Southern American English is a group of dialects of the English language spoken throughout the Southern region of the United States, from the southern extremities of Maryland, as well as most of West Virginia and Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, and from the Atlantic coast to most of Texas and Oklahoma. The Southern dialects make up the largest accent group in the United States. Southern American English can be divided into several regional sub-dialects. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has common points with Southern dialects due to the strong historical ties of African Americans to the region.
Approximate extent of Southern American English, based upon multiple dialect studies.
The merger of pin and pen in Southern American English. In the purple areas, the merger is complete for most speakers. Note the exclusion of the New Orleans area, Southern Florida, and of Georgia's and South Carolina's "Low Country" area. The purple area in California consists of the Bakersfield and Kern County area, where migrants from the south-central states settled during the Dust Bowl. There is also debate whether or not Austin, Texas is an exclusion. Based on Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:68).
Overview of Southern Dialects
The Southern dialects collectively known as Southern American English stretch across the southeastern and south-central United States, but exclude the southernmost areas of Florida and the extreme western and south-western parts of Texas as well as the Rio Grande Valley (Laredo to Brownsville). This linguistic region includes Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as most of Texas, Florida, Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
Southern dialects originated in large part from immigrants from the British Isles who moved to the South in the 17th and 18th centuries. Settlement also included large numbers of Protestants from Ulster, Ireland, and from Scotland. Upheavals such as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II caused mass migrations of those and other settlers throughout the United States.
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Few generalizations can be made about Southern pronunciation as there is great variation between the regions of the South (see the different southern American English dialects section below for more information), between older and younger people, and between people of different ethnic backgrounds.
The following features are characteristic of older SAE:
Lack of yod-dropping, thus pairs like do/due and toon/tune are distinct. Historically, words like due, lute, and new contained a diphthong similar to /juː/ (as RP still does), but Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:53–54) report that the only Southern speakers who make a distinction today use a diphthong /ɪu/ in such words. They further report that speakers with the distinction are found primarily in North Carolina and northwest South Carolina, and in a corridor extending from Jackson to Tallahassee.
The distinction between /ær/, /ɛr/, and /er/ in marry, merry, and Mary is preserved by some older speakers, but few young people make a distinction. The r-sound may be elided after a long vowel, as it often is in AAVE.
The following phenomena are relatively wide spread in Newer SAE, though the extent of these features varies across regions and between rural and urban areas. The older the speaker, the less likely he or she is to display these features:
The merger of [ɛ] and [ɪ] before nasal consonants, so that pen and pin are pronounced the same, but the pin–pen merger is not found in New Orleans, Savannah, or Miami (which does not fall within the Southern dialect region). This sound change has spread beyond the South in recent decades and is now found in parts of the Midwest and West as well.
Lax and tense vowels often neutralize before /l/, making pairs like feel/fill and fail/fell homophones for speakers in some areas of the South. Some speakers may distinguish between the two sets of words by reversing the normal vowel sound, e.g., feel in SAE may sound like fill, and vice versa.
Mean formant values for the ANAE subjects (Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:?)) from the Southern U.S. (excluding Florida and Charleston, SC). The red symbol marks the position of monophthongized /aɪ/ before voiced consonants. The distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ is preserved mainly because /ɔ/ has an upglide. /eɪ/ is backer and lower than /ɛ/.
The following features are also associated with one or more dialects of SAE:
The diphthong /aɪ/ becomes monophthongized to [aː]:
Most speakers exhibit this feature at the ends of words and before voiced consonants but not before voiceless consonants; some in fact exhibit Canadian-style raising before voiceless consonants, so that ride is [raːd] and wide is [waːd], but right is [rəɪt] and white is [ʍəɪt]. Some speakers throughout the South exhibit backing to [ɑːe] in environments where monophthongization does not take place.
Others monophthongize /aɪ/ in all contexts, as in the stereotyped pronunciation "nahs whaht rahs" for nice white rice; these speakers are mostly found in an Appalachian area that includes eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and Northern Alabama (the "Inland South"), as well as in Central Texas. Elsewhere in the South, this pronunciation is stigmatized as a working class feature.
The "Southern Drawl", breaking of the short front vowels in the words "pat", "pet", and "pit": these develop a glide up from their original starting position to [j], and then in some cases back down to schwa: /æ/ → [æjə]; /ɛ/ → [ɛjə]; /ɪ/ → [ɪjə].
The "Southern Shift", a chain shift following on as a result of the Southern Drawl: the nuclei of /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ move to become higher and fronter, so that, for example, instead of [ɛjə], /ɛ/ becomes a tenser /ejə/. This process is most common in heavily stressed syllables. At the same time, the nuclei of the traditional front upgliding diphthongs are relaxed: /i/ moves towards [ɪi] and /eɪ/ moves towards [ɛi] or even lower and/or more retracted.
