John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
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.’”
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: