“Y’all” isn’t welcome in Erica Tobolski’s class in voice and diction at the University of South Carolina. And forget about “fixin’,” as in getting ready to do something, or “pin” when talking about the writing instrument.
Tobolski’s class is all about getting rid of accents, mostly Southern ones in the heart of the former Confederacy, and replacing them with Standard American Dialect, the uninflected tone of TV news anchors that oozes authority and refinement.
“We sort of avoid talking about class in this country, but clearly class is indicated by how we speak,” she said.
“Many come to see me because they want to sound less country,” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t want to lose my accent completely, but I want to be able to minimize it or modify it.”’
That was the case for sophomore Ali Huffstetler, who said she “luuuvs” the slow-paced softness of her upstate South Carolina magnolia mouth but wants to be able to turn it on and off depending on her audience.
“I went to New Hampshire to visit one of my best friends and all they kept saying was, ‘Will you please talk, can you just talk for me?”’ Huffstetler said. “I felt like a little puppet show.”
Across the fast-growing South, accents are under assault, and not just from the modern-day Henry Higginses of academia. There’s the flood of transplants from other regions, notions of Southern upward mobility that require dropping the drawl, and stereotypes that “y’alls” and “suhs” signal low status or lack of intelligence.
But is the Southern accent really disappearing?
That depends what accent you mean. The South, because of its rural, isolated past, boasts a diversity of dialects, from Appalachian twangs in several states to Elizabethan lilts in Virginia to Cajun accents in Louisiana to African-influenced Gullah accents on the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.
One accent that has been all but wiped out is the slow juleps-in-the-moonlight drawl favored by Hollywood portrayals of the South. To find that so-called plantation accent in most parts of the region nowadays requires a trip to the video store.
“The Rhett-and-Scarlett accent, that is disappearing, no doubt about it,” said Bill Kretzschmar, a linguist at the University of Georgia and editor of the American Linguistic Atlas, which tracks speech patterns.
“Blame it on the boll weevil,” he said, referring to the cotton pest. “That accent from plantation areas, which was never the whole South, has been in decline for a long time. The economic basis of that culture started going away at the turn of the last century,” when the bugs nearly wiped out the South’s cotton economy.
Even as the stereotypical Southern accent gets rarer, other speech patterns take its place, and they’re not any less Southern. The Upland South accent, a faster-paced dialect native to the Appalachian Mountains, is said to be spreading just as fast as the plantation drawl disappears.
“The one constant about language is, it’s always changing,” Kretzschmar said. “The Southern accent is not going anywhere. But you have all kinds of mixtures and changes.”
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