Language and Politics in the New South


When I (Lelia Glass) arrived at Georgia Tech from California, I was surprised that so few of my students — and so few Atlantans in general — seems to have a southern accent! We (Lelia and colleague Jon Forrest from the University of Georgia) started to wonder what aspects of an individual person’s experience would shape their speech: of course, basic demographic traits like age, gender, and race matter, but we started to suspect that a person’s ideological orientation would matter too: their attitude towards urban or rural life, and their political outlook during this polarized time. To address these questions, our (IRB-approved) project collects and analyzing audio recordings of college students (all native English speakers who grew up in Georgia) along with survey data about their demographic traits and political ideology. Our project not only contributes to the field of socio-phonetics (the area of linguistics that studies the social drivers and effects on a person’s speech/accent), but also more broadly sheds light on how and why young adults in Georgia speak as they do today, as well as the present and future of the “southern accent” so iconically associated with our region.

As of Spring 2021, with support from DILAC, we have gathered data (transcribed recordings, survey data, and vowel measurements) from 66 speakers! During the coronavirus, with IRB approval, we interviewed speakers via video-conference from one room while they sat alone, mask-free, in another room with the high-quality microphone.

Technical Summary

From each interviewee, we collect an audio-recorded open-ended interview (to be transcribed), an audio recording of them reading a short passage (containing all the vowels and consonants that interest us), and a survey about their demographics and political outlook.  We aim for 60 interviews (so far, we’ve collected 25).

While these data can be used in many ways, we first plan to test two hypotheses:

  1. More-conservative students will sound more “southern” in their vowels, predicted if southern accents have taken on an ideological meaning overlaid with a regional one (e.g., Hall-Lew et al 2010, Geenberg 2014).
  2. More-conservative students will display greater gender differences in the articulation of the /s/ sound — conservative men will pronounce /s/ further back in their mouths, conservative women further to the front of their mouths, while more-liberal students of any gender will be less different from one another.  This finding is predicted (e.g., by Van Hofwegen and Podesva 2015) if conservatism is associated with greater gender differentiation.

    Our first hypothesis (about “southern accents” among vowels) operates in part above level of consciousness, since at least certain phonetic elements (though not all) of a southern accent are perceptible to laypeople and subject to social commentary.  Our second hypothesis (about the placement in the mouth of /s/ among consonants) operates below the level of consciousness, since laypeople do not usually consider where they put their tongue in making an /s/ sound.  These complementary hypotheses shed light on the interplay between language, politics, and metalinguistic consciousness.

    No prior study has actually measured a person’s political ideology data alongside their speech.  The “risk” is that our hypotheses won’t be confirmed; but the “reward” is that we may find much more targeted, quantitative evidence for the longstanding belief that language is influenced by one’s politics.

Motivation and Societal Impact

  • The study promises to satisfy (both academic and general-interest) curiosity about what is happening to the iconic “southern accent” among the young people of Georgia, and the demographic and ideological underpinnings of any changes we observe.
  • Academically, the project advances our understanding of how language serves as a form of symbolic capital used (consciously or subconsciously) to signal ideological affiliation.
  • Our data can compared to data from other regions of the United States, or to other time periods — a valuable resource for years to come.
  • Our research assistants learn to recruit participants, use audio equipment, conduct interviews, store data in a secure and organized manner, analyze results both qualitatively and quantitatively, and present results at conferences or in writing.
  • In addition to publishing results academically, we also plan to communicate to the wider community of students and laypeople, by discussing the project in our classes and reaching out to journalists and podcasts.  Community members will satisfy their curiosity about the “southern accent” in Georgia, and learn more about the goals and methods of language science (and the strength of this area at Georgia Tech!).

Expected Measurable Outcomes

  • Academic conference presentations at one or more of the following: New Ways of Analyzing Variation (premier sociolinguistics conference); The Linguistic Society of America; Linguistics Conference at University of Georgia; South Eastern Conference on Linguistics.  Some presentations may feature student co-presenters.
  • An academic publication in a journal such as Journal of Sociolinguistics, Language, Language Variation and Change, or American Speech.
  • Media coverage: we’ll reach out to linguistics podcasts such as LingThusiasm and Subtitle; journalists such as Lelia’s connection Lane Greene, who writes about language for The Economist; local radio stations such as WABE 90.1; and the Georgia Tech communications team.  Many outlets would enjoy running a fun piece on “What’s happening to Southern Accents in the south?”, or “How does your politics shape your accent?”
  • Valuable hands-on experience for research assistants (including the dozens of undergraduates seeking research opportunities every year!) — leading to recommendation letters and other opened doors.



Publications, Exhibitions, Other Products

We are submitting an abstract to the premiere sociolinguistics conference, New Ways of Analyzing Variation. Madelyn Scandlen, a member of the VIP, has won a PURA award to continue working on the project this summer. In Fall 2021, we plan to submit a manuscript to the Journal of Sociolinguistics.

Project Year
Project Leads
Lelia Glass
Karrisa Reed
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