Raleigh has lost its drawl, y’all

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comApril 8, 2013 

  • It’s not all gone

    Linguists studying the changes in the way people in Raleigh talk have found the city’s Southern drawl to be melting away. But the use of “y’all” as a second-person plural form of address is hanging in.

    “It may be less common,” says linguistics professor Robin Dodsworth. “But ‘y’all’ has definitely not disappeared.”

    And to hear more traditional Southern speech, all y’all have to do is get out of town. Rural areas and smaller towns still preserve more of the old Southern vowels. Urban centers, with plenty of newcomers as part of the mix, are less likely to keep their Southern accents.

    “Raleigh isn’t locked in,” Dodsworth said,

  • Say it Raw-leigh style In Raleigh’s pre-1965 accent, vowels tended to be lengthened, or turned into two syllables.

    "Bed" would sound like "bay-ed."

    "People" would sound like "pay-ple."

    "Kid" would sound like "kiy-id."

    "Hate" would sound like "height"

    "Dad" would sound like "day-ed."

  • Southern accent study

    N.C. State linguistics professor Robin Dodsworth and her associates have recorded hundreds of Raleigh residents to study the change in the city's Southern accent during the past two or three generations.

    Listen to sample clips of speakers born in 1939, 1968 and 1984 to gauge the lessening of Raleigh's drawl.

    Speaker born in 1939

    Speaker born in 1968

    Speaker born in 1984

On her ski trips to areas such as Colorado and Canada, Sheri Green has grown used to answering questions about her distinctive Raleigh accent.

In recent years, however, she’s gotten the same kind of curiosity closer to home – in Raleigh.

“People here will sometimes make a comment, ‘Oh, I can tell you’re a native,’ ” said Green, 54, a Wake County schools system employee.

Green’s encounters reflect what researchers say is a trend: Raleigh has nearly lost its Southern accent. According to an ongoing N.C. State linguistics study of hundreds of residents, the characteristic Southern vowels that marked the city’s drawl – in which “bed” can sound like “bay-ed” – grow more scarce with every generation.

To be precise, the change has come since IBM and other companies brought in thousands of “not-from-around-here” employees in the mid-1960s.

“There’s no question as to when the change happened, based on the birthdates of the speakers,” NCSU linguistics professor Robin Dodsworth said. “You went within the space of two or three generations from being an unambiguously Southern-speaking city to an unambiguously non-Southern-speaking city.”

If anything, people in Raleigh are sounding more Eastern than Southern, linguistics experts say. While characteristic accents linger in the rural South, urban centers along the East Coast talk more like each other.

“Raleigh has some features that other cities along the Eastern Seaboard share, and Philadelphia has, historically, been one of these,” Dodsworth said in response to a question about Raleigh’s linguistic brethren. “Also D.C., Richmond, even Charleston, to some extent.”

The research, called the Raleigh study, has been going on for five years and will continue. Its finding that the Raleigh accent is disappearing heads immediately onto touchy ground – the changes that natives have seen and sometimes mourned during the decades of explosive growth that started in about 1965.

“If somebody would have asked me if there was a turning point, that’s what I would have said,” study participant Nancy Healy, 71, said of the IBM influx. “That’s when it started losing its Southern character.”

Healy, whose husband worked for IBM before he retired, and others say the changes that accompanied the shift in accents haven’t all been negative.

“It’s put Raleigh on the map. It still fascinates me that they just say ‘Raleigh’ on the news, instead of ‘Raleigh, North Carolina,’ ” she said.

Still, she regrets many of the changes that growth delivered. “That’s when the roads got too small, the neighborhoods got bigger. North Hills was invented.”

Feelings can run strong

Dodsworth, for the record, is from Ohio. After The News & Observer published a story about an earlier stage of her research last year, she heard from hundreds of volunteers who wanted their speech to be recorded.

Dodsworth had to get a grant to hire graduate students to handle all the loyal Raleighites. During interviews, participants said they missed hearing what they considered the Raleigh accent, with its nostalgic links to a smaller, slower city.

