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The Southern Accent—Alive and Well Michael Montgomery In May of 1986, newspapers throughout the South ran a feature story about a southern linguist who'd been researching the region's speech. Local papers topped the story with catchy headlines like "Southern Accent Here to Stay," "Ain't No Cause fuh Alahm, Y'all," "Don't Fret Y'all—The Drawl Isn't Dying," and "Southern Drawl Still Going Strong." This was not an isolated case. Other stories with the same slant have run from time to time, and at least four wire-service pieces on the same topic have appeared throughout the region's press since the 1986 account, not to mention stories in magazines and on radio and television (at this writing, the most recent was a December 1991 Atlanta Journal-Constitution story focusing on which of several current southern accents Scarlett O'Hara should adopt in the movie sequel). The southern way of using the English language seems to be a perennial issue. For some reason, there's a widespread notion that it's dying, being wiped out by television or drowned out by a horde of northern migrants or some other force. So the media check up on its health. Are the days of the southern accent or the southern dialect in fact numbered ? (I'll use "dialect" and "accent" interchangeably, applying both to southern speech patterns in their broadest sense; linguists do make a distinction between, the terms, but one that's unimportant here.) For over a century scholars and researchers have rallied to the cry to get out and collect the dialect and old expressions because these were "dying and just about gone." Indeed, it seems like common sense to believe that the southern accent is disappearing—after all, the country is changing, people are changing, lots of things that are regionally distinctive are changing, and things just aren't what they used to be (well, but are they ever?). Of course, patterns of speech are continually changing as well. However that may be, a gloomy prognosis for southern English would be at the least premature. Writers on southern speech have long predicted its demise by the next generation, and yet, here we are within a few short years of the twenty-first century, with newspapers and scholars still addressing this same question, which implies that the accent is still indisputably with us. If I had any Confederate money, I'd bet it all on the proposition that the health of southern ways of using the language will still be discussed a century from now. 48Southern Cultures Reprinted with permission from the Southern Historical Collection, Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southerners might differ in whether they think the persistence of the southern accent is entirely a good thing. But there must certainly be something amiss when southerners with a pretense to common sense have somehow accepted as an article of faith, or even promoted the idea, that the region's distinctive language is on its deathbed. Such was the case not long ago with the head of the speech department at Auburn University, an Alabamian himself. After years of telling his students that southern English was terminally ill and soon to be a thing of the past, he was finally challenged by a linguist from the English department, and these two squared off in a one-hour debate on the proposition that "the Southern dialect will disappear sometime in the future." The speech professor offered four arguments in favor of this proposition—arguments that are not very surprising, in that they reveal widely held beliefs about how language changes (but widely held beliefs are not always true, as we'll see): (1)Radio and television, those supposedly dialectless, accentless media, are homogenizing the speech of the South. This influence has sometimes been referred to as "the Walter Cronkite Factor." (2)World War II and the armed forces have created a melting pot by mixing young men (and women) from towns and neighborhoods throughout the country and by building dozens of military bases in the South that have drawn Montgomery: The Southern Accent49 thousands of people from outside the region...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 47-64
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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