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A long goodbye to the Southern accent

Alan Flurry

When we initially shared this new linguistics research late last year, it was tailor-made for media across the region, the nation and beyond. Since then UGA researchers Margaret Renwick and Jon Forrest have become a familiar presence in numerous reports of the demise of the Southern drawl. Georgia Magazine revisits the story in its new issue:

Sometimes, linguistic studies start with a hunch.

A good example is when a non-researcher notices that a friend or colleague speaks just a little bit differently, but they can’t quite put their finger on the difference. Linguistic studies provide the data to understand what’s going on under the surface.

“I like to think about it in terms of linguistic intuition,” Renwick says. “It starts as a gut feeling or an observation that might be informal, but then our job is to figure out how to analyze it. We can take a recording and slice it and dice it to find and measure what people are hearing.”

Researchers listen to hours of audio clips, isolating and identifying individual sounds within them, and they associate those sounds with different mouth shapes and pronunciation patterns. For their viral study, Renwick, Forrest, Joseph A. Stanley PhD ’20, and Georgia Tech assistant professor Lelia Glass focused on the vowel pronunciations of white English speakers in Georgia. They found that features of a traditional Southern drawl have faded over generations.

The baby boomer generation, born between 1943 and 1964, pronounces “prize” as prahz, while younger Georgians say prah-eez. “Face” transforms from fuh-eece to fayce in younger speakers. And while the shift is most notable in suburbs or cities, it’s happening all over the state.

“Even in rural areas, language is changing,” Forrest says. “Maybe not as fast or in exactly the same way, but it is changing generationally too. It’s never static.”

See the complete story and accompanying video.

Image: still from the video



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