Is the Southern accent going south?

Posted on Apr 19 2017 - 8:00am by Shikha Shrestha

Is the Southern accent disappearing at Ole Miss?

Many students from outside the South arrive on a campus so steeped in regional tradition, where the marching band once played “Dixie,” a place they assume will sound so Southern, that they may pronounce the Southern accent dead upon arrival at Ole Miss.

“Yes, I believe the Southern accent is gone,” sophomore Katherine Swafford, who grew up in Cleveland, said.

She believes the Southern accent is losing ground at Ole Miss. Others say you just have to listen harder and you’ll hear it, thick as kudzu.

Southern accents, whether on the wane or not, mark an expanding cultural atmosphere at Ole Miss, transcending while at the same time echoing the university’s identity.

Swafford, for example, treasures fond childhood memories of riding back country roads and knowing every single person in town – pretty much everyone had a thick, Southern accent. And Swafford is no exception. She sounds, well, pretty Southern.

For her, a Southern accent is more about drawing people together and less about the isolation of regional difference.

“When you hear someone talk the same way, it gives you a sense of community,” Swafford, who wanted to attend college in the same state where she was raised, said. “You can tell someone isn’t from around town when they don’t have a Southern accent.”

Swafford and her family experienced many Southern traditions – Ole Miss tailgate parties and football games – so she believed Ole Miss was the obvious choice to be her home away from home. Students sounded like everyone she’d grown up around. But the thick accent in that piece of the Delta is also becoming scarce, she said.

“I think it’s because Ole Miss has become such a diverse school, for we have professors and students from not just outside of the state, but from all over the world, bringing diversity in not just people but thoughts and ideas,” Swafford said, explaining how the loss of regional accents is the university’s gain in other ways.

Sam Albasha, a 25-year-old undergraduate from Saudi Arabia, said no one at Ole Miss speaks with a Southern accent, not to his ears. English, no matter its inflections, is a foreign language. Regional dialect is just a nuisance to comprehension.

“It’s not my voice,” Albasha said, emphasizing with air quotes. Southern accents are less thick on campus than perhaps in the rest of Mississippi, he added.

College towns can erode regional culture because of a diverse student body and faculty – a good thing, many say. But, they also draw together a group of people from all over the globe, diluting the regional accent, which others lament.

For students like Albasha, the Southern accent is a marker of place, which at Ole Miss is a place experiencing a cultural shift to more inclusiveness.

And many students hear the Southern accent everywhere they go.

“I think everyone here has a strong accent. I immediately noticed it,” Ashley Ramirez, a sophomore from San Diego, said. “The way they say certain words, it’s different. Even I started picking up on it.”

So why does the Southern accent stand out so much? People don’t talk about the Midwestern accent or the Maine accent in the same way.

“I think accents depend on the people you surround yourself around with,” Ramirez said. “Whenever I go back home, everyone thinks I sound so Southern.”

Accents depend on where you are and who you surround yourself with, Ramirez said.

“But I think if you compare someone from Mississippi going to a school in California, it would be much more noticeable than a girl from, let’s say, San Diego, coming to Ole Miss,” she said.

Unlike its legacy of sweet tea, Mississippi’s history tastes bitter to many. Some out-of-state people at Ole Miss might associate the Southern accent with ignorance, prejudice or a lack of culture – despite the state’s rich lineage of writers, musicians and artists.

“If a comedian wishes to appear as a buffoon or hick, he might easily adopt some generalized Southern accent, creating a quick marker of an uneducated individual, a conservative conformist or rather one who doesn’t possess a knowledge of the world outside of them – this is unjust,” Katie McKee, an associate professor of English and Southern studies, said.

McKee moved from Cynthiana, Kentucky, to teach at Ole Miss two decades ago.  “The more I study the South, the less I know what it is, for do you think people outside of the country know the difference between an American accent and a Southern accent?”

Then, what exactly is a Southern accent?

According to McKee, the definition varies depending on the individual, and she does not think the Southern accent is necessarily dying here at Ole Miss. In addition, judging people as having had limited life experiences because of their accent is regrettable, she said.

“Accents go with places. There is this idea that the less pronounced your accent is, the less cosmopolitan you are, and this applies to any accent,” McKee said. “The heavier your accent, the more it tends to suggest you have not been anywhere; however, I think differently.”

Associate Dean of Liberal Arts Donald Dyer, a Chicago transplant and Russian linguistics professor, has been a part of the Ole Miss community for nearly 30 years. Dyer says the Southern accent is not endangered, but rather students, professors and the institution as a whole are part of what he calls a bubble theory.

“There was a time when people thought language would be homogenized due to modern technology, including the television and radio, where we hear and see how people speak, making us all want to sound and speak the same,” Dyer said. “We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

All language, especially regional accents, are all about identity, Dyer explains.

“We identify people with language, and the reason we sound like others is because we’re identifying with them through a subconscious process. Accents shape as we grow,” he said.

The Southern accent is a spoken passport, teaching us how to understand place and how one fits into that place.

For an international student like Albasha, accents are only a part of the larger language barrier he must clear in order to feel at home in the United States – a struggle, he admits. Albasha even shortened his name to Sam so that others would not struggle to pronounce his legal name, Salman.

Over the last five years, he’s lived in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. He still cringes a tad when he hears “y’all.”

“Coming here there was a huge difference obviously, and accent was one of them, but seeing and hearing different people from all over the world, that’s comforting,” he says.


This story is a student submission from a reporting class.