The familiar Southern drawl is slowly fading as newcomers reshape cultural life in the former Confederate states.
Researchers in North Carolina have been analyzing the sociolinguistic characteristics of hundreds of people who grew up in the Raleigh area and found that the influx of northerners and other newcomers have reshaped speech patterns, reported the National Science Foundation.
While the removal of the Confederate flag was swift following the massacre of nine black churchgoers in June at a South Carolina church, the disappearance of the southern accent has been so slow and subtle that many locals may not have noticed.
The researchers from North Carolina State University found that the pronunciation of vowels was remarkably stable for speakers born between 1920 and 1950, but Southern linguistic features steadily declined starting in the middle of the 20th Century.
"With people born after 1950, there's almost a linear, lockstep change going on with these different sounds, such that folks in the present start to sound like me," said Robin Dodsworth, an NC State researcher and Ohio native.
Raleigh emerged as a technology hub in the 1960s, drawing white-collar workers from the North, and children who attended school in that decade and the 1970s grew up speaking with less of a southern drawl than their parents because many of their peers spoke without one at all.
"It's not as though, all of a sudden, everyone said, 'Let's lose this Southern dialect,'" Dodsworth said.
The researchers analyzed education networks in the area and found a correlation between the increasing social diversity and the slow "leveling" of its distinctive accents.
That also helped explain why speakers from rural areas -- where the population changed more slowly -- retained their Southern accents.
"Linguistic changes often jump from city to city at first and leave the rural spaces in between untouched for some time," Dodsworth said. "Part of that is that rural areas have a less concentrated population, so it's harder for change to spread."
Dodsworth and other researchers are trying to study and preserve those distinctive rural linguistic traditions, some of which have persisted among African-African diaspora communities across the U.S.
"Language is part of the Southern tradition and culture, and across North Carolina you have all these pockets of linguistic diversity," Dodsworth said. "These projects are an effort to make our research relevant to people who are proud of their heritage – or insecure about their heritage. We want to help people recognize the cultural value of how they speak."