My sister walked up to the taxi stand in the Las Vegas airport.
“Wheeeeyaah?” the middle-aged woman asked in a thick New York accent.
“What?” my sister, a native of the Dallas area who has little experience with New York accents, replied.
“WHEEEEYAAH?” she repeated, exasperation rising.
“Um, NOW,” my ridiculously awesome sister answered, thinking the woman was asking a different question that was much less logical in those circumstances. Normally, she tries not to be a smart aleck with strangers, but…you know.
“Oh, the Monte Carlo.”
Strong accents seem to be on the decline these days, both according to some articles I’ve read and from my own observation. I recently spent a few days in New York, a place full of people whom native Texans often expect to talk “funny”. However, looking back, I’m struck by how few New York accents I heard. The only one I remember belonged to a pizza maker in a neighborhood restaurant in Manhattan. The only other memorable accent came from two female South African tennis fans. Most people sounded fairly neutral. Now that I’m back home, even though I’ve lived in Texas all my life and come from a line of Texas accents, I still notice the accent when I’m around anyone who has a strong one.
Several factors contribute to this decline in accent prevalence. As our society becomes more mobile and more urban, people are less likely to spend their whole lives surrounded by people who all talk the same way. We move from place to place, from state to state, and even from country to country. Each generation is more likely to live in a large city or metropolitan area that contains people from a variety of places with a variety of different accents, many of which are very slight. We also consume mass amounts of nationally distributed music, film, television, and other media that generally uses a Midwestern-like accent called Standard American or General American English. As the article notes in quoting journalist Linda Ellerbee, “in television, you’re not supposed to sound like you’re from anywhere”. Standard American is becoming the most common accent in our country.
An article in the Austin paper argues that the younger people, especially younger women, are the biggest drivers of this standardization of accent. In some cases, the change is passive, but many people choose to downplay their native accent to blend in. When I’m relaxing with family or friends, and especially when I’m tired, I do speak a bit Texan. However, most of the time I try to use Standard American, such as when I’m at work, on the phone, giving a speech, or doing business with someone. Why?
First, I tend to mumble, so adding an accent to my mumbling doesn’t help. Trying to “talk neutral” forces me to enunciate better, like I learned back in my theater and singing days. Second, right or wrong, some people tend to assume a lower level of education or intelligence in someone who sounds strongly Texan. Unless, I’m deliberately playing dumb, I want credit for the few brain cells I have left. Third, in the same vein, some people make other assumptions about those who sound Texan. I might be from Texas, but I don’t ride a horse to work, live on a ranch, watch Fox News, vote for people named Bush, own an oil well or cowboy hat, or drive a pickup. Many people around here do the same thing when they hear a New York accent, assuming the speaker must be rude, abrupt, standoffish, and liberal.
Accents will probably never completely disappear, but I see no reason why the consolidation trend won’t continue. A strong Texas accent will probably sound a bit more foreign to my boys than it does to me. In some ways that’s unfortunate, as we’re losing some of the regional color that makes our language and culture so interesting. Yet it also provides some advantages, such as making communication easier and reducing our tendency to make assumptions based on how we talk.
Peace, y’all. 🙂