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American Regional Dialects - The Southern Drawl

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Introduction to American Dialects | Southern Drawl | Tawking the Tawk in Noo Yawk
New England's Wicked Good Accent | Philly Talk and Pittsburghese
The Midwestern 'Non-Accent' | Da Chicago Dialect and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it within, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.

- Harper Lee, from To Kill a Mockingbird

The American South is culturally independent from the rest of the United States. Southerners will tell you that everything moves just a little bit slower in the South... from the languid mosey of a Sunday stroll to the sluggardly motion of a Georgian's jaw. Perhaps it was the hookworm that flourished in the American south-east for many years. Perhaps it's a genuine lifestyle that rejects the fast pace of Northern cities. The best linguists will tell you that language reflects culture, and the study of language is relevant to the study of history, demographics and human nature. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the American South. The Southern 'drawl' is in many ways a reflection of the slow pace of the American South, when compared with the hustle-bustle in the rest of the nation. The Southern accent is an elegant rotary telephone in a mobile phone world.

The culture of the US South is strongest is the dominion known as the 'Deep South', which includes the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The Southern way of life can also be found in 'border' states (that is, those states close enough to the North to be infected by the Yankee Northern menace) which include, to varying degrees, Florida1, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. Most of the people in these states cherish their Southern heritage, and speak loudly and proudly with their Southern accents. Southerners seem to believe that Northerners can't understand this connection or anything about their way of life. It's possible that this is the case, but, if so, the often opaque accents of Southerners is at least partially to blame for the disconnection.

Unlike many other dialects in American English, the Southern accent is not so much just a variation on the tongue as it is a separate language - a yokel cousin to American English. The huge volume of phrases, words, expressions and alternate pronunciations is best learned by making a long trip into the American South. For our purposes, we shall be content to say that the Southern dialect can be colourful and interesting. Parts of it may be distressing or off-putting to outsiders. A strong Southern accent can sound uneducated and quite vulgar to people from other parts of the world, but some believe that a soft, subtle Southern accent can be charming and attractive. American women sure seem to like Matthew McConaughey, who has a strong Texan accent.

Proud Heritage

The English language came to America by way of English speakers, on boats. Because of the varying nature of English accents in Great Britain, the sort of people who were on these boats and when they left turns out to be very significant linguistically. The first wave of settlers came from southern England. They were slow talkers and had the stubborn sort of accent that refuses to pronounce the supposedly disgusting 'r' sound (some Americans inherited this trait and declared that the US would never be civilised until it totally got rid of the horrible 'r' sound from its speech). In not very much time at all, settlers from England had claimed the prized Tidewater area and built their coastal plantations, and there wasn't much land left for new settlers.

Nevertheless, from 1717-1800, English speaking people from Scotland and Northern Ireland (the Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish) came to America and went down river channels to settle further inland. The inland areas did not have soil as fertile as that near the coastal lands, and there were greater problems with transportation. The Scots-Irish people settled along the Allegheny Mountains, the Piedmont Plateau and the Appalachian Mountains. These settlers knew how to pronounce the 'r' sound and did so enthusiastically. For many years, two Southern accents developed independently.

The vocabulary of coastal Southerners was influenced by African-American slaves (and eventually slave descendants), who were abundant around the Atlantic coast. In turn, African-Americans became influenced by Southern speech and developed a fairly uniform English speech pattern similar to Southern speech in vowel use and with respect to the 'r' sound. The inland settlers did not have the sort of land that would support a plantation, and therefore had few, if any, slaves. The Scots- Irish vernacular along the Appalachian mountains did not change much over time, and some scholars contend that Appalachian, or 'hillbilly' talk is very close to what Elizabethan English would have sounded like. The hillbilly use of the 'r' sound eventually came to overtake the coastal revulsion of the 'r'. Now it is more common for Southerners to pronounce their 'r's. Nevertheless, some vestiges remain. It is not uncommon for Southerners to make a post-vocal 'r' drop in words like 'bastud' (bastard) and 'baun' (born). On the other hand, African-Americans popularly retain their 'r' loss and are more likely to pronounce words like 'fo', 'flo' and 'mo' (for, floor and more, respectively). What's more, African-American English tends to be fairly consistent throughout the country. So African- American communities in cities with vastly different dialects such as Philadelphia, Boston and New Orleans would all speak in roughly the same dialect - heavily influenced by coastal Southern talk from centuries past.

