This, I Did Not Expect

It’s been conventional wisdom in linguistics circles for a long time now – America’s dialects, under assault from mass media, are fading.

Only it’s not true, and they’re not (emphasis added):

Although the United States is an international melting pot and the average American makes a dozen moves in a lifetime, regional accents are alive and well. In fact, regional accents are becoming stronger and more different from each other, says William Labov, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, although it’s not entirely clear why.

So why would that be?

Well, there are explanations that seem like linguistics, sort of…:

One possibility, says Labov, is that these original sound differences are being exaggerated, like trains moving in opposite directions on two railroad tracks.

Others?  Well they sound like Paul Krugman plain linguistician:

“The other is that dialect differences have become associated with political differences, so that the Blue States/Red States division comes close to the boundary between the Northern and Midland dialects,” he explains.

On the one hand – please tell us what a “Red State” accent sounds like?  Anyone?

On the other – there’s an interesting point there; there is at least a correlation between linguistic groups – maybe:

The “Northern”dialect group covers everything from New York to the western Great Lakes (and on west through the Dakotas and Montana, which kinda scrubs the whole “northern dialect is a red-state dialect” thing.

Labov says that our dialects change little after age 18 and we tend to retain the accent we grew up with. Young people first match the dialects of their parents, but then they often change to match their peers. These changes, though, are unconscious, he explains.

Oh, ya.  You bet.

7 thoughts on “This, I Did Not Expect

  1. Dialects can certainly change after 18. Spending 20 years outside Minnesota in the service resulted in a definite loss of distinctive Minnesota pronunciation. My family back here noticed and I did once my attention was called to it.

  2. There is a liberal accent. At least for males. Listen to your typical Minneapolis weinie. He talks in this feminine nasel voice.

  3. So they’re saying the Brooklyn dialect is more properly classified along with the Minnesota dialect than with New England? Uh, no. Not possible.

  4. Nerd,

    You’re correct – linguists make a big exception for New York City, which, in terms of American English, is a very mixed bag (Brooklyn has heavy Eastern-European roots; the Bronx is more southern-European, and Queens and north Jersey are more German – oddly, the same as inner-city white New Orleans).

    Here’s a good summary of the major groups and their characteristics.

  5. David, I had the same experience after living 3 years in LA LA Land and eight in TX. Every time I came home, all of my family and friends pointed out that I had a southern accent. I’ve been back in MN for over 20 years and it seems to be gone now. Although, while living in Houston, I never detected any signifcant accents, from native Texans from around there. That said, the southern half of TX, from San Antonio and Austin south to the Mexican border, LA, MS and Western AL were part of my territory. I got to the point where I could identify where a person was from within that area, from their accents.

  6. Entire previous reply lost.

    Met Randy Herman from Fargo today and it took 1.5 seconds for the Norweigan to overwhelm the Northern Alabama (FL Panhandle) dialect. I initially recognize ‘dialects’ but apparently my sensitivity to them is limited (don’t get me speaking Austrailian!!!!)

  7. Pingback: Pittsburghese Expertise: Dropping "To Be" | The Glassblock

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