A Trifling Place
4:20 pm
Fri May 17, 2013

A Trifling Place, Episode 9: And The Charlotte Accent Is ...

More than 50 people participated in WFAE's Charlotte Accent Project. Listen to the podcast episode about the project below.
Credit Tasnim Shamma

  Welcome to “A Trifling Place,” a podcast dedicated to exploring the ins-and-outs of Charlotte.

So about a month ago, reporter Lisa Miller handed me a book called How To Speak Southern. It has some funny tips on how to exaggerate a Southern drawl – but it wasn't too surprising – I mean, it's pretty easy to identify a Southern accent.  But it got me thinking – I have no idea what a Charlottean sounds like. In New York, I can easily tell what part of the city you're from by your accent. In Charlotte, I still can't tell the tourists apart from the people who live here. So that's one reason we launched The Charlotte Accent Project … on a quest to find the one true Charlotte accent. 

We received about 50 submissions from people all over the region and asked you to read two sentences: "Some of my friends and I caught some fish at the pool at the bottom of the hill. We baked the fish for dinner and then we drove back to my house on a country road in Charlotte." 

Hear how a Charlottean born in 1942 says it versus someone born in 1980. 

Phil Hazel was born in 1942.
Tia McNelly was born in 1980.

Now, I'm no trained linguist, but Professor Boyd Davis sure is. She's from Louisville, Kentucky and she moved to Charlotte in 1966.

Credit Tasnim Shamma

"My basic accent is Kentucky and I'm from a tri-dialect region which primarily is hit by the impact of the Ohio River," Davis explains. "You have some Southern features, some Midwestern features and some that nobody knows where they came from but they went up and down the river."

She's a professor of linguistics and gerontology at UNC Charlotte and she helps with a project called New South Voices, where there are more than 700 voices already documented.

A Mélange of Accents

She confirmed what I was beginning to suspect – that I had set myself up for failure.

"I'm going to move your microphone and show you a map of Charlotte," Davis says. "It's not a good map but it will show you that there are a mélange of accents in Charlotte. There is no one Charlotte accent. People I've interviewed over the last 30 years say that they think Charlotte sounds 'whitebread.' In other words, they say it sounds vaguely urban, vaguely white and not awfully Southern."

I haven't even been here long, but OUCH, that hurts. She says that we can sound that way now because of class differences and settlement patterns. So it's not really that we're whitebread, we just have a really interesting mix going on here. Professor Davis moves her hand along major roads to show me the different accents within the region.

"See the road leading out to Belmont, Gastonia, Kings Mountain, Cherryville, Lincolnton and Shelby,   those are foothills. And there will be more Southern Appalachian features in foothills pronunciation," Davis explains. "Here we are moving out Pineville to Fort Mill to Rock Hill, here you have more of what you might think of a slightly more Southern accent with greater deletion of R's. You'll see some of that in this area, in old Charlotte. Myers Park. And I just pronounced that the way people who were older in the '70s would have said Myers Park. They shop at Montaldo's."

Farmers Vs. Millworkers

Davis explains that dialects developed along professional lines as well. On Highway 49, in Concord, mill-workers came down from the mountain areas and had their own accent. And millworkers sounded very different from farmers.

Parks Helms was born in Charlotte in the 1930s. He's an attorney and long-time local politician who has seen the region change very quickly. 

Parks Helms at his office in uptown Charlotte. He was chairman of the Mecklenburg County Commission and served more than a decade in the House as a state representative.
Credit Tasnim Shamma

"Charlotte used to be a textile center. Textiles, cotton mills were the major economic driver in the early years. My grandfather was a carpenter and members of my father's family, many worked in the mills," Helms say. "In those days, the mills, the textile mills, were working 24 hours a day. And the people who worked in the mills developed a strong ethical and moral character." 

Helms says the mill workers and their children worked hard to get an education and become doctors and lawyers and leaders in the community. He says he's noticed how that and the influx of new people from all over the country has helped shape the language and direction of the city.

"What we have been able to enjoy here in Charlotte is a rich variety of languages but we've always had the language, the linguistic touch that came out of those early years," Helms says. "People working in the cotton mills they had their own language, they had their own way of expressing their thoughts. The farming community, growing cotton, which was a big product, they had their own way of expressing themselves."

Leveling Accents

You can expect the accents to disappear over time, says Rebecca Roeder. She's also a linguistics professor at UNC Charlotte. She says it happens through a process called leveling.

"It's going to happen through the children, meeting each other at school and being influenced by their peers, and speaking in ways that they hear other kids speaking," Roeder says.

She says most of the leveling is happening in Charlotte, but an urban-rural distinction will develop as rural areas better retain their distinctive dialects.

"And also within the city, still within various neighborhoods, for example, west Mecklenburg, it's maybe going to still have some unique dialect features, where there hasn't been as much mobility or outmovement, where you still maybe have a group of people that speak a similar dialect and that can be carried on over time."

Another example is Plaza Midwood. Professor Roeder says it used to have a distinctive dialect. But in the last decade, it's become really hip and a popular spot for newcomers from all over the country to move to. So now it's a neighborhood in transition, kind of like all of Charlotte, and the way people speak reflects that transition.

Sounding Charlottean

But still, there's something about the sound of Parks Helms voice that draws me in. So I asked him how I could sound like him.

"You have a very … I don't hear as well as I did, but I can understand your voice," Helms tells me. "You are well-spoken and I think that's important. And my advice to you is be who you are. Speak in a way that makes you comfortable. I could have known that you didn't come from Charlotte. But at the same time you have a personality and a voice that makes you welcome. And you should enjoy that welcome."

So there you have it. Be who you are, y'all.