New Study: This American Accent Is Disappearing
Things aren't looking so peachy for this classic American accent
If you use certain regional words, phrases or pronunciations, we can probably guess where you spent your childhood. But linguistic change is afoot! In fact, some regional accents may even be on their way out, including one you probably think of as very “American,” according to a brand-new study published in the journal Language Variation and Change.
If that’s hard to imagine, you might want to consider how much language has evolved over the past few decades. For example, some words have taken on new meanings for no reason other than their chronic misuse. And a bunch of words that weren’t technically words at first have since become legit entries in the dictionary. In fact, there are hundreds of new dictionary entries every year.
So, can you guess which American accent may be on the chopping block? Read on to find out if you’re right.
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Which American accent is at risk of disappearing?
The Southern accent—specifically, the Southern drawl that’s typically heard in Georgia. According to Margaret E.L. Renwick, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and the lead author of the 2023 study, the Southern accent’s defining characteristic is “whether or not any given vowel comes out as a diphthong,” or a vowel that comes out sounding like two vowels. “A great example is the transformation of the letter ‘i’ in prize,” says Renwick. “In the standard American pronunciation, it sounds like ‘eye-eez,’ but in the South, it’s ‘ahz.'” Conversely, some single-vowel sounds in standard American are pronounced as diphthongs by Southern tongues. A key example is the “a” in face. In the South, the word is pronounced “fuh-eece.” In standard American, it’s “fayce.”
In case you were wondering, the “classic” Southern accent began taking shape soon after the end of the Civil War, and it peaked in Georgia around the middle of the 20th century. That’s when baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were coming of age. As the next generation, Gen X (1965 to 1980), moved into adulthood, the accent dropped off sharply. Since then, the younger generations (i.e., millennials and Gen Z) have been continuing the trend—even as boomers hold fast to their twang.
How did the researchers determine this?
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“Here at the University of Georgia, we are very fortunate to have a huge stockpile of old recordings from the Linguistic Atlas Project—an endeavor during the ’60s and ’70s to record people and find out how they talk,” Renwick tells Reader’s Digest. “All these field workers went out and made hundreds of thousands of hours of recordings.” In more recent years, linguistic experts at Georgia Tech have been recording the speech patterns of present-day college students.
After observing the tendency of older Georgians to speak in a thicker drawl than younger ones, the researchers came up with the idea of transcribing and analyzing all that speech in order to discern a pattern. Pooled together, this added up to 50 years’ worth of recordings of 135 speakers—spanning seven generations of White Georgians.
Out of 15 possible vowel sounds, the team identified four they considered most representative of the Southern accent, as exemplified by the words bide, bait, bet and bat, Renwick explains. When spoken like a Southerner, these words sound like bahd, buh-ate, beh-yut and baa-yut, respectively. (Of course, there are also plenty of other uniquely Southern words and phrases where you’ll hear these sounds distinctly.)
As predicted, the strongest Southern accents were observed in boomers. Gen Xers, however, replaced their accents with a “pan-regional accent,” blending those vowel sounds that Southerners had been pronouncing as diphthongs, and vice versa. This pan-regional accent is actually proliferating across multiple regions in the United States, including the Pacific Northwest, California, Raleigh (North Carolina), Detroit (Michigan) and Boston (Massachusetts).
Why is the pan-regional accent on the rise?
It’s logical to assume that Gen X’s adoption of the pan-regional accent has something to do with the global spread of media during Gen X’s formative years. After all, that spread exposed people to accents from all around the country. But hearing other accents isn’t enough to change the way we speak. “In order to adapt your accent to a particular group, you need to be interacting with that group,” Renwick explains. And the inclination to adapt is strongest when that group is made up of your peers.
And it’s not that Gen X had a higher rate of college attendance than previous generations either—the researchers observed the decline of the Southern drawl across education levels. Moreover, the researchers found that among the college-educated people in their sample, older people still sounded more Southern.
Ultimately, Renwick’s team attributes the decline of Georgia’s Southern twang to an influx of non-Georgians into the state. “Starting in the late 1960s, Atlanta underwent a lot of economic development, with people coming to live there from other parts of the country and bringing other ways of talking along with them,” Renwick explains. The same dynamic occurred throughout the state, and as a result, many of Georgia’s Gen Xers grew up in direct contact with people who spoke differently. Whether consciously or subconsciously, it would appear they adapted to conform, Renwick adds, similar to how they might use new, trendy words to fit in.
What does the future hold for regional accents?
Something to keep in mind about this study is that it’s specific to White people born and raised in Georgia. Accordingly, it can tell us only so much about the rise of the pan-regional accent, which populations are affected and why. Still, other studies have suggested similar generational patterns in regions that experienced significant late-20th-century “in-migration,” as the study authors put it.
Another locale where the decline of the Southern drawl is particularly noticeable is in Raleigh, North Carolina. And it just so happens that Raleigh is home to a vast number of companies that have attracted people from all over the country.
Currently, Renwick’s team is also looking at “national patterns of change between boomers and Gen X,” as well as analyzing the Georgia data as it relates to the state’s non-White population. So stay tuned, y’all!
About the expert
- Margaret E.L. Renwick is an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences in the department of linguistics. She served as lead on the study about the disappearing Southern accent, which was published in the academic journal Language Variation and Change in 2023.