Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Bz3rk/Wiki Commons

First they gentrify, then they disrupt the way you talk.

Techies get blamed for a lot of things, from gentrification to snobbishness to a lack of basic empathy. But it’s rare to hear that computer geeks are dismantling an entire city’s dialect, something that’s reportedly happening in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Speech patterns among locals stayed about the same in the early-to-mid 20th century, according to Robin Dodsworth, a sociolinguistics professor at North Carolina State University. But after the 1950s, people began to talk differently, losing typical vowel sounds—for instance, saying “kid” instead of “kee-yid”—and speaking in a more Northern way.

"With people born after 1950, there’s almost a linear, lockstep change going on with these different sounds, such that folks in the present start to sound like me,” Dodsworth, an Ohio native, tells the National Science Foundation. “It’s not as though, all of a sudden, everyone said, ‘Let’s lose this Southern dialect.’”

Robin Dodsworth, a sociolinguistics professor at North Carolina State University. (Roger Winstead/NCSU)

So what happened? According to Dodsworth and fellow university researchers, it all can be traced back to Raleigh’s rise as a tech hub. The Research Triangle Park, a miles-long science center and the biggest research park in the nation, opened in the area in 1959, drawing workers from the North. IBM moved in a few years later.

It was the children of these migrants who began altering Raleigh’s long-established accent. They mixed with the local kids in schools and communities, acting as unwitting ambassadors for Northern pronunciation. Dodsworth explains to NSF:

“One thing we know in sociolinguistics is that your accent largely depends on your peers,” Dodsworth confirms. “It doesn’t matter as much how your parents speak or who you heard on NPR. Who is it that you’re seeing every single day and having to get along with? That’s the people at school.”

Through her analysis of K-12 networks in Raleigh, Dodsworth found correlations between the increasing social diversity of the city and the slow “leveling” of its traditional accents. It also helped to explain why rural areas—or even the parts of Raleigh that saw the least inward migration—remain the most Southern-sounding.

“Linguistic changes often jump from city to city at first and leave the rural spaces in between untouched for some time,” says Dodsworth. “Part of that is that rural areas have a less concentrated population, so it’s harder for change to spread.”

Should North Carolina continue to attract funny-speaking Northerners, what other accents might be diminished in 50 years? For a possible answer, take a gander at this linguistic survey of the state’s various enclaves, posted by the university’s Language and Life Project:

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.
    Coronavirus

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  2. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.
    Coronavirus

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  3. Traffic-free Times Square in New York City
    Maps

    Mapping How Cities Are Reclaiming Street Space

    To help get essential workers around, cities are revising traffic patterns, suspending public transit fares, and making more room for bikes and pedestrians.

  4. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.
    Coronavirus

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  5. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.
    Equity

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

×