Still today, Appalachian, or 'hillbilly' dialect is distinctive from the dialect of the speech of the rest of the South. People from around the Appalachian mountains have words unknown to the rest of the country which have Scottish and Irish origin. They also use words that etymologists are at a loss to explain. The best explanation for those words is that the hillbillies simply made them up.

Drawling

To folks from Philadelphia, the word 'drawling' might be a 'pitcher' or illustration, but in the South, it's their way of speaking. The Southern accent is often referred to as the Southern 'drawl' because of the words come out a bit slower from a Southerner's mouth. Try saying the word 'drawl'. It's tempting to 'draw' the word out a bit until it becomes 'dra-awwwwl'. Slower speech has a lot do with the stereotype of Southerners being unintelligent, but that's unfair. Actually, even the most educated Southerners take their time in getting their sentences out. The drawl has more to do with the rhythm and measured tempo of their expression. Southern speech patterns remain strong because Southern identity remains strong (and vice versa, according to some sociolinguists).

Linguists attribute the 'drawl' partly to what is called the diphthongisation of words ('diphthongisation' is a five dollar word which refers to the combination of vowel sounds where only one vowel exists). The word 'pet' can come out sounding more like 'pay-ut'. 'Bad' becomes 'bay-uhd'. 'Eggs' may come out more like 'ay-uhgz'. Some words, like 'flowers' can end up triphthongised, until it has three vowel sounds - 'flah-ierz'. This habit of increasing the vowel count in common words can slow a person's speech down considerably. In the case of the diphthongised 'pet', a second syllable is actually added to the word.

Words and Usage

I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.
-Mark Twain

First, a friendly greeting. A proper Southern greeting is 'Hey there', or in the case of more than one person, 'Hey folks'. Most Southerners don't really use the word 'Howdy' on a day-by-day basis. Those that do are the sort of people who are pretending to be cowboys, and they should be avoided when possible.

If you have a strong Southern accent and you're asked a simple question, you're supposed to 'reckon' the answer. Then, if you reckon you agree with what was said (an affirmative response) you reply, 'I reckon so' or 'I reckon'. If you have wrapped your mind around the question at hand and do not believe you agree with what was said, the appropriate negative response is 'I don't reckon' or 'I don't reckon so'. The word 'reckon' is to be pronounced like 'wreckin'. On the other hand, if you didn't just agree with something or believe it to be true, but you knew it was true, then you 'knowed' it.

If you want to use the word 'have' as a helping verb, as in 'I have made a big meal', it can be replaced with the word 'done', as in 'I done made a big meal'. Other uses of the word 'have' can't be replaced by done - you can't use 'done' in this manner at the beginning of a sentence. For instance, 'Done you made the turkey yet?' doesn't make sense, even to Southerners. Conversely, if haven't done something yet, but you're getting ready to do something, you are 'fixin' to do it.

Southerners tend to be more religious (or more openly religious) in their everyday lives than other Americans. It often slips into their speech. Don't be surprised if you encounter a Biblical allusion or a quoted Bible verse when speaking with a Southerner.

Two Contractions

Well, Son, I tell you, life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's been hard and bare and rough places on the floor,
But all the while I'se been climbing, and going forth
In the dark, cause there ain't been no light.
So dont you sit down cause its kinds hard,
Dont you quit because it's rough
Cause you see, I'se still climbing
And life for me aint been no crystal stair.

-Langston Hughes, 'Mother to Son'

Perhaps the most often maligned words in the American English language are the two contractions 'ain't' and 'y'all' - both with connections to the South.

