Say What? The Accent Is On Change
By NEIL JOHNSON The Tampa Tribune
Published: Apr 15, 2007
TAMPA - At lunch in a Brooksville restaurant, Bruce Snow asked for something he frequently ordered - but for the first time, he couldn't make himself understood.
"The waitress didn't know what I was talking about," the Hernando County native said. "She just looked at me."
That's because Snow, in his Southern drawl, had asked for boiled chicken. To the unaccustomed ear, it sounded like "bald" chicken.
For years, the people taking his order were from the same town with the same Southern accent and had no trouble understanding him.
"They knew exactly what I wanted," Snow said. "She wasn't from here."
Newcomers washing over the state have eroded the dialect of old Florida, leaving pockets in the Panhandle, areas of Central Florida and the farm country around Lake Okeechobee.
It has been eradicated along much of the state's east coast and in the Orlando area. In places such as Tampa, its survival is mixed.
The Florida dialect of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings likely won't vanish, linguists say. But it likely won't remain the same, either.
Before the influx of new residents to Florida that started in the 1950s and exploded 25 years ago, the accent heard most widely was one of the two dialects commonly thought of as Southern.
Immigrants, mainly from Scotland and Ireland, brought it across inland Southern states and into Florida.
"A lot of folks tell me I sound like I came from south Georgia," said Rip Salvey, director of the Cracker Country exhibit at the Florida State Fairgrounds and a sixth-generation Floridian.
That shouldn't be a big surprise. The accent of Florida migrated mainly from Alabama and southern Georgia.
Today it is sometimes called the NASCAR accent and is the one most commonly associated with the South. It's the rural accent of Billy Bobs, moonshine and "Hee Haw."
The accent is more likely to produce "rilly" than "really" or "cauliflower" than "cauleeflower," the more common pronunciation in New York.
The other version of Southern accent emerged from the coastal plantation regions and most notably doesn't pronounce "R" after vowels - NASCAH, not NASCAR.
William Kretzschmar, professor of English at the University of Georgia, calls the plantation version the dialect of Rhett and Scarlett.
In Florida, the Southern accent remains strong across the Panhandle and into Jacksonville as well as rural areas of Central Florida.
The teeming counties of Broward and Miami-Dade, where the influx of new residents started long ago, never had much of a Southern accent and certainly do not now, Kretzschmar said.
Experts are not sure whether Florida's accent was a recognizably different version of one spoken in Alabama and Georgia.
"The safe answer is no," said Carolyn Adger, director of language in society at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington.
But that may be because linguists have not intensely studied accents in Florida, said David Bowie, associate professor in the University of Central Florida Department of English, who has conducted pilot studies of the state's accent.
'Swamped Out Of Existence'
Changing speech patterns is a numbers issue and takes time.
Over a few generations, large numbers of newcomers with a different way of speaking mingling with a relatively small number of residents will alter pronunciation and word choice.
Orlando is an example, Bowie said.
Before the theme park boom of the '70s, Orlando was a relatively small town. Thousands of new residents overwhelmed the local accent.
"If there was any Southern American English pronunciation, it's gone now. It's been swamped out of existence," Bowie said.
Orlando does retain some Southern flavor to its speech, such as the tendency to use "Coke" as a generic term for a carbonated soft drink, he said.
On the other hand, few newcomers moving to an area with a large native population won't produce much change.
"It takes a large influx to change an accent. I'd be surprised to see the urban centers of North Florida lose their Southern accent soon. It would be hard for newcomers to swamp it," Bowie said.
Snow, 59, hears less and less of the accent that surrounded him growing up in Hernando.
"It was the accent spoken by 75 to 80 percent of the population. Then, there were 15,000 people in Hernando. Now, there are 160,000. The pocket of traditional Florida accent is now maybe 5 percent," he said.
Accents change and vanish because of the way we learn them.
You don't learn an accent at your mama's knee. You absorb it at the swing sets and classrooms of your childhood.
"You very quickly pick it up from the people around you," said Robert Beard, retired professor of linguistics at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.
"You want to talk like the people you are around," he said.
A child of parents who move to Jacksonville from the North would be surrounded at school by children with a Southern accent and likely would pick up at least some of the speech, Bowie said.
For the parents, however, there probably would be little change to their accent.
Another factor working to change Florida's Southern accent can be called the "Dukes of Hazzard" effect.
"People are very aware of the perception that a Southern accent equals ignorance in people's minds," Bowie said.
So they may modify their speech, sometimes without a conscious effort, in what linguists call compensation.
In Florida, the Southern accent will linger in the north and rural areas of Central Florida, but it will change, as all accents do.
"An accent keeps getting re-created every day, week or generation," Kretzschmar said.
In time, that may give Orlando its own mixture as a middle ground between Northern accents and Southern accents from North Florida.
"In Orlando, over generations, language habits can develop to make it unique," Kretzschmar said.
Another influence on how future Floridians talk could come from South Florida, with its large number of Spanish-speaking residents, as that population spreads up the state, Adger said.
Even Tampa, an area that linguists struggle to peg with an accent, can have its own words and phrases peculiar to its locale.
"Any big city like Tampa with a population mixture where people think there is no discernable accent will have localized words and pronunciations," Kretzschmar said.
An example is saying you want a Cuban for lunch and no one has to ask, "A Cuban what?" And there are phrases such as "the hump on the Howard Frankland," or just "the Bay."
The evolution of accents, the pressure of television and modern culture to homogenize the language, and the constant tide of new residents ultimately will dilute even the backwoods version of Florida's accent, Beard said.
"It's going to blend," he said. "It could be 100 years. Or 200. It's already happening."
Reporter Neil Johnson can be reached at (352) 544-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Different regions also use different words for the same thing. Here are some results from Florida and New York:
1. Generic for sweet, carbonated drink
Florida: Soda (55 percent), Coke (28 percent), pop (4 percent)
New York: Soda (82 percent), pop (12 percent), Coke (1 percent)
2. Can coleslaw be called slaw?
Florida: Yes (45 percent), no (39 percent)
New York: No (55 percent), yes (30 percent)
3. Generic term for rubber-soled shoes worn during athletic activities
Florida: Sneakers (53 percent), tennis shoes (36 percent)
New York: Sneakers (93 percent), tennis shoes (2 percent)
4. Small freshwater crustacean
Florida: Crawfish (64 percent), crayfish (16 percent)
New York: Crayfish (45 percent), crawfish (40 percent)
5. Something that is diagonally across from you
Kitty-corner (52 percent), catty-corner (22 percent)
6. Addressing a group of two or more people
Florida: y'all 42 percent, you guys 27 percent, you all 16 percent
New York: you guys 48 percent, you 33 percent, you all 9 percent
Full results of the survey can be found at:
Find a short test to tell if your speech is from Dixie or the North