As most of you may remember, I'm a southern boy by birth (and grace of God, as they saying goes). I was in Louisiana full time until the age of 12, after which I did 5 years in Jersey for boarding school, 4 years in Minnesota for college, then 10 more in the the South, followed by a move to Hawaii 3 years ago. So basically 12 years not in the South and then, how old am I, 22 years as a Southerner, including the pivotal first bunch.
However, I have no Southern accent anymore. One of my current phonetics profs has remarked that he'd put me on display as an example of accent reduction or some such. Essentially, unless you are a phonetics prof and know some tale-tell signs of what to look for, I've got the official standard accent now.** Where'd my Southernness go?
The basic answer is clear. I lost it when I went to school in Jersey. I remember being teased for my yankee accent at home within a year of attending the school in Jersey. I never consciously chose to not be southern in the way I talk, but unconsciously it seems I did. I just immediately started talking like my friends in Jersey. (OK, not really. I never once said "yous guys", never bought a bowling shirt, or an old Camaro, but you get the idea ;) ). This is a pretty common phenomenon.
One of the earliest studies that kicked off the field of sociolinguistics was a study of pronouncing the sound [r] in NYC by a man named William Labov. He had noticed that certain people in New York pronounced an [r] when it was at the end of a syllable and others did not. He had an idea that it was based partly on social class. So he did a neat little experiment. He chose three department stores that would be visited by people of different social classes - Saks 5th Avenue for upper class, Macy's for middle, and S. Klein for lower. Does S. Klein still exist, my NY readers? He then went around asking clerks where some item was that he knew was on the fourth floor, since the word "fourth" has an [r], in standard American dialect, at the end of a syllable. He also thought that pronouncing or dropping the [r] might depend on how carefully and formally people spoke. And so he would ask one time and they would answer naturally; then he asked again as if he couldn't hear, and they would speak it nice and formally for him.
I don't remember anymore who dropped the [r] and who didn't, but I do remember that the classes behaved differently. The upper and lower class people did whatever they did, r-wise, no matter how casual or how formal they were speaking. The word was what it was. But the middle class folk would say it the lower-class way when speaking casually and then the upper class way when speaking formally. They would switch to the high status way of speaking when they were thinking about it. Labov attributed this to the middle class aspirations of being upper class one day.
That was all in the late 60s. I am sure things have changed, and as always it's never as simple as you would like. The middle class doesn't always speak like the upper class to look good. On other tasks the classes would behave differently,
However, it still reminds me of my lost Southern accent. Even though I never chose to stop using it, I sometimes wonder if I'm some sort of poser talking the way I do in order to fit in with all those people who look down on accents. (See robin's comment on my accent post below, or that people talk in a southern accent to sound uneducated or stupid.)
My first way of speaking is still inside my head, hiding back there. Every once in a while, some strange vowel will come flying out, and then I catch myself and speak properly again. Bizarrely, I can't pretend to have a southern accent now, I can't fake it, but N tells me that when I speak to my father on the phone, then and only then I do.
You know how when you are a teen, you find yourself acting like all your friends, but when you grow up into a full, independent adult, you can only shake your head at yourself? I sometimes wonder if the day is coming when my first way of speaking will return. And I will just talk properly, the Southern way, :) no matter what***.
** My accent isn't completely gone. You just have to know what to listen for. One vestige is that "pin" and "pen" are pronounced identically for me. Similarly, the first part of "center" is the same as "sin". There's also another slight vowel difference. The "a" in anthropology is not quite the same "a" as in "had", which it should be according to Standard American English. The "a" in anthro is almost, but not quite, the same as the "e" in "bet".
*** There are actually several Southern accents. Which is why many a Hollywood actor sounds idiotic when they are trying to be Southern, but they sound like someone sipping lemonade at Tera in Gone with the Wind, while their charactor is an army instructor in Mississippi.