Are Regional Accents Going Away?

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Are Regional Accents Going Away?
Traditional accents from places like New York or Chicago have been on the decline in younger generations as more people move, code switch and more.

The U.S. has dozens of distinct regional accents reflecting not just place, but also race and ancestry. But these days, the world isn't as regionally confined as it used to be: Media comes from all over the world, and people can travel easily and move further from home more often.

As that happens, many question if accents will soon be a thing of the past.

It can often seem like that's the case from the small sample sizes one typically hears. For example, the New Yorker accent is one of the most visible regional accents in American culture, frequently being immortalized in TV and film, like with Dustin Hoffman's famous line, "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" Plus in recent years, variations of it have become a frequent voice in American politics, like with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

However, what many might think of as a traditional New York accent has seemingly been on the decline in younger generations.

Native New Yorker and Queens College linguistics professor Michael Newman is part of a team trying to build a collection of 2 million New York City English words. He says many people notice an accent when New Yorkers raise the vowel sounds in the word "thought" or that they drop the R sound after a vowel in words like car, bar and her.

New York isn't a monolith. The variations across the city show how accents from anywhere in the world can change even from one neighborhood to the next.

Filmmaker Heather Quinlan documented the New York accent in her documentary, "If These Knishes Could Talk," and sees several different accents, even just among white New Yorkers.

"Any Pacino, De Niro movie is an Italian New York accent," Quinlan said. "Jimmy Cagney, even Archie Bunker — even though he wasn't Irish — that's an Irish New York accent. That's what I have. A Jewish New York accent would be Woody Allen, Larry David, someone like that."

They all can sound different from Black, Latino or Asian New Yorkers.

Newman told Newsy some of the classic New York sounds are declining among white, Asian and Latino New Yorkers. But the opposite has happened for Black New Yorkers, who used to not use some of those sounds.

"We find that a lot of African Americans have what used to be the stereotypical white feature of that raised thought that has not declined in the same way, to the same extent that it's declining in some of the other communities," Newman said. "They've acquired this feature over time, and now it's being preserved as it becomes an African American associated feature."

Another reason why it's hard to quantify whether accents are dying is because it's just hard to tell who has an accent. Linguists will say everyone has one, but some people's vowel sounds make them sound more "neutral." That's heard more in people from the West and parts of the Midwest than in those from down South or along the East Coast. But even people who come from places with strong accents might not see themselves as having one. 

Chicago, Illinois, is one city definitely associated with an accent, but it wasn't until things like the "Saturday Night Live" Chicago Bears skit that some people there recognized their accent.

Dennis Preston, a linguistics professor at the University of Kentucky, has long-studied these accent trends. Around 1990, he asked a Chicago 19-year-old about the Chicago accent.

"I gave him a blank map of the United States, as I've done to hundreds of people, and they draw circles around all the places where people speak differently," Preston said. "He drew a big circle around Chicago. It said normal English for the average person."

Preston is of the thought that accents change naturally over time as people change and move from one place to another. He doesn't think new age things like the internet or TikTok are changing accents faster than they normally have. 

"I take a kind of dim view of the fact that anything is rapidly causing dialects to change, or to level that is, to become more similar to one another very rapidly," Preston said. "That was supposed to happen when radio suddenly became available: 'Oh, everybody's going to sound the same because now they'll listen to each other.' Then it happened with television, and now it's supposed to be happening because of the internet. What I see mostly happen is lexical change, and especially change in slang."

Adding to the difficulty, people are constantly changing their voice depending on who they're talking to, which is sometimes described as "code switching." Many the classic features of accents may not be used in public as much when people are interacting more with speakers from other places.

Pomona College linguistics professor Nicole Holliday studies this for a living, focusing on how people change their pitches depending on social identity. She used the example of being rhotic vs. non-rhotic — in other words, whether you call it a car or a "cah" — in her explanation.

"People imagine that this is a loss of a regional variety, but there's other stuff coming in probably that still make those regions distinct," Holliday said. "It's not to say that nobody is non-rhotic, that young people in Boston are consistently all rhotic now. Part of what we see is people engaging with people who are different than them. I'm not from Boston or New York, so when people talk to me, they're going to accommodate to me. Maybe they don't pronounce their Rs 100% of the time with their parents, but they do when they're talking to me, or they do when they're making a YouTube video for a general public."

Even experts in this have to deal with switching things up. Holliday is from Ohio, and she said she changes parts of her speech now that she lives in California. 

"I will avoid sometimes using Midwestern features in California," Holliday said. "If I go to a restaurant, I don't say, 'What kind of pop do you have?' Because I don't want to have a 30-minute conversation about why, I just want to order."