Georgia’s Accent is Fading, New Research Shows
Posted September 7, 2023
Georgia, something is happening to your accent, and Georgia Tech linguist Lelia Glass has some ideas about what’s going on.
In newly published research in the journal Language Variation and Change, Glass and her University of Georgia colleagues report finding that the Georgia accent familiar to generations of Peach State residents rapidly declined with the Gen X generation and never recovered. Gen X’s Millennial and Gen Z kids and grandkids never picked up the twang, according to the data — and Glass’ own experience teaching Georgia-born students. And while the accent still holds sway in rural reaches of the state, its days are numbered there, as well, Glass says.
“Our study includes speakers from across the state, and while we do see more Southern pronunciations in some rural speakers, even they sound far less Southern than even the urban speakers from the Boomer generation,” says Glass, who conducted the research with UGA’s Margaret E. L. Renwick and Jon Forrest, and Joey Stanley of Brigham Young University.
It is important to note that the study, which tracks accents back to speakers born in the late 1890s, focuses on white Georgia residents. Another study looking at accent changes among Black Georgians is in progress, according to Glass.
Why Gen X Georgians suddenly started dropping the drawl of their Boomer parents is a bit of a mystery, says Glass, an assistant professor in the School of Modern Languages who runs a project examining the traditional Southern accent.
"It's challenging to pinpoint the exact reasons,” she says. “While we don't have definitive answers, there were significant social shifts during that period. Factors such as increased migration, with many people moving into the South from other regions, and urbanization could have played roles."
How You Say ‘Face’ Matters
So, what’s different about today’s Georgia accent? Looking at the intricacies of vowel pronunciation is the best way to understand, says Renwick, the study’s lead author.
“You could measure consonants or intonation, but vowels are the richest goldmine for capturing those differences,” she says.
For the Southern accent, the vowels in words like “face” and “dress” are particularly telling. Since at least the early 1900s, the researchers say, “face” has been pronounced by traditional Georgia speakers with a low back tongue placement, which sounds like “fuh-eece,” whereas “dress” has a high front placement, which sounds like “dray-uss.” (In case you’re wondering, linguists figure out where your tongue is during speech using recorded audio and computer software that estimates where the tongue is during speech).
In recent decades, there’s been a shift in these pronunciations: "face" is now more often pronounced with a higher tongue placement — “fayce” — while "dress" features a lower placement that sounds like “druss,” Glass says. Those are patterns much more typical of non-Southern accents, she says.
One theory for the change in the Georgia accent involves something called the “Low Back Merger,” in which the vowel sound in words such as “cot” and “caught” are pronounced identically, leading to a chain reaction of other vowel changes known as the “low back merger shift.”
"This shift involves the vowel sound in words like 'cat' and 'hat'. In the Southern accent, it's pronounced with a higher tongue placement, but in the 'Low Back Merger Shift', it's lower," Glass says.
Linguists first described this system of pronunciation in California, but it’s not known if that’s where it started, Glass said. Regardless, it’s spread across the country, showing up in places such as Georgia and North Carolina.
When it Comes to Accents, the Future is Here
This shift is particularly noted among Millennials and Gen Z speakers and has been found changing regional accents in other places as well. That widespread geographical and generational influence suggests Southern accents as a whole will eventually disappear, Glass said.
So, what will the Georgia of the future sound like? Glass says a good place to start would be Georgia Tech classrooms, where she says her students from across the state already exhibit fewer traditionally Southern speech patterns. Many Georgia cities and suburbs also offer plentiful examples, she says.
“To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” says Glass.
Vocal samples from earlier generations used in the study came from UGA. Samples of contemporary speakers came from Glass and her work at Georgia Tech, where she leads the Language and Politics in the New South Vertically Integrated Project, an interdisciplinary effort that combines technological and humanities-centered research techniques in the best tradition of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, which includes the School of Modern Languages. Marcus Ma, a Georgia Tech computing student work with Glass, created software to streamline the process of transcribing the audio samples for analysis.
The paper, “Boomer Peak or Gen X Cliff? From SVS to LBMS in Georgia English,” was written by Margaret E.L. Renwick, her UGA colleagues Joseph A. Stanley and Jon Forrest, and Lelia Glass of Georgia Tech. It was published July 24, 2023, in the journal Language Variation and Change and is available at https://doi.org/10.1017/S095439452300011X.
The research was supported by a grant to UGA researchers from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (No. 1625680).
Read more on this research from the University of Georgia.
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