[ I was doing some housekeeping work in the archives when I stumbled across this. I thought it might make a nice mid-week diversion for us – Aaron. ]
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 ex-wife is from Alabama (where Talese attended college, incidentally). Having visited there many times, I can tell you southern accents are alive and well in the South. I grew 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.
This post originally ran on December 1, 2009.