The word 'ain't' is a contraction meaning 'am not', 'is not', 'are not' and 'will not'2. Some would hesitate to call it a contraction, because 'ai' doesn't specifically refer to any word in the English language. It was originally supposed to be a contraction of 'am not', and would have served that sole purpose just fine, because there is no contraction for that phrase. However, the meaning of 'ain't' has been widened over time, earning the scorn of English teachers across America. While the word 'ain't' has a Southern quality to it, it is not exclusively the province of Southern speakers. Famous New York Yankee Yogi Berra included the word 'ain't' in many of his famous Yogi-isms. Some cynical politicians have been known to use the word 'ain't' to project a homespun, 'average Joe' quality to their campaign. For best political effect, the word can be part of a double-negative as in, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet!'. However, using the word frequently in place of other, more proper contractions, can result in being viewed as an idiot.

The word 'y'all', a contraction of 'you all', is more exclusively Southern than the word 'ain't', but it is not necessarily considered to be a sign of a lower intellect (unless one considers a Southern accent to be a singular signal of an inferior mind). The word is really unfairly maligned by American society. Many groups of people throughout the United States have been known to come up with a peculiar single word as a second personal plural noun. In fact, many of the Appalachian cousins of Southerners use the word 'you'uns' or sometimes the further shortened form 'yunes'. Pittsburghers use the word 'yinz'. Eastern branches of the American family have been known to use 'Youse' or 'You's guys'3. Therefore it is unfair to criticise the fact that Southerners use the word 'y'all' without also criticising these groups.

Idioms

One of the great things about the Southern drawl is the multitude of colourful phrases and colloquialisms that find their way into everyday usage. Many of the expressions and comparisons have to do with animals or foods. Some conjure up compelling images, some are meant to be funny and some are just brutally gross.

If a politician is corrupt or untrustworthy, he as 'crooked as a dog's hind leg'. In the movie Forrest Gump (set in Alabama), a doctor examining the title character, who had a crooked spine, compared his back to a politician. The phrase 'crooked as a snake' brings up two popular images of politicians. 'Crooked as a snake with the cramps' might be even better. The images of a barrel of snakes or a ram's horn suit the purpose as well.

If you want to describe the temperature, American Southerners can't be beat for odd comparisons. If it's cold, it might be 'colder than a witch's teat in a brass bra', 'colder than a well digger's ass' or you may say 'it's cold enough to hang meat'. If it's very hot, it may be 'hotter than a June bride in a featherbed', 'hot enough to burn the hair off a hog's back', 'hotter than the hinges on the gates of hell' or 'hotter than two rabbits screwing in a wool sock'. You probably get the idea.

'Hay Fokes, Hah Ya Filling?' - Pronunciation

Pronunciation of words by Southerners has everything to do with the cadence and flavour that characterises the Southern dialect. Written description of pronunciation is hindered by a text format, so this Entry attempts to use familiar words and the tool of rhyming to explain the sound of accented words. Feel free to use this to try to recreate a Southern accent aloud as you read along and ignore the concerned glares of those around you. Here are some pronunciation tips...

  • As a rule, the vowel sound in the word 'my' is replaced with an 'ahh' sound. The result is a 'mah' sound which can sound almost breathless (especially when spoken by a female). You might hear, 'Mah lahht is naahn feet haah' (my light is nine feet high). This phenomenon has been called the 'Confederate A'.

  • The days of the week are pronounced as follows - Mon-dee, Toos-dee, Wins-dee, Thurs-dee, Fri-dee, Satar-dee (or Sah-ur-dee), Sundee.

  • The word 'feel' can rhyme with 'will'.

  • In some words like cement, July or guitar, the first syllable carries the emphasis heavily, so it becomes SEE-mint, JOO-lie and GEE-tar. There's no good rule for this predicting when emphasis will change like that, so just be prepared.

  • Some words ending in certain consonants such as 't' or 'd' will hear those sounds dropped in pronunciation. 'Told' become 'tole', as in 'I tole him to come here.'

  • Despite the South's long and troubled affair with the 'r' sound, some insist on placing the 'r' where it doesn't really belong. A 'hollow' is pronounced as 'holler'.