The back vowels /u/ in boon and /oʊ/ in code shift considerably forward.
The distinction between the vowels sounds of words like caught and cot or stalk and stock is mainly preserved. In much of the South, the vowel found in words like stalk and caught has developed into a diphthong [ɑɒ], although some words like all may be pronounced with an unrounded vowel [ɑːɫ].
The nucleus of /ɑr/ card is often rounded to [ɒr].
/z/ becomes [d] before /n/, for example [wʌdn̩t] wasn't, [bɪdnɪs] business, but hasn't is sometimes still pronounced [hæzənt] because there already exists a word hadn't pronounced [hædənt].
Many nouns are stressed on the first syllable that would be stressed on the second syllable in other accents. These include police, cement, Detroit, Thanksgiving, insurance, behind, display, hotel/motel, recycle, TV, guitar, July, and umbrella.
The distinction between /ɜr/ and /ʌr/ in furry and hurry is preserved.
In some regions of the south, there is a merger of [ɔr] and [ɑr], making cord and card, for and far, form and farm etc. homonyms.
The distinction between /ɪr/ and /ɪər/ in mirror and nearer, Sirius and serious etc. is not preserved.
The distinction between /ʊər/ and /ɔr/ in poor and pour, moor and more is not preserved.
The l's in the words walk and talk are occasionally pronounced, causing the words talk and walk to be pronounced /wɑlk/ and /tɑlk/ by some Southerners. A sample of that pronunciation can be found at http://www.utexas.edu/courses/linguistics/resources/socioling/talkmap/talk-nc.html.
Some older speakers have a phenomenon that resembles the trap–bath split. Where General American accents prescribe /æ/ and considerably liberal accents have /ɑː/, Southern American English may have a new vowel diphthong /æɪ/, as in aunt /æɪnt/ and gas /ɡæɪs/.
Zero copula in third person plural and second person. This is historically a consequence of R-dropping, with e.g. you're merging with you.
You [Ø] taller than Louise.
They [Ø] gonna leave today (Cukor-Avila, 2003).
Use of the circumfix a- . . . -in'.
He was a-hootin' and a-hollerin'.
The wind was a-howlin'.
The use of like to to mean nearly; lacked to merging into like to
I like to had a heart attack. (I likened to have had a heart attack)
I like (lack) one more having a dozen.
The use of the simple past infinitive vs present perfect infinitive.
I like to had. vs I lacked to have had.
We were supposed to went. vs We were supposed to have gone.
Use of "yonder" as a locative.
They done gathered a mess of raspberries in them woods yonder.
Frequency of either "Y'all" or "You all" to address multiple people, according to an Internet survey of American dialect variation.
Frequency of just "Y'all" to address multiple people, according to an Internet survey of American dialect variation.
Use of the contraction y'all as the second person plural pronoun. Its uncombined form – you all – is used less frequently.
When addressing a group, y'all is general (I know y'all) and is used to address the group as a whole, whereas all y'all is used to emphasize specificity of each and every member of the group ("I know all y'all.") The possessive form of Y'all is created by adding the standard "-'s".
"I've got y'all's assignments here." /ˈjɔːlz/
Y'all is distinctly separate from the singular you. The statement "I gave y'all my payment last week," is more precise than "I gave you my payment last week." You (if interpreted as singular) could imply the payment was given directly to the person being spoken to – when that may not be the case.
Some people misinterpret the phrase "all y'all" as meaning that Southerners use the "y'all" as singular and "all y'all" as plural. However, "all y'all" is used to specify that all members of the second person plural (i.e., all persons currently being addressed and/or all members of a group represented by an addressee) are included; that is, it operates in contradistinction to "some of y'all," thereby functioning similarly to "all of you" in standard English.
In rural Southern Appalachia an "n" is added to pronouns indicating "one" "his'n" "his one" "her'n" "her one" "Yor'n" "your one" i.e. "his, hers and yours". Another example is yernses. It may be substituted for the 2nd person plural possessive yours.
"That book is yernses." /ˈjɜrnzɨz/
Use of dove as past tense for dive, drug as past tense for drag, and drunk as past tense for drink.
These grammatical features are characteristic of both older Southern American English and newer Southern American English.
Use of done as an auxiliary verb between the subject and verb in sentences conveying the past tense.
I done told you before.
Use of done (instead of did) as the past simple form of do, and similar uses of the past participle in place of the past simple, such as seen replacing saw as past simple form of see.
I only done what you done told me.
I seen her first.
Use of other non-standard preterites, Such as drownded as the past tense of drown, knowed as past tense of know, choosed as the past tense of choose, degradated as the past tense of degrade.
