"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What Do You Mean, I Talk Funny?

I have been spending a lot of time in Mississippi, and people there still speak with a strong Southern accent.  In fact there is not just one accent in the state but many.  People with more wealth and education speak with a more moderate accent, fewer drawn out vowels and words, slightly faster and without the strong hillbilly drawl of lower class country bubbas.

Accents differ within the state as well.  I recently attended a performance of a Tennessee Williams play in Columbus, and the actors – all Northerners – affected what they thought was a Southern accent.  According to the Mississippians in the audience not only had the Yankees yet again done a piss poor imitation of their accent, but had spoken Delta English, not the language of Northern Mississippi where Tennessee had been born and raised and where the play was being staged. The Delta accent is more country and more influenced by the high percentage of poor blacks whose slave ancestors had worked the cotton fields there.

This intra-state difference in accent didn’t surprise me.  I grew up in Connecticut where despite its small size there were many accents.  I grew up in the central part of the state where the New Britain accent is well-known and parodied for its aspirated stops and truncated nasal endings.  The name of the city is pronounced with a full aspirated stop after the first syllable; and a strong nasalized second.  The ‘t’ has been dropped (a glottal cough) and so has the ‘n’. This accent is predominant in only one, small, geographically concentrated part of the state and only includes the towns of Plainville, Bristol, and New Britain and a few surrounding communities:

The Polish influence could be in part responsible for some vowel qualities of the distinctive New Britain accent, such as nasalization of reduced vowels before /n/, though a more characteristic feature of the central Connecticut dialect is distinguished by systematic substitution of the glottal stop in place of [t] for an unreleased /t/ word-finally and before syllabic consonants (e.g. "eight" is pronounced [ɛɪʔ] instead of [eɪt]). Thus the shibboleth pronunciation of New Britain, [nuˈbɹɪʔɨː̃n] instead of [nuˈbɹɪtn̩] – Wikipedia

There are some parts of the New Britain accent which are found in other parts of the state, particularly radiating out to Danbury and the northeast. “I can’t go” turns into “I keee-yunt go”; or the name Nancy turns into “Nee-yan-cee”.

Residents of the far northeast corner of the state speak more like Rhode Islanders, and those living in wealthy Fairfield County near New York City speak either Locust Valley Lockjaw or homogenized media English:

Locust Valley Lockjaw is the colloquial term for a brand of speech, widely recognized as the stereotypical upper class American accent and usually associated with the traditional elite of the New York metropolitan area, particularly those on the North Shore of Long Island. The accent takes its name from the hamlet of Locust Valley in Oyster Bay, whose exclusive country clubs (Piping Rock, Beaver Dam, Seawanhaka, and The Creek) often included speakers of the accent. The accent is typically non-rhotic and involves speaking while keeping the lips tight and jaw clenched and thrust forward – Wikipedia

My parents were from New Haven, a predominantly Italian area only 30 miles from New Britain but with none of New Britain’s characteristic ways of speaking. That, combined with living in a very WASP end of the city, more characterized by Locust Valley Lockjaw than New Britski glottal stops, and going to boarding school at age 15 with classmates from all over the US, spared me the worst.   

It is fascinating to see how accents morph, modify, and change completely as you go up and down the Eastern seaboard and head west.  The accent of Maine and Vermont is similar to that of Boston but still distinct; and that of Providence while much like Boston has its own particular exaggerations and peculiarities. New York City, with its own unique blend of immigrants and social dynamics, has an accent immediately recognizable and very different from states to the north. 

The accent of northern New Jersey has distinct similarities with New York City, but as you go South, it changes near Trenton, and becomes more like Philadelphia. Some parts of the Philadelphia accent is heard in Western Pennsylvania and Western Maryland; but on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake in Southern Maryland the accent picks up Southern influences. Residents of northeastern West Virginia sound more like Marylanders than those living in the hollers and mountains of the southwestern part of the state where the accent becomes distinctly Southern.  Crossing the border into Tennessee, the Appalachian accent progressively becomes Deep Southern. 

Accent has always been important as a social indicator; and those with less pronounced accents usually have more wealth, class, and education than those who quack, honk, and twang.  In some areas, like the Deep South, this is less true.  Even more well-to-do families choose to remain in the South and to send their children to Southern schools, and thus never lose their accents.  This is rare in the North where students with strong regional accents quickly lose them when immersed in the homogenizing environment of elite schools.  I knew girls from New York and Alabama who went to Smith and Vassar who lost their accents in four years.  In my college days, these Ivy League Seven Sisters schools were still WASP enclaves, and any outsider was sure to lose her accent both out of a desire to belong to the immediate community of the school and and a hope of joining the wider white, Anglo-Saxon, northern ruling class community it represented.

