Vanishing American dialects
0 comment Saturday, May 31, 2014 |
Here's a quiz that's been showing up around the blogosphere:
What American accent do you have?
I took the quiz and was told that I have a 'Midlands' accent, which is odd, because the 'Midlands' is one region I have spent very little time in. I found the test questions to be a little dubious, but it's an interesting quiz.
This quiz was more to the point, in my opinion:
Are You a Yankee or a Rebel?
My answer was: ''100% Dixie. Is General Lee your grandfather?''
At least that result makes more sense for me.
One of the aspects of 'vanishing America' that is noticeable these days is changing speech. In this age of mass, cheap travel and unprecedented mobility, along with the monolithic mass media, from whose grasp no one escapes these days, American English is changing rapidly everywhere.
The media and the constant change, the search for novelty and the 'coolness' factor are the biggest contributors to change in our language, what with all the slang and colloquial speech which is spread virally via the media.
The Internet may also contribute to the spread of slang and colloquialisms, with its own unique jargon (think of terms like 'Newbie', websurfing, 'blog', and all the shorthand terms and acronyms like 'LOL' and 'IMHO'. Of course text messaging and its crude abbreviations contribute to the dumbing down of our communication, and to a lesser extent, e-mail.
Still, TV, movies, and radio contribute the most to the homogenizing of our language, it seems.
For years, I've noticed that the younger generations, especially those who are 20-somethings now and younger, are speaking an increasingly neutral American dialect. It's particularly marked when you listen to the younger generations in the Southern states, compared to their parents and especially their grandparents. The young ones have almost no discernible accent, except for a few telltale pronunciations, but even they are hard to detect. Recently I caught part of one of the many 'reality shows' on TV which a young relative was watching. She mentioned that the show was filmed in the Texas town where she attended high school, which astounded me, since the participants spoke like Californians. Well, if you listened carefully, you could hear some faint hint of Southern intonations, but only if you listened very carefully could you detect it. I commented on this; I said, 'you'd never know they were from Texas.' After reflecting a moment, she said, 'Well, it's probably for the best, because when you travel outside the South, people make fun of your accent. They think Southerners are dumb.'
I know that my grandparents, too, spoke differently than my generation, although it was more a matter of their using old-fashioned expressions than of their pronouncing words differently. For instance, the old folks said things like 'right smart' to mean 'a great deal of', or 'a lot'. As in: 'we had right smart of rain last week.' Or they said things like, 'well, I swan!' to mean 'Well, I'll be...' or 'I swear.' I guess they, being devout Christians, thought that saying 'I swear' was actually swearing an oath, so they said 'swan' instead. I think, however, that this last phrase was used not only in the South, because I came across the phrase in a song called 'Well, I swan!', about a New England yokel.
Still it seems that the South was the most linguistically conservative of the various regions of the country, and preserved their distinct speech patterns longer than other regions. It seems that the vocabulary and the locutions of the South tended to preserve more of the archaic language of our English colonist ancestors. For instance, my older relatives used terms which I find in the King James Bible; phrases such as "light bread", meaning yeast bread rather than biscuits, or cornbread. And they spoke of eating "parched corn", which is also alluded to in the King James Bible; I gather it meant something like the American snack called 'Corn Nuts"; they carried it on journeys for a snack, apparently. The old folks also used words like 'aught' or 'naught' to mean 'zero' or 'nothing'; even my Dad used that term when he was helping me learn multiplication when I was a child.
Given that the South was the area that stayed the same demographically for the longest time, their habit of preserving old ways of speaking is not surprising.
Each region of the country, at one time, had a distinctive character and way of life, and distinctive origins. That uniqueness was manifested in the different ways of speaking and expressing ourselves. If we lose that very natural, organic diversity, which is genuine diversity, we will lose much of the color and variety of American life.
Travel has been one of my great pleasures since I was a child, and my family and I first drove across half the continent. I loved the ever-changing vistas as we traveled across the country and encountered something a little different in each state or each region. The place names reflected the variety, and each little town seemed to have its own character. The laconic, reserved, polite people we encountered in the Northwestern states seemed very different from the garrulous, open, people of the Southern states.. When we moved from Texas to Louisiana for a while, I was delighted to discover another world in the Cajun country of Southern Louisiana. While the people were American and recognizably Southern, they had a unique way of life, complete with their own cuisine and music, and a distinctive way of speaking English. Now I suspect that is diminishing, too, although I have not spent much time there in recent years. While I was there several years ago, I found that the people were as down-to-earth, full of humor and warmth as ever, there was a sense that things are changing there, too, since they are subject to the same homogenizing influences as the rest of America.
I don't know how the rest of the country is faring, as far as preserving their distinct dialect, but I think that the South is getting the worst of it. I am not sure why this is; it may be a combination of the unprecedented demographic shifts in the South, (which until a few decades ago, was mostly Anglo-Celtic by descent and culture) and the attacks specifically on Southern history and culture. As noted by Professor Delaney
Generally, the southern dialects of American English carry a lower prestige, at least among northerners who will assume that a person speaking a southern dialect is less intelligent and less educated than they are. Some educated southerners even feel this way and will "correct" their speech to meet northern standards.
[...]For this reason, schools try to rid children of the local dialects they learned from their family and friends in favor of a more prestigious one.'
I think this is a main factor in the diminishing of the Southern dialect among the young; in the Northwest, for example, which has also seen huge demographic changes, with migration from every region and many foreign countries, the Northwestern dialect (which might be called 'accentless' anyway) has changed little. The South seems to be changing the most. And I admit to being biased; my kin have been in the South for 400 years and my sentimental ties are to the South, without question. But it seems to me that the South is one of the most regionally distinctive areas of the country, with the most vivid and rich culture, and the potential erosion of that would mean a great loss to America.
America is still rich in real diversity: the organic diversity which developed naturally during the course of this country's growth and development. I am all in favor of preserving the time-honored differences between the various regions of America. America has always had a healthy diversity, and at the same time, a unity in our American allegiance. Long live our real diversity; I hope that our distinctive ways of speaking continue and that they don't become part of 'vanishing America.'

Labels: ,