The Southern voice of the future may be Howard Baker Jr., the White House chief of staff from Tennessee. Not his politics. Not his vision of the commonweal. His accent. In the age of network television, of the mobile society where an increasing share of Southerners are from north of the Mason-Dixon line, the Southern drawl is surviving and, some suspect, even gaining ground as a regional dialect.
But change is still afoot in the mouth of the South. The accents of country folk and the working class appear to be moving upscale.
The urban middle class, which once spoke in the elegant inflections that radiated from Richmond, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and New Orleans, is sounding more like educated versions of east Tennessee mountain folk.
Witness the ``r'' glut: The winged creature many cultivated Southerners once called ``buh-id,'' sounding almost like Brooklyn cabbies' ``boyd,'' became ``buhd'' to their children. The educated Deep South youth of today are calling it ``buhrd'' - digging into that ``r'' like they were born to it.
``No one is using the absent `r' after vowels anymore in the white population,'' says Michael Montgomery, linguistics professor at the University of South Carolina. In 10 years, Dr. Montgomery predicts, only Southern blacks and older speakers will be ``r''-less after vowels.
Vowels are shifting as well. Stale bread is becoming ``style'' bread, or even ``sty-ull.''
Linguists can only guess at what's really going on in Southern speech. Most dispatch any notion that distinctive Southern accents are being lost in the blender of national homogeneity.
National television and its ``network English'' - basically an inland Northern accent - is not changing the way Southerners talk. People simply don't form their accents from television, linguists say. And these days, Southern accents are heard more often on the national evening news. Take CBS's Texan anchor Dan Rather, for instance.
The fact that one in five current Southerners is an outlander will not spell the demise of Southern English either. Ron Butters, a linguistics professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a native Iowan, notes that his children have grown up sounding like their North Carolina peers, not their Midwestern parents. Accents are mostly formed in the late teens and early adult years around peer groups, he notes.
Tracking the change in Southern dialects themselves is a comlex business - even while ignoring black dialects, which are another story altogether. (Black English is much more uniform than white speech, Dr. Butters notes).
Lee Pederson, director of Emory University's Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States, has identified at least 11 different Southern dialects among white.
In simplest terms, the South Midland or Hill Southern accents include the Tennessee hill country, Texas, and the northern reaches of the Deep South states. Former Senator Baker is a modern, cultivated example. The Coastal or Plantation Southern accents stretch from Richmond to Galveston, Texas. Here Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina offers a classic earful of Charleston pronunciation. Former President Jimmy Carter is a cultivated speaker of another coastal variety. Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin speaks a somewhat older version.
The discerning ear can cut much finer, picking natives of the South Carolina lowlands from those of the Piney Woods, a strip that runs across the Deep South from the Carolinas to Texas. The black belt, the heart of the plantation South, cuts another swath across the region with its own manner of speaking. Same for the Piedmont, which takes in many of the South's thriving new Sunbelt cities, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.
That's just according to the map. The picture is complicated by generation and social class.
In northeastern Alabama, for example, Crawford Feagin grew up in a middle-class professional family with the ``r''-lessness of the cultivated. Dr. Feagin, now a linguist at the University of Virginia, notes that only rural and working-class people pronounced ``r's'' after vowels in her hometown.
Now, however, she says: ``All my cousins have `r's.' These are people who have not changed social class, and all their parents are `r'-less.''
The same thing is happening all over the South. Young, middle-class Southerners in cities are tending toward an accent Dr. Feagin calls ``hillbilly.''
Dr. Pederson of Emory University says: ``Kids in Atlanta talk more like kids in Jacksonville, Fla., or Houston, Texas, than kids from rural Georgia just 30 miles away.''
One explanation for the shifting sound of urban Southern speech is urbanization itself. Only around 1970 did urban Southerners become a majority of the region's population, far later than in the country as a whole. Most of the newcomers to Atlanta, Nashville, and Raleigh, N.C., have not been Yankees but migrants from the rural South, climbing the socioeconomic ladder and bringing their accents with them.
Another is that the old sources of cultivated speaking styles, the most prestigious cities in the South, were Charleston, Richmond, and New Orleans. In the past couple of generations, the inland cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Columbia, S.C., have become the leading cities of the South. Their prestige carries over into language.
Talk in these Piedmont cities has been more strongly influenced by the Hill Southern dialects from the North. ``R's'' are more commonly heard.
Pederson is less emphatic than many other linguists about the future of Southern English. ``All accents fade,'' he says. ``All dialects change.'' Certainly the vocabulary of young, urban speakers is shifting toward the dominant American pattern, he says.
But he also sees certain pronunciations shifting away from American homogenous. Increasingly, for example, young Southerners are pronouncing pin and pen, alike.
Listen to young Sen. Albert Gore Jr. introduce himself (in his barely Southern voice): ``I'm Sinnater Al Gore from Tinnesey.''
In short, Pederson says, ``Southern patterns are at least as strong or stronger than other regional dialects.''
Southerners are apt to keep talking like Southerners partly because they want to. ``To many Southerners,'' writes Michael Montgomery in a paper, ``their speech is a kind of badge and signifies much more about their identities than does the speech of many people from other regions of the country: It represents their upbringing, their loyalties, their education, and their roots.''
The impending loss of Southern English has been warned of for most of this century. Linguists these days predict the same warnings will be sounded - in Southern English, with or without the ``r'' - a century from now.