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Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Role Reversal

Gay Talese releaesd his masterwork on the history, culture, and inner workings of the New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power, in 1969. It’s the story of a bygone era in journalism, but also more than that. I found this passage particularly curious.

And so what worked in Mississippi worked as well in Manhattan, although the reverse was not so true. The impersonal pushing of the North was out of step with the South; Southerners could not easily accept it: the South was deep-rooted and fixed in its way, as Federal lawmakers would later learn. The South set its own pace and style and stamped its people for a lifetime, and when Northerners went South to live, it stamped them, too. Northerners who settled in the South adopted the regional accent; Southerners who settled in the North did not. [emphasis added]

I found this an interesting observation because it is so contrary to what I see in the present day. It strikes me that people – or at least young people – who move north today do everything in their power to lose their southern accent as quickly as possible. My wife is from Alabama (where Talese attended college, incidentally). Having just returned from a visit there, I can tell you southern accents are alive and well in the South. I great up in rural Southern Indiana with an accent myself. Today, neither of us sounds at all like people with southern roots. I’ve seen this story many times.

And also, when people from the north move south, I see a major effort undertaken to preserve a flat accent in the children. Indeed, we are seeing in places like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville significant upscale districts where large numbers of people have no southern accent. An intern at work a year or so ago was born and raised in Brentwood, Tennessee outside of Nashville, and didn’t have a trace of a southern accent.

We’ve certainly seen since the 1960’s a massive change in the fortunes of the South. The civil rights struggles were still ongoing when Talese wrote his book. Today the South, or at least parts of it, are re-energized and feel confident meeting and competing with the rest of America on its terms.

But perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into the south. It seems to me that there has been a significant decline in regional accents and dialects generally in the United States. Perhaps some of this is due to the interstate highway system, which enabled significant mobility around the country and homogenized things a bit. I don’t know. But even within the last 15 years I’ve noticed, for example, a significant decline in the number of people with Hoosier accents on the north side of Indianapolis, especially among younger people.

It is interesting to see the changes in American culture in even a relatively short term. Of course, some things haven’t changed. The Southern style can still be very effective in the north. Let me just say this, do not underestimate someone just because they talk like a good ol’ boy. You might well end up regretting it.

On another topic completely, a lot of what Talese wrote about journalism in the 1960’s as a period of transition is completely relevant today. I will share a few excerpts to demonstrate. The challenges facing the newspaper business are actually longstanding, and clearly the major media companies failed to meet them. Perhaps that bygone era isn’t so bygone at all.

Now the newspaper industry had a serious new threat, television, and [Managing Editor] Catledge knew that the formula that had worked so well [in the past] would require some adjusting. A newspaper could not compete with the speed of television in covering spot news, nor could it match televisions dramatic presentation of a single news spectacle…but [he] was confident that newspapers could bring readers more details and could explain the significance of these details more effectively than could television…Newspaper reporters would now have to dig more deeply into more areas and to inform the public more thoroughly; they could no longer merely report the facts, but they would often have to interpret the meaning behind these facts. The trick was to do this without editorializing.

The [NYT] could no longer financially afford to print lengthy stories about relatively minor news events….The paper was now actually printing fewer columns of news than it had been in the 1920’s and 30’s. And since the end of WWII it had also greatly increased the volume of advertising to a point where it regularly carried more lines of advertising than news….The only what the The Times could both cover the news and pay its bills was to get its reporters to say more in less space, as the tabloid men from the New York Daily News had been doing so well for years

It had become one of the corporate jokes within The Times that most of the money earned did not come from publishing the greatest newspaper in the world but from the 42 percent interest that Ochs had bought in 1926 in a paper-making mill in Canada – The Times made more money producing paper without words than paper with words.

Only The Times and two tabloids, the morning News and the evening Post, would remain in a city than in 1900 had sixteen dailies, and than in 1930 had a dozen…Of the New York dailies, only The Times and the News [had been] consistent money makers; the others survived on subsidies from newspaper chains or from individual owners whose wealth was derived from outside sources.

The Times would have to accept the computer. The computer was still a relatively controversial subject at The Times, but now in Sulzberger’s first year as publisher he began to prepare the institution for its introduction. Timesmen would have to overcome their aversions and romantic notions about the newspaper business.

Plus ça change….

10 Comments
Topics: Urban Culture

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10 Responses to “Role Reversal”

  1. Curt says:

    Its funny how this culture has driven even product development. I shoot a LOT of photos and recently, the professional grade of Nikon and Cannon cameras have integrated functional HD movie recording features. I read an interesting article about newspapers buying up these cameras, using the still images for the print version (obviously) and being able to get the HD videos straight to their web only readers. They gave a number about how much more visible the videos were to people on the web compared to their print readers and the difference is astronomical. It is a hard pill to swallow for photographers, but one that you must either adapt and live with, or change your profession.

