D.C. is losing its Southern identity

Newcomers alter language, tone

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post / January 27, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Dixie Liquor stands alone. The shop in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood, which has been casting its neon glow for more than 50 years, is the only business in Washington, D.C., and one of the few left in the region, with the word “Dixie’’ in its name.

And it’s not just the D-word. The region’s Southern accent is also becoming measurably less pronounced, linguists say. The Confederate flag doesn’t fly much in these parts anymore. Korean barbecue has taken its place alongside the Southern pit-cooked variety in many neighborhoods, and the “sweet tea line’’ that once stretched across Virginia has gotten blurry.

In all, according to academics and cultural observers, the Washington area’s “Southernness’’ has fallen into steep decline, part of a trend away from strongly held regional identities. In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.

“The cultural Mason-Dixon line is just moving farther and farther south as more people from other parts of the country move in,’’ said H. Gibbs Knotts, a professor at Western Carolina University who, with a colleague, conducted a survey of Dixie-named businesses as a way to measure the shifting frontiers of the South. (The Mason-Dixon line, which set the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, was the symbolic divider between North and South in the Civil War era.) “From what we’re finding, D.C. and Virginia are not appearing very Southern at all these days,’’ Knotts said of the survey, published last year.

The trend has been decades in the making, of course. But some observers say the evolution is nearly complete, in good part because of the stepped-up migration of Northerners and immigrants into the Washington area.

“I do think we’ve reached a critical mass of some kind — we’re not a real Southern state anymore,’’ said Russell Potts, 71, a former Virginia state senator from Loudoun County and an independent gubernatorial candidate in 2005. “I happen to believe that southern Virginia now actually starts down near Richmond.’’

That’s about right, said Sharon Ash, a University of Pennsylvania linguist and coauthor of the 2005 “Atlas of North American English.’’ A 1941 study placed the Washington area in the South for pronunciation purposes. But her atlas now draws that line about 45 miles north of Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy.

“We put Washington and the northern part of Virginia in what we call the Midland, which also includes Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,’’ Ash said.

Drawing hard lines around a cultural region is always an imprecise exercise, said Harry Watson, director of the Center of the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, which last month published several papers on the subject. Pockets of Southernness pop up far from the 11 states that made up the Confederacy, Watson said, from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Bakersfield, Calif.

The frontiers of the core South are clearly shifting away from Northern Virginia and Washington, Watson said.

“That whole area feels more metropolitan than it does Southern,’’ said Watson, who is based in another evolving corner of the South: Chapel Hill, N.C. “Down here, we make jokes about occupied Northern Virginia.’’

Whether Washington should be defined as a Southern city has been a debate since the Civil War, when it was the seat of the Northern government but a hotbed of rebel sympathy. In modern times, the question has been more cultural than political. Washington’s split personality was forever summarized by John F. Kennedy’s worst-of-both-worlds description of it as a “city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.’’