving of any gratitude for having to listen to their pathetic attempts to sound like young, valley-girl dolls. I am so annoyed! You can see this in action on the Real Housewives of Orange County, ugh!

  16. Kirk B. Says:

    I believe the loss of regional accents increases with each generation. I think it would be less noticeable within a generation, with some exceptions.
    I had a young teen cousin who moved from Texas to Ohio for a few years. When she returned, there was a noticeable change in her accent, but it ameliorated over time, to the point having only a few “Ohio” idiosyncrasies. If she had stayed in Ohio longer, she probably would have retained more of the dialect from there.
    My conviction is that TV and Movies play a strong role in leveling our accents. My children have watched a lot more TV, from a younger age, than I grew up with. They have heard and emulated the “Central Standard” accent more than I ever will. They will still sound like Texans, but much less than I do.
    (Oh, and I don’t need the sub-titles in “Swamp People”. I’m from South East Texas.)

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