  2. cdc guy says:

    Cause of “dialect loss” in the US is less likely the Interstate system and more likely the universal presence of television in American homes.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, sociolinguists of American English believe that not only are US accents not in decline, but they’re diverging so rapidly that the language will change more in the next 50 years than it did in the last 200. And the epicenter of this change, at least for whites, is in the Midwest, where Great Lakes cities are changing the language. In some areas, like the short vowels (especially the cot and cat vowels), the Midwest is changing pronunciations that hadn’t changed in over a thousand years.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    By the way: what is true is that some accents have fallen out of fashion and are fading out. For example, white American accents that used to drop final r’s, such as Southern, no longer do. The traditional accent of New York is receding, too, due to cultural stigma. The regional accents that are spreading, such as Great Lakes and Californian, are those that there’s no stigma against. Africa-American accent (which is not the same as Ebonics, which is a grammar) is spreading as well, in the sense that it’s becoming a uniform national accent among blacks and diverging from General American; while whites have a stigma against AA accent, blacks don’t, and as children blacks mostly associate with other blacks, giving them no reason to speak GA.

  5. AmericanDirt says:

    I’d be curious to know under what principles the sociolinguists Alon Levy mentions are anticipating accents to diverge more radically in upcoming years. General observation would lead me to side with Urbanophile and cdc guy, but I’m certainly open to an explanation.

    The closest I have come to discerning a locational origin to the Africa-American accent that one most stereotypically links to Ebonics (whether accurately or not) is from the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish around New Orleans. Working class whites and blacks lived cheek by jowl there for many decades, and it is the only area I’ve seen where the whites speak not only with AA accents but the vernacular as well–and it doesn’t appear to be out of the working-class solidarity we might witness among “hip hop” white kids in other cities. Many white soccer moms in St. Bernard Parish would say “I axed you a question” whereas just 20 miles away, in upper-middle class suburban Metairie, such a word choice would be unthinkable among whites.

    My favorite dialect of all, though, remains Tangier Island off the Virginia Coast, in the southern waters of the Chesapeake. Less than a thousand people live there, and the accent is like nowhere else in the US. YouTube has some good videos showing some of the local speech. In this case I hope Alon is right: I never want to see homogenization through television wipe that accent out.

  6. John M says:

    I think Indiana is a fascinating dialect study. People in the northern half of Lake County speak in a manner virtually indistinguishable from the stereotypical Chicago accent (part of the “inland north” family, per linguists). Many people from the Ohio River counties of Indiana speak with a true southern accent. Many of the people between, say US 30 and US 50 speak with a twangy “midland” accent that is sort of a halfway point between the upper midwest and the south, with great variation within.

    Aaron, I don’t know if the phenomenon you describe in Indianapolis is all that new. It seems to me that Indy always has had significant regional/class dialect distinctions. Thinking of people in my parents’ generation (boomers), it seems to me that even among lifelong Indianapolis residents, there is a big difference between, say, a doctor who grew up on the north side and a mechanic who grew up on the west side. I know this isn’t unique to Indianapolis, but it seems much more pronounced here than in Chicago, where natives of varying class seem to speak with a pronounced Chicago accent.

    Of course, all of the above generally pertains to the dialects of white people. As others have noted, African-American dialects are another can of worms entirely.

  7. Alon Levy says:

    AmericanDirt: the linguists in question get their data by conducting interviews and recording how people pronounce stressed vowels. There are few accent differences in consonants in English, and vowels are easy to record; for the most part they can be plotted on a two-dimensional scale. This allows linguists to say things like “The Chicago pronunciation of the bot vowel is strongly fronted, approximating the GenAm value of the bat vowel.”

    For example, here is one comprehensive national telephone survey done by William Labov, who explains it on NPR.

    The accent of the Tangier Island is likely to be wiped out – the trend in the last 50 years has been for rural accents to recede. There’s even a book studying the spread of the Northern Cities shift in Michigan, called Small Town Values, Big City Vowels.

  8. cdc guy says:

    John M, methinks education is more the determinant than location.

  9. Deadra Anderson says:

    Aaron I always hear a little S. Indiana when I talk to you… I often get comments on my accent, maybe I am further from a metro area than you and thus too rural – last I heard was from a McHenry Co woman : ‘you are not from around here’..

  10. Hehe, well, Deadra, you would definitely be the expert on Southern Indiana accents.

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