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Sociolinguistics and the Geography of Innovation

The decline of the Southern drawl maps the diffusion of knowledge production in the United States.
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Downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo: Mark Turner/Wikimedia Commons)

Downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo: Mark Turner/Wikimedia Commons)

Isolation, not globalization, kills jobs. The Deep South, before becoming part of the California Sun Belt, defined parochial and poor. As a region, in terms of per capita income, the Deep South began converging with the Northeast after 1930. That recovery proved to be, geographically, very uneven. Don't believe the hype about Sun Belt exceptionalism. Southern politicians did everything within their power (which was considerable) to attract Northern brains.

If you want to believe in an organic Dixie revival, stop reading now. What went right in North Carolina had everything to do with what was right with New Jersey. Proof positive is the Research Triangle Park:

"With people born after 1950, there's almost a linear, lockstep change going on with these different sounds, such that folks in the present start to sound like me," says Dodsworth, who grew up in Ohio. "It's not as though, all of a sudden, everyone said, 'Let's lose this Southern dialect.' So what social mechanism caused this to happen? What is the interface between language and society? ...

... The answer, in Raleigh's case, was the city's emergence as a technology hub in the 1960s. One of the largest high-tech research and development centers in the country, the Research Triangle Park (RTP), was built between the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, and its creation heralded a decline in the region's traditional Southern dialect.

"It's no secret to anyone in this area that RTP was constructed in 1959," Dodsworth says. "And then IBM came in the early '60s. If you're born in 1950, you're in junior high right about the time when those white-collar workers are coming down from Northern places to work."

Wherever the post-manufacturing economy went, the Southern dialect disappeared. The usual narrative moves blue-collar talent south, against the grain of the Great Migration. Overlooked, the Deep South had many traditional hotbeds of production. Those hotbeds of manufacturing (e.g. Birmingham, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee) suffered the same fate as Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Right-to-work or lower taxes made little difference. If your town bet on manufacturing, your town lost.

If your town bet on Cold War research and development, your town won. Concerning the Research Triangle Park, three towns won: Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. One can trace the diffusion of the New Jersey model of economic development (i.e. Bell Laboratories) by following the annihilation of regional dialects. Even within the region, variance in the sociolinguistic geography can be found:

Through her analysis of K-12 networks in Raleigh, Dodsworth found correlations between the increasing social diversity of the city and the slow "leveling" of its traditional accents. It also helped to explain why rural areas—or even the parts of Raleigh that saw the least inward migration—remain the most Southern-sounding.

Leveling of traditional accents indicates the presence of global labor, the agents of globalization. The most Southern-sounding areas denote the places globalization avoids and jobs are typically of the local, non-tradable variety. Wages are low. Unemployment is high. Just like there are two Chicagos, there are two North Carolinas. If you wonder which part you are in, just listen to the people talk.


Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.