English is a big language and, in the U.S., takes on a lot of different flavors. Listen to the exact same conversation spoken by two different natives in Boston, Houston, Boise and Baton Rouge, and they’ll all sound pretty different. Or, at least, they usually have.
But recent studies suggest that might be changing. Harry Enten has written an interesting piece an CNN exploring how, while America may be getting more diverse, the way we talk is getting more homogenous. Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin having been keeping tabs on the traditional Southern accent. In 1980, 80 percent of Texans they talked to had the traditional accent. In 2013, that number had dropped to a third.
What’s going on? In a word: travel. People who are isolated start to talk the same, but the more we move, the more the rough edges of our conversation style get whittled down. “Before we had planes and stuff, people living on one side of a mountain did not talk to people living on the other side of the mountain,” said Nicole Holliday, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. “And when groups of people are segregated from each other, they develop different ways of speaking.”
Holliday is a guest on Margins of Error, Enten’s podcast that is currently exploring the mystery of the vanishing regional accent.
As media proliferates the idea of “nonregional diction,” more of us start talking like that. That usually happens slowly, but sometimes it can happen quickly. On Margin of Error, Oklahoma State University professor emeritus of linguistics Dennis Preson tells the story of the Coen brothers 1996 classic Fargo, which made Upper Midwesterners self conscious about their own accent. It started declining.
But losing accents doesn’t just mean fewer idiosyncratic dialects out there. Accents tell our stories for us, speaking to where we’re from. Our evolving dialect is probably inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we’re not losing something.