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The iconic Southern accent is fading with each new generation

A new study led by the University of Georgia (UGA) and the Georgia Institute of Technology has revealed that the iconic Southern accent is quickly evolving in Georgia, with Generation X (people born between 1965 and 1982) at the forefront of this change.

“We found that, here in Georgia, white English speakers’ accents have been shifting away from the traditional Southern pronunciation for the last few generations,” said Margaret Renwick, an associate professor of Linguistics at UGA. “Today’s college students don’t sound like their parents, who didn’t sound like their own parents.”

Drastic changes

The experts identified a pronounced divergence between the baby boomer era (born 1943 to 1964) and Generation X (born 1965 to 1982), marking a drastic change in the Southern accent.

“We had been listening to hundreds of hours of speech recorded in Georgia and we noticed that older speakers often had a thick Southern drawl, while current college students didn’t,” Renwick explained. 

“We started asking, which generation of Georgians sounds the most Southern of all? We surmised that it was baby boomers, born around the mid-20th century. We were surprised to see how rapidly the Southern accent drops away starting with Gen X.”

Changing demographics 

“The demographics of the South have changed a lot with people moving into the area, especially post World War II,” added co-author Jon Forrest, an assistant professor of Linguistics at UGA. According to him, this observed transition in Georgia is reflective of broader linguistic changes throughout the South. 

“We are seeing similar shifts across many regions, and we might find people in California, Atlanta, Boston, and Detroit that have similar speech characteristics.”

Vowel pronunciations 

The researchers examined audio recordings of Caucasian Georgia natives, born between the late 1800s and the early 2000s. The analysis primarily revolved around vowel pronunciations. 

While older Georgian speakers articulated words like “prize” as prahz and “face” as fuh-eece, newer generations pronounced them as prah-eez and fayce. The statistical analysis of this linguistic shift was led by Joseph A. Stanley, formerly a UGA graduate student and now an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.

Southern accent 

“Using transcribed audio, we can use a computer to estimate where you put your tongue in your mouth when you pronounce each vowel, which gives us a quantitative metric of accent,” said senior author Lelia Glass, an assistant professor of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech. Marcus Ma, an undergraduate from Georgia Tech assisting Glass, crafted a method to expedite the transcription task.

“Changes to the diphthong in ‘prize’ are the oldest characteristic pronunciation in Southern speech, that can be traced back well over 100 years,” said Renwick. “The Southern pronunciation of words like ‘face’ emerged in the early 20th century. These are distinctive features of the traditional Southern drawl.”

Having used both old and fresh recordings of white Georgian speakers for this study, the team now aims to investigate the accent variations within the Black community across generations.

Dynamic nature of accents 

This probe into Georgia’s speech patterns showcases the intricate interplay between generational change, societal influences, and language evolution. With the iconic Southern drawl undergoing notable modifications, it becomes evident that regional accents are not static, but are instead shaped by younger generations. 

Thus, this study – published in the journal Language Variation and Change – not only unveils the dynamic nature of accents but also stresses the significance of broadening the research lens to encompass diverse ethnicities.

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