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Southern Accents Today

I just returned from my annual pilgramage down South (North Carolina) and was amazed at what I heard. To understand it, let me give a little background.

I was born in Fayetteville, NC but was raised in the rural area north of it, Eastover Township and Beard, NC (which used to have a post office but no longer does). The dialects I was exposed to differ significantly. The urban dialect of Fayetteville is very similar to the urban dialects of other Southern cities (Atlanta, Charlotte, Spartanburg, etc.)

The rural dialects and those of small towns are the funny ones, like Andy Griffith’s and Kyra Sedgewick’s. I started out with one of those since both my parents came from farms.

I spent a good deal of time last week playing with my grandnephews and grandnieces, all of whom live in rural areas or in small towns. They range in age from 6-12, so all have mastered their version of English. I was amazed that they all spoke the “standard” dialect of radio and TV announcers. In both Cumberland and Onslow counties we would seem to be no more than one generation away from losing the color and regional individualism of Southern dialects.

Those of my age still retain their accents, of course. As I discuss elsewhere,what is popularly called an “accent” is in fact a regional dialect. A regional dialect is a slightly different grammar of a language which is just as complex and rigid as the standard variant. Thus, like any grammar, it is “hard wired” into our brains as we learn language between the ages of 2 and 6 and this makes it difficult to change.

So the old folks I hob-nobbed with at my 50th HS reunion spoke pretty much like they did when we were in HS but their grandchildren probably speak like your average Yankee.

The mass media makes retaining regional differences difficult. In many US families today children hear radio and TV more than they hear their parents. Since we pick up language and whatever dialects it carries from those we hear speaking it, regional dialects in the US are probably doomed. It is just a matter of time.

One aspect of this disappearance, however, may slow it down. People who listen to little radio and TV—or restrict there conact with the media to country radio and the popular redneck humor of Comedy Central—tend to retain their accents longer. Hopefully, this will not strengthen the prejudict that an association exists between southern accents and lack of education or knowledge.

But this is just my impression. I know of no research that has been conducted on the subject. Maybe I am wrong. (I was once before back in November of 1983).

6 Responses to “Southern Accents Today”

  1. Gary T. Meek Says:

    I don’t have any sources to cite at the moment, but recent research suggests that children’s accents/dialects are generally more influenced by the speech of their peers than of their parents. This seemed strange to me when I first read it, but made more sense the more I thought about it. What say you, Dr.?

  2. rbeard Says:

    Actually, I commented recently that my grandneices and grandnephews in Cumberland County, NC are all speaking with the Midwestern accents of radio and TV. You would never know suspect them to be children of their parents, who still speak with a strong rural NC dialect. I can only assume that they pick up this dialect in school where they mingle with army kids who come from the north under the influence of radio and TV.

  3. Jenny Says:

    I am very pleased that you have looked into this fascinating part of our language practices! I am also a southern NC person interested in the southern regional dialect. Have you found any research on its origins?

  4. Ruth Canon Says:

    I am interested in the southern accents that pronounce about as aboot, and around as aroond, much like John Edwards pronounces know as kneoo(short e). I once asked a physician who spoke with those pronunciations, and he said they were peculiar to a couple of areas of Virginia, and Canada, as well. I have assumed they must have emanated from Scots who originally settled there. Does anyone really know the origin?
    Thanks

  5. rbeard Says:

    Ruth,

    You are referring to two different dialect features. Pronouncing the “ou” in words like house, out, about like the “ow” in low, is called “Canadian Raising” by US linguists. You hear it in central Canada and around Norfolk, Virginia.

    In the same areas, the “ai” sound in words like hide, ride, snide become “uh-i” before consonants p, b, k, s, sh, and ch, e.g. right, kite, bike. This latter shift in pronunciation you will hear in northern New Jersey and most of New York, too.

    This is a dialectal feature of Scots English and was brought over by Scottish settlers.

    The John Edwards “o”, i.e. uh-u, is from the upper class British dialect. Listen to Queen Elizabeth: her pronunciation of “o” will sound like an exaggeration of John Edwards. This is a characteristic of urban southern dialects since most of the upper class British settlers ended up in cities, in fact, running them.

    Too bad Edwards dropped out of the Democratic race. I liked him–and not just because I’m from North Carolina.

  6. Meade Says:

    In regards to “oot and “aboot” in Virginia and Canada- those are simply not the same. The Virginia (which I’m from) pronunciation is much much more precise- and it has a drawl (of course) to it. Canadians lean more towards “aboat” or “oat”. Its not as crisp
    I’m a life-long Virginian and get irked when untrained ears say we sound Canadian. Y’all!

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