ATHENS, Ga. — The U.S. South has long been synonymous with a certain drawl and way of speaking, but fascinating new findings reveal that the classic Southern accent is undergoing “rapid changes” in the state of Georgia. Local researchers from the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech say the Georgia accent is fading fast, and Generation X appears to be the driving generational force behind the linguistic shift.
“We found that, here in Georgia, White English speakers’ accents have been shifting away from the traditional Southern pronunciation for the last few generations,” says Margaret Renwick, an associate professor in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Department of Linguistics and lead of the study. “Today’s college students don’t sound like their parents, who didn’t sound like their own parents.”
Study authors observed the most notable changes among the baby boomer generation (born 1943-1964) and Generation X (born 1965-1982), with the accent falling off a cliff, so to speak, among the latter.
“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,” Prof. Renwick adds in a university release. “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.”
The research team believes their work is the first to identify this accent shift in the state of Georgia.
“The demographics of the South have changed a lot with people moving into the area, especially post World War II,” explains study co-author Jon Forrest, UGA assistant professor in the department of linguistics.
Importantly, Prof. Forrest went on to note that what the researchers discovered in Georgia is not an isolated trend but part of a larger shift seen by others across the entire U.S. South. Moreover, other areas of the United States now share similar vowel patterns.
“We are seeing similar shifts across many regions, and we might find people in California, Atlanta, Boston and Detroit that have similar speech characteristics,” Forrest continues.
Study authors carried out their research using recordings of White individuals native to Georgia, born between the late 19th century and the early 2000s. The research team focused heavily on the way the recorded speakers pronounced vowels. So, for example, they found that older Georgians tend to pronounce the word “prize” as prahz and “face” as fuh-eece, but the youngest residents use prah-eez and fayce. Former UGA graduate student and co-author Joseph A. Stanley, now an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, implemented statistical modeling to facilitate these analyses.
“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,” explains Lelia Glass, assistant professor in the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, Marcus Ma, a Georgia Tech undergraduate student working with Glass, created a tool to streamline the transcription process.
“Changes to the diphthong in ‘prize’ are the oldest characteristic pronunciation in Southern speech, that can be traced back well over 100 years,” Prof. Renwick says. “The Southern pronunciation of words like ‘face’ emerged in the early 20th century. These are distinctive features of the traditional Southern drawl.”
This project made use of both archived and new recordings of White speakers from Georgia. Since linguistic patterns often differ among other ethnic groups, researchers are now looking into a new study featuring cross-generational accents among the Black population.
All in all, the study authors say investigating and exploring shifting spoken language patterns in Georgia highlights the intricate relationships between generational shifts, societal dynamics, and linguistic evolution. As regional accents inevitably transform and adapt over time, the traditional Southern drawl is undergoing a remarkable transformation; the elongated vowel sound is gradually giving way to new patterns favored by the younger generations.
The study is published in the journal Language Variation and Change.