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High Culture

Are America’s distinct accents dying out?

In Georgia, it’s becoming less common to pronounce words like “prize” as “prahz.”
Dolly Parton on stage with an acoustic guitar showcases her musical talent.
Dolly Parton, famous for her twang, performs on stage, 1983. / Pete Still / Redferns / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • A string of recent studies shows that some iconic American accents are fading out. Georgians are speaking less “Southern,” Texans are sounding less “twangy,” and Bostonians are pronouncing their Rs.
  • These changes likely occur due to migration. As people mingle and converse, their accents go through a subtle process called leveling, where the variation between two or more ways of speaking diminishes.
  • Since the mid-1980s, Americans have been moving less and less, and it’s possible that accent shifts will slow along with this trend.

In a recently published study, linguists at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Brigham Young University reported that white Georgians seem to be losing their classic Southern accent. Analyzing vocal recordings of 135 native Georgians born between 1887 and 2003, they found that a few of the distinct vowel pronunciations that define the Southern accent have been disappearing over the generations. For example, words like “prize” and “fit” — once pronounced “prahz” and “feee-uht” — are now more often spoken as “prah-eez” and “fiht.” The shift was greatest between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, and it has continued with Millennials and Gen Zers.

These findings are the latest from a string of studies showing that other regional accents are fading as well. New Englanders are pronouncing more Rs (“harbor” vs. “hahbah”). Michiganders are altering the way they say their As. And Texans are losing their twang.

The fading of America’s iconic accents

Margaret E. L. Renwick, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Georgia and lead author on the Georgia study, wasn’t overly macabre in a recent interview with NPR. But her statement didn’t exactly reassure…

“I don’t think the Southern accent is doomed,” she told Weekend Edition host Ayesha Rascoe. “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.”

What’s driving these changes? One might reasonably surmise that mass media could be to blame. In the latter half of the 20th century, television, radio, and the Internet brought all sorts of voices into Americans’ homes. Even from a very young age, we are exposed to an aurally diverse sample of speech. Maybe this homogenized American English?

Renwick isn’t so sure.

“Kids acquire language from their parents, from their caregivers,” she said. “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.”

Thus, linguists think the accent shifts they’re currently seeing have more to do with moving. Generally, the places where accents are changing the most have been the sites of significant immigration. As people mingle and converse — at work, in school, at restaurants — their accents go through a subtle process called leveling, where the variation between two or more ways of speaking diminishes. In this fashion, accents change over time.

For example, numerous research teams have noticed that an accent feature called the low-back-merger shift appears to be gaining prominence in the South and Northeast. In this way of speaking, two vowel sounds made with the tongue positioned low and back in the mouth are combined, becoming audibly indistinct. The sounds are the “o” in cot or box and the “au” in caught or dawn. This makes the words “cot” and “caught” sound the same.

Since the mid-1980s, Americans have been moving less and less. Moreover, 82% of moves are within the county or state. Thus, as Americans move less, it’s possible that accent shifts will also slow. But linguists say they will not cease. As long as humans have migrated and mixed, however gradually, speech has changed as well.

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