The American south’s booming popularity comes at a cost: its accent

Young people in big, southern cities are losing the traditional southern accent

Lesson #
January 22, 2024

One of the most distinctive English accents is the "southern accent," popular in American states from Texas to Virginia. But younger people are losing the accent. Researchers suspect it's due to internal migration within the U.S.


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Transcript

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The southern accent is fading away

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, it’s Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with stories about current events and trending topics. We’re all studying languages—you’re working on English, I’m working on Spanish. And one thing that confounds language learners is accents. I’m in Mexico, so it’s harder for me to understand Spanish from Spain. For you—if you’re used to the North American accent, then maybe a Scottish accent would be hard to understand.

But today, we’re talking about the southern accent—it’s the accent common across the southeast of the U.S. In large southern cities like Atlanta, the traditional accent is starting to fade away. And if you don’t know exactly what that means…well, you’re in luck. Because in the second half of the episode, I’m going to show you exactly what “fade away” means.

You can find the transcript of today’s episode at PlainEnglish.com/642. That is all thanks to JR, the producer. Now let’s get going.

The southern accent is fading away

In linguistics, an “accent” is a way of pronouncing the words in a language. Accents are most often identified with geographic areas: the British accent, the Australian accent, the American accent.

Inside the U.S., we have several distinct accents. Many are associated with a city: Boston has a strong accent, as does New York; those two cities are only a few hundred miles away, but they have distinctive pronunciation patterns. Philadelphia and Chicago also have their own accents.

But there’s one accent associated with about a third of the land area in the U.S., and that is the southern accent. There are variations, but I think we can safely categorize the southern accent as the accent that you would hear from Texas to about Virginia. The accent developed in the decades after the American Civil War, so the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

For many decades, the south was less economically advanced than other parts of the country were. And for much of the twentieth century, the southern accent was considered less prestigious: if you spoke with a southern accent in New York or Boston, people often assumed you came from a less economically developed part of the country.

This is unfair but true: people outside the south thought a person speaking with a southern accent would be less educated or less sophisticated. Remember what I said: unfair, but true.

The south today is much different than it was. Southern cities today offer a high quality of life, lower cost of living, lower taxes, diversity, and fast-growing companies. The south has a booming manufacturing sector, it’s home to high-tech companies, and it has some of the best universities in the country. Pleasant weather is a nice touch.

And Americans are moving there. Californians are beating a path to Texas. New Yorkers are going to Florida. Midwesterners are going to Nashville. Atlanta is booming with new arrivals from all over. Charlotte, Raleigh, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio: they’re all gaining new residents.

And all this internal migration means that in many places, the traditional southern accent is fading away . Recent studies show that younger generations in Atlanta, Raleigh, and other southern cities speak with a more neutral accent. They’re dropping the traditional speech patterns that have characterized the south for over a century.

Why is this happening? One tempting explanation is to look at the media. People on television, on the news, on social media, on the radio, in podcasts: they’ve tried to neutralize their accents to give them broad, national appeal.

And so it’s tempting to say that southerners are losing their accents because they hear more neutral forms of speaking on TV and online, now that we live in an era of national—or international—media. At the same time , travel is much less expensive than it once was, so people have exposure to many more forms of speaking.

But linguists say that’s not quite right. We develop our pronunciation patterns early in life. We learn how to speak our first words from our parents or caregivers. And then we mimic the others in our lives, principally at school and in our families, all at a young age. Only later do we pay close attention to how people speak on television or online.

A more likely explanation is migration. As more and more adults have moved to the south from other areas, they teach their children to speak with more neutral accents. And more and more teachers in schools come from elsewhere, so children are more likely to hear a mix of accents—or, sometimes, a neutral accent. Cities like Atlanta are full of new arrivals—and so children born in Atlanta hear less region-specific pronunciation in their early years.

Migration is not slowing down. So will the southern accent ever go away? Probably not any time soon. The studies have focused on pronunciation patterns in larger, more cosmopolitan cities like Atlanta—exactly the kind of places that have experienced this influx of new residents in recent decades. In a few decades, it might be rare to hear a southern accent in Atlanta.

But more rural areas, with less migration, are less affected by this trend. The most likely outcome is that the southern accent becomes something you hear in pockets of the south, rather than across the whole region.


Even in other parts of the U.S., the accent is getting less pronounced with every generation. It’s less common for families to stay together in one city for multiple generations; it’s more common to marry someone from another region, especially as people delay having children. And that means region-specific accents are less likely to be passed down.

It has even happened with me. I knew three of my four grandparents. Two of them spoke with a pronounced Boston accent, one with a southern accent. And I (at least I think) I have a neutral accent.

¿Hablas español?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into Spanish. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

你说中国话?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Parlez-vous français?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Você fala português?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

日本語は話せますか?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Parli italiano?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

The transcript of this lesson is available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Sen Türkçe konuşmayı biliyor musun?

The transcripts of Plain English lessons are available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation. Turkish translations are available starting at Lesson 278.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

Mówisz po polsku?

The transcript of Plain English lessons are available with interactive translations into your language. In each lesson transcript, we select about one hundred difficult words, phrases , and expressions for translation. Polish translations are available starting at Lesson 278.

How is this different than simply using a translation engine?

Translation engines are powerful tools for communicating in the modern world . However, they often miss the context and can either mislead you or leave you confused . Our human translators are here to make sure that you’re getting not only the correct definition, but also the full context .

How can I use the translations in my studies?

Most members use the translations as they are listening to the lesson and reading along . When you come across a word you don’t understand, you don’t have to press pause to discover the meaning . You can simply hover your mouse over the highlighted word . This lets you learn the definition of the word without having to press pause on the audio.

Do the translations work on mobile?

Yes! Instead of hovering over a highlighted word, just tap on it .

Can I see a sample?

Yes, please visit PlainEnglish.com/sample to see a sample episode with the Spanish translations.

How can I access the translations?

Translations are included in two memberships: Plain English Plus+ and Starter. Choose a plan and get started today!

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