“I have found that people have a range of reasons for caring about language variation and change,” Dodsworth said. “The main one seems to be that people view language as part of social or personal identity. If the Southern accent is disappearing from Raleigh, people often want to know why and whether it can survive somehow.”

Bill Coley, 72, a chaplain at Rex Hospital, welcomes the diversity that has come with change, but he misses the easygoing atmosphere that even many newcomers have said attracted them to Raleigh in the first place.

“We’re being outnumbered as far as the traditional, Southern, Raleigh people,” Coley said. “As Raleigh has changed with the influx of people coming from up North, and from all over the world, it’s probably one of the most diverse places in the world now. And we each pick up a little of that.

“We open it up with receptive arms, and I do. But if you go back to your roots, my roots are gone.”

Southern vowels shift

The NCSU study records and analyzes the pronunciation of certain vowels – the “a” in “hate,” the “i” in “kid” and the “a” in “dad,” among others – and the way they have changed through the years. It’s a widely studied phenomenon called the Southern vowel shift.

The original drawl didn’t stem from laziness, or survival of centuries-old English accents, said Walt Wolfram, a widely published N.C. State linguistics professor and director of the North Carolina Language and Life Project.

And the loss of the distinctive accent isn’t a result of omnipresent broadcast media leading to a homogenization of speech.

Language just changes, and linguists almost never know the reasons. The Raleigh study, however, does point to an unusually rapid degree of change that’s easily measurable by recording and analyzing generations of Raleigh-speak.

“Speakers born before about 1950 are kind of in a clump,” Dodsworth said. “Speakers born later, that’s when you start hearing the changes.

“This really seems to be happening citywide. Kids these days are just not sounding very Southern. You can see a steady progress away from the Southern vowels.”

In general, linguists say, accents form by about age 17 and are chiefly influenced by the peers the person sees and hears daily. Older speakers sometimes modify their accents as speech changes around them, but the Raleigh study hasn’t existed long enough to measure whether that’s occurring here.

‘Particularly fast change’

Dodsworth said Raleigh has experienced “particularly fast change” as the result of large-scale migration from other parts of the country, as well as other factors. Similar change has happened in other regions where different dialects meet.

Garrett Zafuto, an N.C. State student with a Louisiana background, said young people often change their speech as part of “code switching,” or modifying vocabulary, colloquialisms and accent when talking to people in different situations.

“High school played a large part of how I developed my speech identity,” said Zafuto, who attended high school in Wake County. “I went to a more well-to-do school than most others, where something akin to ‘standard’ English was the norm.”

The Raleigh study is showing that younger people in the city are forming a hybrid dialect that has fewer distinctively Southern sounds but doesn’t sound specifically Northern either. Dodsworth and Wolfram stressed that change in dialects, for a variety of reasons, has always taken place.

But it has only been possible to track those changes with technical precision since the advent of sound recording and computer analysis.

“Linguistically, the only unchanged language is a dead one,” Dodsworth said.

The Eastern vowels that can strike older Raleigh ears as jarringly different may be just a measurable part of the long sweep of change for the city – linguistic, political, social, demographic and economic. Somewhere in that push and pull, between the old-timers and the newcomers, a new Raleigh accent is emerging, and people are adjusting.

One of the higher-profile transplants, former Wake County school board Chairman Ron Margiotta, said he’s noticed the waning of the Southern accent since he moved from New Jersey 14 years ago. And he’s sorry to hear it go.

“I love it, to be honest with you – I enjoy it,” Margiotta said. “The enunciation of the words is something I appreciate, more so than the way we speak up in the Northeast. They don’t use ‘dese’ and ‘dose’ down here.”

As the language changes, so do some of the old taboos. Raleigh native Healy recalled that her mother jokingly admonished her never to marry a Yankee or a Republican.

“And I did both,” she said, laughing. “But I think I’ve changed him more than he’s changed me.”

Dodsworth can be reached at robin_dodsworth@ncsu.edu.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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