Southern accent in danger?

Expert sees a shift taking place over time in Raleigh

Staff WriterFebruary 6, 2011 

  • N.C. State University linguistics researcher Robin Dodsworth is looking for native Raleighites to participate in her study. If you grew up in Raleigh - as far south as Garner or as far north as Wake Forest - and want to contribute your voice to Dodsworth's data, e-mail her at robin_dodsworth@ncsu.edu.

A new dialect is forming in Raleigh, and Scarlett O'Hara it ain't.

There's a gradual shift toward a less distinctive regional accent, and our vowel sounds are leading the way.

"Language is always changing, always in flux," said Robin Dodsworth, an associate linguistics professor at N.C. State University. "Over time in Raleigh, the Southern variant is disappearing."

Since 2008, Dodsworth has collected recordings of native Raleighites, analyzing their vowel sounds to uncover how the local accent has changed through time.

The major difference is in something linguists call the "Southern vowel shift," the way of speaking that makes words like "bait" sound more like "bet," and turns "bed" into a two-syllable word. Those Southern quirks of speech are less noticeable with each generation Dodsworth interviews.

You could try blaming the influx of Yankees over the past couple decades, but the regional quirks of, say, New York- or Chicago-area speech patterns aren't being picked up locally, Dodsworth said. Rather, the Raleigh dialect is becoming less traditionally "Southern," smoothing out into an accent that is recognizably American but difficult to place.

Raleigh resident Bob Tomb, 70, grew up around Raleigh, then lived in California for 40 years. When he returned to the city as an adult, his ear caught the change in diction between the generations - the younger they were, the less pronounced the accent.

"It's very pleasant to run into an older person who sounds like they're from Raleigh," Tomb said. "The accent gives the place a little style."

Lifelong Raleigh resident Jim Stronach, 83, chalks up some of the change to improved schools during the area's economic boom, plus the increased mobility of modern culture.

"The speech changes to the degree that you don't really sound like you're from Dixie anymore," Stronach said.

It doesn't bother him. Change is always a good thing, Stronach said.

"You can't lose your heritage, just because your speech changes," Stronach said.

A mere reconfiguration

Walt Wolfram, NCSU's William C. Friday distinguished professor of English linguistics, says the South isn't losing its identity in terms of speech - it's reconfiguring. The South, particularly in urban areas, has transformed itself during the past 30 years, Wolfram said. Cities have been more influenced by outsiders, and this vowel shift is partially a product of that change. And it's more subtle than natives might realize.

"If a Southern person goes north, people are still going to say you sound Southern," Wolfram said.

Dodsworth has recorded hours of speech from people who grew up in Raleigh, which she runs through software that breaks down the way each person pronounces each word, turns that into numbers, then runs a statistical analysis to determine patterns of change over time and across groups.

Her work is ongoing - this kind of study can last decades. She's always on the watch for new interviewees who grew up in Raleigh, an increasingly difficult category to locate in a city of transplants.

Is the Southern accent an endangered species? Only within city limits, and mostly in the middle and upper classes, Dodsworth said. Rural areas still have a strong regional twang, as do many working-class folks.

For those who are worried the Southern accent may die out, the solution is simple, Dodsworth said.

"The best way to preserve it is to keep talking that way," she said.

Some key elements of Southern speech are still going strong across Raleigh - "Y'all is still fairly robust," Dodsworth said - but other things are changing, and that's normal.

"It's not realistic to talk about 'saving' a dialect or accent because the fact of life is that dialects change," Dodsworth said. "The Southern accent the way we think of it now is different than the way people in the South talked 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and so forth."

Dodsworth said what we all recognize as a Southern accent today probably didn't gain its current trademark sound until after the Civil War.

So even Miss O'Hara, the quintessential Confederate, may not have sounded like a Southern belle.

chelsea.kellner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4802

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