My Fair Lady is all about passing – losing the signifiers of one’s lower-class origins – and moving up in the world.  While British society has always been criticized as class- and accent-conscious, it is no more so than the United States.  Anyone who speaks with a regional accent here is assumed to be insular, modestly educated, and from humble origins; and this assessment is usually correct.  If one goes to boarding school, an Ivy League university, travels, and lives in a variety of national and international cities, one will have no discernible accent.

Perhaps the best example of accent as a socio-economic signifier is black American English.  Blacks all over the United States speak with a strong, easily recognizable accent.  Blacks who speak ‘white’ are invariably well-educated, well-off, and upwardly mobile; but the majority of African Americans in this country are not. The fact that blacks’ accent has not changed significantly in decades if not more is a sign of their continued marginalization and isolation from the majority white culture. Whether a black family moves from DC to Chicago or from Detroit to Atlanta, they will likely live in a black community and have their race-based accent reinforced.

While the origins of accent are well-known and related to patterns of immigration, mobility, and isolation – i.e. Boston Irish, New York Jews, Appalachian Scots-Irish and the relative economic and social mobility of each group – how accents change or are lost is less well-understood.  While in the case of the girls from Smith and Vassar in the Sixties, the explanation was simple – driven by the fear of being pecked at and forced out of the group, they worked assiduously to expunge the last traces of backwardness from their language – others cases are not so easy to explain. 

In an article in Atlantic Cities (4.3.13) Emily Badger tells of how the South Philadelphia accent, one of the strongest in the region, has changed significantly in the past 40 years.

Sometime around the 1960s and '70s, people in Philadelphia began slowly, subtly to change how they spoke. The sound of their vowels started a gradual shift consciously imperceptible to the very people who were driving it. A's evolved to bump into E's. The sound of an O lost some of its singsong twang. After decades of speaking with what was in effect a southern dialect, Philadelphians were becoming – linguistically, that is – more northern.

How and why did this happen? Badger suggests that while Southern regional accents are diminishing, Northern ones are actually increasing; and the reason is urban density:

"The idea is that in large urban centers, the density and intensity of social interaction is such that it's really a hotbed for linguistic innovation," says Josef Fruehwald, a Ph.D. candidate who's been working with Labov. "Despite the broad idea that mass media is what's spreading language change – that we're all becoming more similar – what really matters is face-to-face interaction with peers."

In other words, not only do families in dense urban communities tend to reinforce each other’s accent, innovations in accent patterns are also quickly shared.  The impetus for change, however, is less well-understood, and Badger suggests that “the Philadelphia dialect appears to be realigning itself with its northern neighbors. Language evolves through relationships between people, but the changing sound of the city also has much to do with Philadelphia's relationship to broader parts of the country”.

This means that the neighborhoods of “dyed-in-the-wool’ South Philadelphians who have lived there forever, are opening up socio-economically and culturally. They are, like many old ethnic European ones, becoming more diverse.  Older residents move or die off; younger ones leave for better opportunities; and newcomers are likely to be from outside Philadelphia. And, like most gentrifying areas, new residents are likely to be younger, wealthier, and more educated than the families they displace. 

The influence of the media is dismissed in the Badger article, perhaps rightly.  Although most newscasters and anchors speak Standard American English, most hours of TV viewing are spent watching programs whose characters speak with a variety of racial, ethnic, and regional accents.  The days of Walter Cronkite and Playhouse 90 are over.

Eventually, as economic disparities decrease and social mobility increases, regional accents will diminish in importance.  We will no longer be able to tell where a person is from, and it will matter far less than in the past.  As of the latest census a full eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas, and although Chicago is not New York, it shares more with it and all other metropolitan areas North or South than it does with the rural hinterland. 

In any case, I have always enjoyed solving accent puzzles – listening for slight differences in intonation, elongated vowels, dropped endings, glottal stops, swallowed ‘L’s”, bits of twang, lilt, and cough.  My crowning glory a number of years ago was correctly determining that someone I had just met was from Covington, KY.  Not Cincinnati, mind you, but just across the river.  I doubt could accomplish that same feat today.

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