Who talks like a “townie”?

I asked,

I’m writing a book about rich and poor voters in red and blue states, and one thing we’ve found is that the political differences between so-called red and blue states are much larger among the rich than the poor (or, more precisely, comparing high and low income, since we don’t really have measures of “rich” and “poor” in our surveys). Anyway, the point is that the famed Red America / Blue America distinction is among the rich, not the poor.

But, in other ways, it’s poorer people who are more localized: lower-income people generally travel less, are more likely to have local accents, and are less likely to know people in other parts of the country.

Well, that’s what I think, but I don’t really know. Do you happen to know if there have been studies supporting my claim that lower income people are more likely to have local accents?

Mark Liberman replied:

I’ve often read that “lower income people are more likely to have local accents”, as you put it.

For example, Jenny Cheshire and Peter Trudgill, “Dialect and education in the United Kingdom”, in Jenny Cheshire, ed., _Dialect and Education_ (1989), starts like this:

In Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as in many other countries, the relationship between social and regional language varieties is such that the greatest degree of regional differentiation is found among lower working-class speakers and the smallest degree at the other end of the social scale, among speakers from the upper middle class.

However, I don’t know any research that evaluates this generalization in quantitative terms. (That doesn’t mean there isn’t any.) And the situation in the United States is probably somewhat different in this respect from the situation in Great Britain, if only because African-American speakers are (I think) less geographically variable in accent than other groups, while also being disproportionately distributed towards the lower end of the S.E.S. scale.

With respect to the more general social-networking questions — “lower-income people generally travel less, … and are less likely to know people in other parts of the country” — again, it seems to me that the historical situation in the U.S. is somewhat different from the British experience. When the draft was in effect, the army to some extent played the role among the poor that elite education playedamong the rich. And there have been large population movements in relatively recent times — the general migration of farm labor to the cities, and specifically the movement of rural southern blacks; the Okie migration to California, Chicago etc.; the post-WWII migration from the rust belt to the sun belt — that have involved poorer people at least as much as richer people.

I suspect that it remains true in the U.S. that on average, lower-income people are more likely to have local accents. They are certainly — pretty much by definition — more likely to have speech patterns that are perceived as in some way non-standard. But this is not always the same thing. Thus “g-dropping” is other things equal more common for lower-SES speakers — however, this is true more or less all over the English-speaking world.


P.S. I wanted to call this “Will the real townies please stand up, stand up?” but I was afraid that Mark L. would accuse me of snowcloning.

3 thoughts on “Who talks like a “townie”?

  1. It's not directly related, but I have often heard that, in France, radio then TV played a big role in "equalizing" local accents. Basically, people on TV/radio mostly have a Parisian accent, so listening to them would have a similar effect to traveling in blending the local accents. All in all, you can still identify them, but apparently French people are now able to understand someone from another part of the country way better than 50 years ago. Maybe there is a similar phenomenon in the US?

  2. Andrew, I think you're treading on shaky ground here. Everyone speaks with an accent — there are no exceptions. The further someone is from your own social and economic class, the easier it may be to detect that their accent is different from your own. But that is no reason to conclude that they have an accent and you don't. My guess is that the local folks you're talking about would find your accent just as strange as you find theirs.

    Also, listen to a recording of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats. The Roosevelts were definitely not low income, yet the accent is quite distinctive.

  3. John,

    I agree that everybody had an accent. I was particularly asking about "local accents", that is, regional variation. Also I'm particularly interested in the current pattern of accents, not so much about how things were in the 30s and 40s. My impression is that upper-income people are less likely to have local accents, but, again, I don't know the answer. That's why I was asking the question!

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