Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Replay: Role Reversal

[ 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.

Topics: Urban Culture

12 Responses to “Replay: Role Reversal”

  1. MQ says:

    Love your thoughts here.

    As a student at Alabama (and not from Alabama), I monitor my own speech and notice the way that I adopt the Southern sweetness in my voice, when say, I’m asking for something over the phone. It seems to work. I have British cousins who moved to the US, and their parents used to get onto them for sounding “too American.”

    I think some of the region-less dialect stems from television as well, the neutral national broadcast accent.

    Anyway you probably know most of this, since the piece was written 2 years ago, but loved it all the same.

  2. Beta Magellan says:

    I knew someone in college who’d switch from a flat television accent to a strong Georgia accent when talking to her family—I don’t think I have the endurance to constantly “perform” a standard accent.

    It’s odd possessing an accent from northeastern Massachusetts—even one weakened from years in the Midwest—and encountering other people from eastern Mass. They almost uniformly don’t have any trace of it—in fact, people have even commented on how “working-class” I sound, despite coming from an upper-middle class background. I moved out of the state at a fairly young age, though, so I have no idea what the general parental policy on accents is there (though after moving I was put into speech therapy for non-rhotic speech).

  3. MetroCard says:

    I agree that American dialects have weakened considerably over the last 60 years thanks to television and the Internet. The concept of a “general” accent did not even exist prior to the 1950s. This also has the unfortunate affect that certain accents are more stigmatized than others (Southern = uncouth, valley girl = dumb, etc).

    Large numbers of transplants will also water down accents. Even here in New York, children of transplants generally do not sound like native New Yorkers. You can literally hear the accents change two or three times riding the same train through the boroughs. Then again, affluent people have always had weaker accents compared to their less affluent counterparts in all parts of the country (and still do today).

  4. James says:

    I’m sorry to say your powers of observation fail you. Regional dialects in America are getting stronger, not weaker. There are some interesting studies on this, you can start here:

  5. John Morris says:

    Not that you tend to hear a lot of strong NY accents in the city. Nothing like I remember in the 1970’s.

    Funny story, on a visit a year ago, I was on an e train when I was asked by a woman with one of the strongest NY accents, how to get to Penn Station. Of course, she was from way in New Jersey and rarely came into the city at all.

    My friend from Alabama still gets her way nicely with her strong Southern accent.

  6. Joe Hoff says:

    I was a bit shocked coming to Richmond, VA (originally from St. Louis). In the city of Richmond, I rarely hear a southern accent. In fact, only one of my immediate neighbors is from Virginia. The others are from New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, and so on.

    I compare the accent situation to the “sweet tea” line. Here in Richmond, they ask whether you want sweetened or unsweetened. Further south it’s all sweetened…

  7. Joe Hoff says:

    I was a bit shocked coming to Richmond, VA (originally from St. Louis). In the city of Richmond, I rarely hear a southern accent. In fact, only one of my immediate neighbors is from Virginia. The others are from New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, and so on.

    I compare the accent situation to the “sweet tea” line. Here in Richmond, they ask whether you want sweetened or unsweetened. Further south it’s all sweet tea…

  8. Alon Levy says:

    Accents are generally getting more rather than less distinct. Among whites, the most stereotyped accents (New York, some kinds of Southern) are disappearing due to stigma, but others are expanding and diverging from General American. Listen carefully to people from Great Lakes cities (for example, Hillary Clinton in her debates with Obama in the primaries) pronounce the short-a vowel, as in the words bat and back. Because this Inland Northern accent is not so stereotyped, it’s spreading, and changing vowels that had been pronounced the same for more than a thousand years. Other accents are losing stereotyped features, such as r-dropping, while maintaining and developing others: New Englanders with otherwise unremarkable accents say muse-am instead of museum, New Yorkers pronounce vowels before r’s more conservatively than other Americans, Southerners pronounce the eye vowel farther front in the mouth than others.

    And this is just for whites. There is a nationwide black accent, which is diverging from the white accents. Unlike Ebonics, which tends to be restricted to the ghetto, the accent is found among nearly all blacks, regardless of socioeconomic status.

    Although television is making it clear to everyone what General American sounds like, people do not learn to speak from mass media; they learn to speak from their peers. This also explains the divergence of black and white accents: blacks associate primarily with other blacks during childhood, since they usually go to segregated schools.

  9. stlplanr says:

    I’m a Rustbelt native turned New South transplant. In my new surroundings, I find myself having increased awareness of my speech, trying hard not to say “ar” for “or” ala St. Louis. I also find myself picking up Southern words, like “y’alls” for “your” (pl.), but without the accent. If I’m picking up any slight accent, it sounds more like that of New Yorkers. This is likely due to my self-selected social circles, including a growing art community, with numerous other transplants living inside the insular core neighborhoods of Charlotte.

  10. STLsouthcity says:

    Man, you guys from St. Louis must never have spent much time in the Ozarks, and Memphis is just a few hours down the road. There’s definitely people in southern Metro St. Louis, and even south city that have a fusion of twang and farty-far.

  11. PeterW says:

    “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.”

    This is something that linguists have studied for – literally – hundreds of years. When speakers of two different dialects, or even accents, come into extended contact, the speaker of the low-prestige dialect tends to adopt traits of the higher-prestige dialect within the speech community. This process is fairly well documented in England beginning in the 1400’s; it’s what led to the modern form of RP or standard English.

    I think things were probably different before the 60’s, but at least since the 60’s, one tool that Hollywood has to show that someone is ignorant is to give them a southern accent. This tends to encourage people with pronounced southern accents living in other parts of the country to lose the accent.

  12. Brent says:

    Having studied linguistics during my folly of pursuing an English degree, I also learned that regional dialects in the U.S. are strengthening, not weakening, but dialects with a socio-economic stigma attached have weakened, mainly in urban areas, primarily due to improved education. (But even this isn’t always true. Louisville is a prime example, which has adopted many of the language patterns of Appalachia, when it used to have a pretty pure Midwestern accent. It’s how Louieville became Louavull.) What you have here is an example of the dangers of using anecdotal evidence (something the media rarely seems to question on the front page.)

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