'What happened to the strong accents?' Taking a look at the fading Nashville dialect

Posted at 7:27 PM, May 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-31 21:48:48-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — If you were to hear someone talking about the old Nashville sound, you'd probably assume they were referring to the roots of country music.

One of our own here at NewsChannel 5 has taken an interest in a different Nashville sound. He's asking where it went.

"I don't know how many tapes are back there," said NewsChannel 5's Taylor Pray, walking through the station story tape archive. "It could take years to do this kind of thing."

For a month, Pray has been in the middle of a huge undertaking — recording and digitizing decades of news stories. In watching so many of these old stories, Pray noticed something.

"Everybody has a thick southern accent," he smiled.

Many of the interviews Pray archived from 1988 shared something in common — the accent.

"It sticks out cause you never hear that anymore," Pray said. "I just want to know what happened to the strong accents? Where did these people go?"

"If we had to say there's a specific linguistic characteristic for Nashville, there's shortening from I to ahhh, for example, pronouncing the word 'light' as l-ahh-t," said Ric Morris, MTSU professor of Spanish and Linguistics.

"In cities generally, the Southern dialect is fading across the board, not just in Nashville but in Memphis and Atlanta and other places as well," said Morris.

Morris said for Nashville, a lot of that shift in dialect took place around the '90s.

"In the last 30 years or so, the population of middle Tennessee has just taken off," he said. "Huge growth. I looked at some census data. There's people coming in from all over everywhere. Florida and California actually ranked up very, very high, and a lot of other non-Southern states such as Illinois, New York, and Virginia have had huge amounts of people who have moved into Tennessee."

"When I moved here, I wouldn't say there was much of an accent because everyone I ran into was transplants," said Pray.

"The speakers are bringing their own linguistic flavor with them which is not traditional southern," said Morris.

That doesn't mean the accent is lost.

"You're more likely to hear authentic southern English listening to older people, as you move away from Nashville into the outlying counties," said Morris. "If you really want to experience the southern charm, go to Nolensville."

With as many stories as he's archiving, you might just start hearing that accent from Pray.

"I'll start to adopt it myself," he laughed.