  • A Southerner makes the 'e' and 'i' sound identically when they come before the nasal 'm' or 'n' sounds. Therefore, the words 'pen' and 'pin' are pronounced the same by Southerners.

  • An 's' can be replaced by a 'd'. 'Business' becomes 'bidniz' and 'wasn't' can be pronounced 'wudn't'.

Regional Variations

There are literally hundreds of small variations on the Southern accent. A small Southern town could have a slightly different dialect from one 10 miles north. However, linguists say that these smaller, local accents are unfortunately dying out and being absorbed by larger, regional ones.

Off the coast of North Carolina, Ocracoke Island (population 650) is something like the Galapagos Islands of the American Southern accent. It is a fine example of one of the failing, quirky local dialects to be found in the South. The people of Ocracoke have remained relatively isolated from the mainland since the island's first settlement in the early 1700s. They have several of their own words, including quamish (sick) and mommuck (to annoy) and meehonkey (the game 'hide and go seek'). They also choose to pronounce the words 'high tide' so that they sound like 'hoi toid'4. This has earned them the nickname of 'hoi toiders' and the playful ridicule of their fellow North Carolinians. What important culture would be lost if the Ocracokers began speaking with a standard Southern drawl (or if an especially hoi toid sunk the island) is hard to say.

Parts of Louisiana (and some parts of southern Texas and Mississippi) use a dialect referred to as 'Cajun'. It is a mix of French, Spanish, English and even some German and Native American. It is quite separate from the Southern drawl - in fact, it doesn't drawl at all, but runs off the tongue rather rapidly. The rapid speech and some other pronunciation differences has led linguists to believe that the Cajun dialect is actually quite similar to the New York City dialect. However, Cajuns are quite distinct. They tend to place emphasis on the second syllable of a word, when possible. They use French words and phrases frequently in everyday speech. The names of Cajun cities and people often end in the very French suffixes '-ieux' and '-eaux', pronounced like a short 'o' sound. The unusual Cajun speech and fast pace of the accent makes it impossible for many to understand. James Carville, a famous political strategist, earned the nickname 'the Ragin' Cajun' for his thick, sometimes indecipherable Cajun accent.

Oddly enough, there are some local accents in the South that are simply not Southern accents. Sociolinguist William Labov contends that based on speech pattern analysis, the residents of Charleston, South Carolina (a city in the heart of the old South) speak more like the people of Columbus, Ohio (a plain, Midwestern accent) than anywhere else. This is despite the fact that Charleston has an otherwise strongly Southern culture. The city of Atlanta is similar to the case of Charleston (though much of its transformation is due to an influx of Northern immigrants). Atlanta has in fact been described as a big Northern city in the middle of the South. New Orleans, a melting pot of a city if there ever was one, actually has many speech characteristics similar to the people of New York City.

Hillbilly Accent

The Appalachian/Ozark dialect, a close cousin of the Southern dialect5, is sometimes known as the 'Hillbilly' accent. Most of its true adherents are low income, uneducated people in and around the Ozark mountains and the Appalachian mountains. It is associated with a rural or blue collar lifestyle, and is not dissimilar to the 'redneck' manner of speech that characterises many farmers throughout America, from sea to shining sea. While being called a 'hillbilly' or 'redneck' generally carries negative connotations, there are those who are quite proud of that distinction.

It is known among other things for putting the vowel 'a' where it doesn't belong. Specifically, you'll often see an 'a' in front of an '-ing' word (and the 'g' sound will disappear as well). For example, 'Hold on, I'm a-comin' fellers.' A good example of this kind of dialect is the theme song of the old TV show 'The Beverly Hillbillies' (as well as the dialogue on the show itself)-

Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed
Purr mountaineer burrly kept his fam-lee fed
Then one day he was shootin' at some food,
And up through the ground come a-bubblin' crude
(Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea)

The Appalachian accent is strongly related to the Scots-Irish who settled around the Appalachian mountains in the early part of the 18th century. Some of the odd words that are used in the Ozarks and around Appalachia have Scottish or Irish origin. There are also many similarities between the Appalachian/Ozark dialect and the Southern accent. But the Appalachian is the much stronger accent, with its own subtle characteristics. For one thing, you seem to hear the word 'possum' more when speaking to hillbillies than in any other dialect.

