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Are Southern accents disappearing? Linguists say yes

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Let's talk about accents for a moment.

RALPH BRABHAM: OK. I'm Ralph Brabham, and I'm talking with my mom.

JANE BRABHAM: I'm Jane Brabham, and I was born in Greensboro, N.C.

R BRABHAM: So I grew up in Greensboro also, and I think you and I have somewhat different accents. Do you think that you sound the same as you always have?

J BRABHAM: Well, I'm so used to it. I don't think about it in terms of accent. But really, I kind of feel like it stayed the same. You would think it would have changed, but I don't really think it has.

RASCOE: But there is a difference between mother and son accent-wise, and that's something Margaret Renwick has been looking into. She's a linguistics professor at the University of Georgia. She joins us now from Athens. Welcome to the program.

MARGARET RENWICK: Hi, Ayesha. Thanks so much for having me.

RASCOE: So I gather that you recently published a study on the fading Southern accent, which is quite interesting to me. Tell me about your research.

RENWICK: Sure, I'd love to. Our study analyzed the voices of 135 native Georgians born as long ago as the 1880s and as recently as 2003. So they span seven generations. And in our study, we focused on four vowels, because vowels give you great clues to where somebody comes from in the English-speaking community. And so these are exemplified by words like bide, bait, bet and bat. And we found that all of them are more Southern in older speakers and less so in younger speakers. So the Southern drawl versions of these are (imitating Southern accent) bide, bait, bet, bat. Speakers in Gen Z, who are current college students, instead use what we call a pan-regional accent that has been documented elsewhere in the U.S.

RASCOE: Why are people speaking with less of a Southern drawl?

RENWICK: Well, in our paper we argue that a major driver of this phenomenon is demographic change in Georgia and throughout the South. Before World War II, Georgia received very little migration into the state. But beginning in the 1960s, Georgia saw increasing migration from other areas of the U.S. And by the 1980s, it was one of the top destinations for interstate migration, and the Atlanta metro is still one of the fastest-growing in the U.S. So these population movements mean that Georgia speakers growing up after the 1960s were in a very different linguistic environment than speakers from earlier generations.

RASCOE: But you don't think it's, like, social media or, like - my kids, you know, they would watch "Peppa Pig" when they were younger and they would start talking about jumping in (imitating English accent) muddy puddles and all this stuff - like, have an English accent. I don't do a good English accent, but you know what I'm saying.

RENWICK: So certainly, language is aspirational. So we aim at what we want to sound like. That's definitely true. On the other hand, little kids don't learn language from social media. Kids acquire language from their parents, from their caregivers. And so that is our earliest linguistic input that helps us learn our native language. Then, once kids get into school and enter adolescence, they emulate their peer group. And so we think that's where language change from generation to generation really takes hold.

RASCOE: OK. So your research focused on Georgia, obviously, but how widespread is this trend?

RENWICK: So this same accent that Gen Z has, which sounds a little bit like California English, to be honest, has shown up in places like California, Raleigh, Detroit and Boston.

RASCOE: You know, with people moving around much more and, you know, these big, growing Southern metropolitan areas, does that mean that the Southern accent is doomed?

RENWICK: I don't think the Southern accent is doomed. I think it means something different to people to be Southern today than it used to mean. And so I think the Southern accent is changing. And I think there are lots of ways to sound Southern. So if you think about the vowels that we looked at, we looked at, like, four vowels in our paper, but English has something like 15 different vowels to choose from.

RASCOE: So when you say 15 different vowels, you mean different vowels sounds?

RENWICK: Yeah. There sure are a lot (laughter). You don't like this one anymore? You don't want to do (imitating Southern accent) bait? You go and do something else. It's not a problem. And another thing that people can use to signal where they come from are things like word choices. So y'all is super common. It's not stigmatized like it used to be. And so there are tons of different ways to show people where you come from. Language change is a constant. We can't stop it. But I don't think that means that everybody's going to start talking the same.

RASCOE: That's Margaret Renwick, a professor of linguistics at the University of Georgia. Thank you so much for joining us.

RENWICK: It's been great to be here. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAUDIO COLOMBO'S "PARAGON RAG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.