Generational Accents: An Underappreciated Phenomenon

awesome dialect map (source)
Usually when we think about accents, geographic distinctions will come to mind. In the United States, for example, people often refer to a Southern accent, although of course there are countless accents that originate in the historic South, ranging from Cajun accents to Texas drawl to the upperclass talk of those old plantation houses. There are many other stereotypically "accented" geographic areas as well, like New York City, Boston, the northern Great Plains, or even the San Fernando Valley.

Of course, our perceptions of these places' accents do have a basis in reality. However, I think that geography and place, while still important, are becoming less relevant to the way Americans speak. I believe another type of distinction deserves a greater amount of attention - generational accents.

Studies show that before the age of twenty, a person's accent is relatively fluid and can be substantially molded or remolded by changing influences. Clearly, parents, family, and people one is closest to are almost always going to be the biggest influences: I know my speech greatly reflects that of my parents, including many identifiable quirks. Because our speech becomes "set in its ways" after young adulthood, though, whatever other influences there are on a person's accent can noticeably set them apart from their family. (After all, the "Valley Girl" phenomenon I linked to in my first paragraph is definitely generational.)

Primarily I am thinking about mass media - movies, TV shows, internet videos and so on. Radio, I'm sure, when it first became popular for all families to have it, greatly influenced the way children spoke in all different parts of the world. From its inception, it seems, the national news broadcast (first on radio, then TV) has set the major example - in many countries around the world - for what a "standard national accent" is. The standard accent in the U.K. is even often called "BBC English."

a still of McNamara from KGO News
However, even if newscasters for the most part speak in a very "standardized" way, (which I think they do), one can see differences in accent within the last half century of broadcasting. Just listen to this bit of news from 1965. True, the "standard American" you hear from the anchor isn't much removed from what you can hear on TV today, but I don't think many (or any!) young people today speak like Robert McNamara, who you also hear in the video. Plus, if you take someone who's 10 years old right now and wait for them to grow up to be a news anchor, I believe their accent on the news decades from now will be quite different than what is current.

Much more change goes on among those whose voices are not marketed for wide appeal: The development of slang goes on at a rapid pace - perhaps at an accelerating pace - and although we may believe we avoid slang in public or formal settings, it still very much affects how we talk, how we write, and even how we think. Many words that seem normal to a 30-year old American are laughable and strange to a teenager, and of course the reverse is true too. I already feel a little separated from tweens and young teenagers: Our childhood linguistic influences were simply not the same.

Now, my point in this post is not that accents in the United States are becoming more homogenized, although that is probably true. Rather, my point is that even in the age of more-massive-than-ever mass media and (potentially) mass linguistic convergence and standardization, there will still always be accents. Think about how comedians imitate how the elderly talk. In fifty years, people will be doing the same for the way we Generation Y people speak today!