The Southern Accent Is Dying, Y'all


Could the Southern drawl be gone with the wind? Sean Pavone/iStock
Could the Southern drawl be gone with the wind? Sean Pavone/iStock

The city of Raleigh, North Carolina, is well below the Mason-Dixon line, but strike up a conversation with a stranger and you might think you're in upstate New York. Over the past 50 years, Raleigh's Southern drawl has all but vanished, while some residents of neighboring small towns still sound like extras from "The Andy Griffith Show." What in tarnation is going on here? 

Robin Dodsworth, a sociolinguist from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, thinks she's solved the mystery. Researchers like Dodsworth study the impact of social forces on the evolution of language. She received a National Science Foundation grant to collect and analyze hundreds of audio recordings of Raleigh residents in order to trace the death of a dialect.   

“There's a lot we don't know about how and why language changes,” Dodsworth says, “but here in Raleigh, it's pretty clear when and why the Southern dialect began to fade.” 

Post-World War II North Carolina was one of the poorest states in the nation, with a sluggish economy largely dependent on tobacco farming. In 1959, North Carolina legislators and real-estate developers created Research Triangle Park (RTP) outside of Raleigh, still one of the largest research and development centers in the world. 

IBM arrived at RTP in the early 1960s, bringing with it throngs of Yankee workers. The white-collar Northerners enrolled their kids in local schools, triggering what Dodsworth calls a “dialect contact situation.” 

“One thing we absolutely know is that how you sound depends a lot on your peers,” says Dodsworth. “That's not to say you don't learn anything from your parents and the media, but in terms of your vowel system and other features of grammar, you're going to sound most like your peers.” 

When Dodsworth records conversations with Raleigh residents who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, most retain their old-school drawl. But the kids who grew up sharing classrooms with sons and daughters of IBM-ers exhibit a northernizing trend that only deepens over the decades. 

“The data show the astonishing uniformity with which changes happened in Raleigh,” says Dodsworth. “By far the strongest predictor of what you sound like right now is age. Most people in Raleigh in a given age group sound exactly the same.” 

All of this raises some troubling questions about the future of the Southern and other regional dialects. With increasingly more people living outside of their places of birth, how long can any alternative way of speaking withstand the influence of the dominant dialect? In other words, how long until “y'all” is totally dead?

"It all comes down to “stigmas,” says Dodsworth, and some accents are stigmatized by the broader culture as “deficient,” even though there is no scientific or linguistic basis for such a bias. 

“People down here who wanted to have a certain kind of job or wanted to get along with certain types of people, or wanted to be seen a certain way, of course they had encouragement to adopt non-Southern linguistic features that they were hearing all around them,” says Dodsworth. 

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