It is easy to spot, the old Atlanta accent. Bird becomes bud in a drawl as unhurried as Sunday brunch at the Colonnade.
Because of several factors here—the Olympics, the tech boom, the rise of the entertainment industry—Atlanta’s population has exploded, bringing a heady mix of other languages and dialects to the civic conversation. Has this influx, by process of dilution, killed that identifiable accent?
Not yet. Drawls die hard, especially here, where vowels stretch like taffy, but we are in an ever-evolving mode of “accent leveling,” say Chris Palmer and Michelle Devereaux, two Kennesaw State University language professors who study the height and length of vowels.
“Because of the regional and international in-migration and interaction in recent years, the Atlanta accent is definitely changing,” says Palmer, a native Southerner who sounds crisply mid-Atlantic unless he is “angry, drinking, or talking to my grandmother.” He adds, “Younger people in Atlanta may be losing some of the traditional Southern features, like saying ‘nahhhce’ for nice.”
There is no single Southern accent, and linguists differ on just how many dialects lilt across the region. Studies identify at least seven major categories. Accents are notoriously difficult to gauge because we are constantly exposed to so many variations, says Devereaux, a Fulbright scholar who speaks with a mountain twang.
In related news, at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, a team of 70 students recently analyzed hundreds of hours of conversation of native Georgians, representing seven generations. Their first report was limited to white speakers, as native Black Georgians’ speech reflects different linguistic patterns and is being analyzed separately, the researchers say.
They discovered that stereotypical regional speech patterns peaked with boomers and fell “precipitously” with Gen X—prompting screaming headlines about accent loss.
A 2010 study found that Black Atlantans were more likely to pronounce the “i” in words like prize as something like “ah,” says Palmer. “Linguists call this feature, a major marker of the traditional Southern accent, a ‘monophthong.’ Many non-Southern speakers use a ‘dipthong,’” he says. Likewise, Black Atlantans sometimes elide the “r” sound when it follows vowels in words like sister (also common among speakers of multiple races in cities like Boston and New York). Ironically, this means young ATLiens sometimes sound like their grandparents.
The Kennesaw linguists greet Atlantans’ evolving accents with equanimity. “These shifts are not to be dreaded or mourned,” Devereaux says. “It’s all about accommodating different folks, about communicating clearly so we all are understood.”
Some things never change, though. Pro tip to sound local: “Don’t pronounce the second t in Atlanta,” Palmer says. “To natives, it’s ‘Atlanna.’”
This article appears in our December 2023.