Somehow, over the past 50 years or so -- since television assumed a ubiquitous and permanent position in American households -- people are increasingly talking like each other, even dressing alike and, ultimately, "being" the same.
It took more than a century, but the so-called melting pot is now truly creating a huge, grey, generic mass of humanity with few remaining individual characteristics to distinguish one from another.
Consider New York, the city where I live. Old-timers (that is, people in their 60s and 70s) have told me that during their youth they could easily distinguish a Brooklyn accent from a Bronx accent. Some even claimed that they could identify what specific neighborhood someone came from by hearing them speak.
However, today, very few New Yorkers born after Watergate speak like their parents or grandparents did. Of course, this discussion must be intertwined with the complex factors of race, ethnicity, immigration, class, education and upward mobility.
The history of New York City has followed this same pattern for more than a century: Poor immigrants arrive, settle in overcrowded neighborhoods, develop tribal hostilities against other segments of the population; struggle to survive, enforce their ethnic and religious identities, prosper, then move out to better neighborhoods and finally leave the city entirely to assimilate with the outside "mainstream" society. Sometimes, this process takes just a few generations, but for some segments, it never really happens.
For those who succeed, part of the price they pay to integrate is to sacrifice much of their cultural identity, which may include the way they speak.
I have witnessed this phenomena first-hand. For example, Italian-Americans of my generation who grew up in neighborhoods like Little Italy in Manhattan or Bensonhurst and Howard Beach in Brooklyn, generally spoke in the classic working-class New York accents (as heard in innumerable old movies and TV shows). But once they moved out to the suburbs (North Jersey, Long Island, etc.), their children were raised to speak in an entirely different way.
I refer you to the television program "The Sopranos" – yes, I know it's a fictitious drama, but it depicted aspects of modern society very well. Contrast the accents and speech patterns of Tony Soprano and his cohorts like Paulie Walnuts and Big Pussy Bompensiero with those of Tony’s wealthy suburban children, Meadow and AJ. Quite a stark difference.
I once knew a young Irish-American woman who grew up in suburban central New Jersey -- she spoke in what I describe as a bland, generic mid-American accent (I'll get to this later). When she introduced me to her grandfather, a retired police officer who lived his entire life in Brooklyn, he sounded exactly like Archie Bunker, the famous bigot from television's classic sitcom "All in the Family." Like Archie, this old guy had a gravelly voice, dropped his Rs, pronounced "point" like "pernt" and "toilet" like "terlet," among other gems.
He and his granddaughter may as well have been speaking two completely different languages. He was a charming old bird, and I think it's a tragedy that his old-fashioned accent has largely vanished from the American landscape.
Go up to New England -- very few young people use the traditional Boston accent anymore -- neither the clipped, refined accents of the Kennedy, nor the hard, working-class Irish shanty tongues that once pervaded South Boston.
When I first visited the Deep South, I was shocked and disappointed that only elderly people spoke in what I considered a Southern accent. In Mississippi and Alabama, it was a deep, heavy drawl; in North Carolina, that accent was softer and lilting. Younger folks sounded too much like Yankees or Midwesterners for my liking.
Even more surprising, none of the journalists on local TV stations in the South spoke with Dixie accents. This is also generally true in New York, where anchors and reporters speak in that flat, bland accent that is light years away from Archie Bunker, Robert De Niro or Al Pacino.
Regional accents are disappearing, but what are they being replaced with? That's difficult to describe, but I will say that the prevailing accent in early 21st century U.S. is a colorless, generic, sterile form of speech in which all the Rs are clearly enunciated, the As are broad, and the overall effect is stultifying (think Tom Brokaw, the former anchor at NBC News).
From my own experience, as the child of immigrants from India, I have witnessed a similar evolution. My parent’s generation (who migrated in large numbers to the UK, the U.S. and Canada) spoke in either a quasi-British accent or in the heavy, sing-song Indian accent (which most Americans find comical). My generation, in attempting to assimilate with the West and exposed to more media influences, sounded more like our British or American peers. The next generation? Forget it, they sound as American as Midwestern insurance salesmen named Smith or Jones.
Accents are a particularly sensitive subject for black Americans, for it is deeply connected with issues of class and identity. I have had well-educated, middle-class black people tell me that they have been criticized and condemned by other black people for "talking white" or "not sounding black."
Which leads me to Barack Obama, the country’s first "post-racial" president. His very identity (who he is, where he comes from, etc.) has been a fixation over his entire term in office.
Obama, who is the offspring of a mixed marriage, has no accent whatsoever. He sounds as bland, sterile and colorless as a corporate press release -- he doesn’t even have a Chicago accent (his purported hometown). And this very lack of identity has helped him reach the White House. If he talked like Rev. Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, would he have had any sliver of hope of ever becoming president? I think not.
Accents play an important role at the highest levels of U.S. politics, regardless of race. A president must appeal to the broadest constituency possible -- he cannot sound like he comes from a specific region. Obama and Mitt Romney both speak like robotic corporate executives. Nor can they speak in too refined an accent (like William Buckley) lest they alienate a large segment of the public.
Yes, it’s true that in recent years, we have had a number of presidents and nominees from the deep South, including George W. Bush (Texas), Bill Clinton (Arkansas) and Al Gore (Tennessee). In these cases, Bush and Clinton had discernible Southern accents, but neither spoke in the heavy twangs or drawls that were common to their native regions. Gore, who actually grew up in Washington, D.C., does not have a trace of a Tennessee accent.
I recall when Ross Perot ran for president in the 1990s -- the media and common people made fun of not only his short height and big ears, but also his strong Texas accent. He was ridiculed for it and really had no hope of ever attaining the highest office.
Then there is the case of Jesse Helms, the firebrand conservative senator from North Carolina. Helms, who was born in the 1920s, spoke in a very thick Southern drawl that many Northerners found incomprehensible. Those who hated Helms (and virtually every liberal and Democrat despised ol’ Jess) zeroed in on his Southern drawl to express their disdain for the man. He, too, had no chance to ever be on a national ticket.
Beyond the question of accents, something else that is quite insidious is happening. Different parts of the country are starting to look and feel the same.
Look at the huge Northeast metropolis from Boston to Washington, D.C., where about 50 million people live.
Boston generally seems the same as New York, which is not that different from Philadelphia, which is hardly distinguishable from Washington. Everywhere you go, there are Starbucks coffee shops, McDonald's restaurants, generic shopping malls and lots of overweight people wearing baseball caps and obsessed with their cellphones and iPads.
I suspect that in the old days (perhaps 40 years ago or before), Boston had a unique feel that was vastly different from New York or Philadelphia.
Something similar is also happening in England, the country that is regarded as most similar to the U.S. As in New York, old-time Londoners could discern one's class and neighborhood purely on the basis of accent and speech characteristic.
Before the explosion of TV and the Internet, a Londoner sounded vastly different from a Liverpudlian, who sounded distinct from a Mancunian (a native of Manchester). The people of Scotland may as well have been from another planet as far as the English were concerned.
Now, these regional speech variations are eroding (though not as dramatically as in the U.S,)
What about the future?
Pockets of regional accents (and culture) still do exist in America -- e,.g., the Amish of Pennsylvania, the black community in the Mississippi Delta, etc. But even they cannot resist the overwhelming pressures of mass media and the homogenizing forces of the present day.
Accents are a precious and fragile part of culture -- and they are in grave danger. I fear that within one generation, the entire English-speaking world will be one giant, uniform monolith.