Gen X says ‘prize’ and ‘face’ differently in Southern accent

Older white people in Georgia pronounced the word "prize" as prahz and "face" as fuh-eece, but the youngest speakers use prah-eez and fayce. (Credit: Getty Images)

The Southern accent has shifted between white English speakers of Generation X and baby boomers, a study finds.

“We found that, here in Georgia, white English speakers’ accents have been shifting away from the traditional Southern pronunciation for the last few generations,” says Margaret Renwick, associate professor in the University of Georgia’s department of linguistics and leader of the study. “Today’s college students don’t sound like their parents, who didn’t sound like their own parents.”

The researchers observe the most notable change between the baby boomer generation (born 1943 to 1964) and Generation X (born 1965 to 1982), when the accent fell off a cliff.

“We had been listening to hundreds of hours of speech recorded in Georgia and we noticed that older speakers often had a thick Southern drawl, while current college students didn’t,” Renwick says. “We started asking, which generation of Georgians sounds the most Southern of all? We surmised that it was baby boomers, born around the mid-20th century. We were surprised to see how rapidly the Southern accent drops away starting with Gen X.”

“The demographics of the South have changed a lot with people moving into the area, especially post World War II,” says coauthor Jon Forrest, an assistant professor in the department of linguistics. Forrest notes that what the researchers see in Georgia is part of a shift noted by others across the entire South, and furthermore, other areas of the United States now have similar vowel patterns. “We are seeing similar shifts across many regions, and we might find people in California, Atlanta, Boston, and Detroit that have similar speech characteristics,” Forrest says.

The analysis used with recordings of white individuals native to Georgia, born from the late 19th century to the early 2000s. The researchers focused on the way the recorded speakers pronounced vowels. The team found that older Georgians pronounced the word “prize” as prahz and “face” as fuh-eece, but the youngest speakers use prah-eez and fayce. Former graduate student and coauthor Joseph A. Stanley, now an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, implemented the statistical modeling.

“Using transcribed audio, we can use a computer to estimate where you put your tongue in your mouth when you pronounce each vowel, which gives us a quantitative metric of accent,” says Lelia Glass, assistant professor in the School of Modern Languages at Georgia Institute of Technology. Marcus Ma, a Georgia Tech undergraduate student working with Glass, devised a tool to streamline the transcription process.

“Changes to the diphthong in ‘prize’ are the oldest characteristic pronunciation in Southern speech, that can be traced back well over 100 years,” Renwick says. “The Southern pronunciation of words like ‘face’ emerged in the early 20th century. These are distinctive features of the traditional Southern drawl.”

This study used archived as well as new recordings of white speakers from Georgia. Because linguistic patterns differ among ethnic groups, the team is now pursuing the study of cross-generational accents among the Black population.

The study appears in the journal Language Variation and Change.

Source: University of Georgia