Texas Twang

Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me.
- President George W Bush, 27 May, 2004

Texas is an enormous place. It is the second largest state in size and second largest state in population. It was once an independent country (the Lone Star Republic) and actually has several very diverse regions. It would be folly to lump a state like Texas in with the rest of the American South without further explanation. Researchers have found that proud Texans are more likely to adopt the 'Texas Twang' that characterizes their state. Texans who hate Texas are more likely to have a flat, plain accent. In this sense, the Texas accent appears to be one of choice, relative to social identity.

First, there are east Texans, where much oil is produced, or as they will pronounce it, 'all'. Their drawl is thick and is more similar to the speech of residents of the 'Deep South'. It is more like the standard Southern accent than other Texas dialects.

Next come west Texans, who act like cowboys and have the boots and hats to prove it. They also talk like cowboys. Or rather, the popular image of the cowboy has been shaped by Hollywood through TV shows and movies, who hired Texans to teach their film stars how to speak with the west Texas 'twang' which seemed to fit with the cowboy image. Bob Hinkle, an influential West Texan speaking coach in Hollywood once said, 'In Texas, yew don’t say near as many words, but yew git it said, an’ yew slow it down to where people kin understan’ it.'6 When British actor Michael Caine had to imitate a west Texas accent for a movie role, he had this to say -

It's a frame of mind. Texans talk slowly. And the reason they talk slowly, is because they're usually about six feet tall and have a gun. And they know you're listening! And they're not in a hurry to do anything. It's a very hot place. It's a very big place, and it can be a very lonely place. So they don't talk very much. And when they do, they make sure you listen. And it's a very lazy sort of voice.

When I was learning the accent, my teacher, my dialogue coach said to me, let's hear your accent now. I did the accent, and he said, that's the Texas accent. With an English rhythm! He said, each word is standing up on its own, separately. The Texas language is lazy, he said. The words all lean on each other, just-like-this. Everything, the words just about fall over. And each word hits the other one. And that's how it comes about. That's it! It's easy. It took me three months to do that.

The drawl of Texas is similar to the rest of the South (without the dropped 'r' sound that some Southerners carry), stretched by diphthongization. However, Texans are not above 'monophthongization' which doesn't usually happen elsewhere in the South. A word like 'hire' in most American accents would be phonetically pronounced 'high-urr', but Texans flatten it out to one vowel sound, which comes out like 'harr'. In the same way, 'fire' and 'far' are homonyms in a Texan accent. Also, while most of the South would pronounce the words 'caught' and 'cot' differently, Texans pronounce them with a flat 'kawt' sound.

The Texan accent is actually something of a mix between the plain dialect of the American west, the drawling dialect of the American South, and oddly enough, Spanish from Mexican immigrants. There are subtle variations in accents throughout the state, mainly due to geographic factors like proximity to the three influences listed.

There are more than a few well-known Texas accents. Tommy Lee Jones, born in a small town in central Texas, has a strong and authentic Texan accent. Mike Judge, a resident of Austin, Texas, voices several characters for his animated television show 'King of the Hill' with a great Texas accent.

Appalachian Dialect Informationhttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/country_profiles/1217752.stmhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/routesofenglish/youtellus/transcript.shtml
1Florida is an interesting exception. While the very northern part of Florida is quite Southern in lifestyle, there's nothing Southern about Miami or Disneyworld.2When substituting 'ain't' for 'won't', it is 'proper' to place the word 'gonna' after 'ain't', as in 'I ain't gonna go to the store'.3Interestingly, 'youse' is also commonly used in the same way in Scotland.4In contrast, the rest of the South would be likely to pronounce those two words like, 'ha todd'. It should also be noted that the classic West Countryman in the UK pronounces 'high tide' in exactly the same way as do the inhabitants of Ocracoke Island.5And really, in Appalachia, everyone is cousins with everyone else.6Phonetic interpretation added by PBS, from this linked website.

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