I knowed you for a fool soon as I seen you.
Use of was in place of were, or other words regularizing the past tense of be to was.
You was sittin' on that chair.
Use of been instead of have been in perfect constructions.
I been livin' here darn near my whole life.
Use of double modals (might could, might should, might would, used to could, etc.--also called "modal stacking") and sometimes even triple modals that involve oughta (like might should oughta)
I might could climb to the top.
I used to could do that.
Preservation of older English me, him, etc. as reflexive datives.
I'm fixin' to paint me a picture.
He's gonna catch him a big one.
Saying this here in place of this or this one, and that there in place of that or that one.
This here's mine and that there is yours.
Use of (a-)fixin' to, or just "fixing to" in more modern SAE, to indicate immediate future action in place of intending to, preparing to, or about to.
He's fixin' to eat.
They're fixing to go for a hike.
Existential It, a feature dating from Middle English which can be explained as substituting it for there when there refers to no physical location, but only to the existence of something.
It's one lady that lives in town.
Use of ever in place of every.
Ever'where's the same these days.
Use of "over yonder" in place of "over there" or "in or at that indicated place," especially to refer to a particularly different spot, such as in "the house over yonder." Additionally, "yonder" tends to refer to a third, larger degree of distance beyond both "here" and "there," indicating that something is a longer way away, and to a lesser extent, in an open expanse, as in the church hymn "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder."
What is commonly referred to as a "southern accent" in the United States may be one of the most distinguishable regional accents within the country. However, contrary to popular belief, there is no single "Southern accent". Instead, there are a number of sub-regional dialects found across the Southern United States, collectively known as Southern American English. Yet these dialects often share features of accent and idiom that easily distinguish them from the English spoken in other regions of the United States, features that identify those dialects as "Southern", particularly to other Americans. Although people in the Southern United States speak different "Southern" dialects, they can understand one another, as can, on a broader scale, residents of the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Virginia Piedmont dialect is possibly the most famous of Southern dialects because of its strong influence on speech patterns of the South. Because the dialect has long been associated with the upper or aristocratic plantation class in the Old South, many of the most important figures in Southern history spoke with a Virginia Piedmont accent. Virginia Piedmont is non-rhotic, meaning speakers pronounce "R" only if it is followed by a vowel. The dialect also features the Southern drawl (mentioned above).
Coastal Southern resembles Virginia Piedmont but has preserved more elements from the colonial era dialect than the dialects of almost all other regions of the United States. Coastal Southern can be found along the coasts of the Chesapeake and the Atlantic in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. It is most prevalent in the Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, areas. Like Virginia Piedmont, Coastal Southern is non-rhotic.
Midland and Highland
South Midland or Highland Southern
This dialect arose in the inland areas of the South. The area was settled largely by Scots-Irish, Scottish Highlanders, Northern and Western English, Welsh, and Germans.
This dialect's northern boundary follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moves from Kentucky, across far southern Missouri and Oklahoma, and tapers out in western Texas. This dialect is used by some people in Southern Illinois, Southern Ohio and Southern Indiana. It has assimilated some coastal Southern forms, most noticeably the loss of the diphthong /aj/, which becomes /aː/, and the second person plural pronoun "you-all" or "y'all". Unlike Coastal Southern, however, South Midland is a rhotic dialect, pronouncing /r/ wherever it has historically occurred.
The dialect of Oklahoma, for example, is a mixture of Midland American English and South Midland Southern American English. Native Americans in Indian Territory used Southern dialect forms, while white settlers who arrived in Oklahoma Territory from the Midwest in the late 19th century brought more Midland forms.
Main article: Appalachian English
Due to the former isolation of some regions of the Appalachian South, the Appalachian accent may be difficult for some outsiders to understand. This dialect is also rhotic, meaning speakers pronounce "R"s wherever they appear in words, and sometimes when they do not (for example "worsh" for "wash.") Because of the extensive length of the mountain chain, noticeable variation also exists within this subdialect.
The Southern Appalachian dialect can be heard, as its name implies, in North Georgia, North Alabama, East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, Western Maryland, and West Virginia. Southern Appalachian speech patterns, however, are not entirely confined to the mountain regions previously listed.
Almost always, the common thread in the areas of the South where a rhotic version of the dialect is heard is a traceable line of descent from Scots or Scots-Irish ancestors amongst its speakers. The dialect is also not devoid of early influence from Welsh settlers, the dialect retaining the Welsh English tendency to pronounce words beginning with the letter "h" as though the "h" were silent; for instance "humble" often is rendered "umble".
Researchers have noted that the dialect retains a lot of vocabulary with roots in Scottish "Elizabethan English" owing to the make-up of the early European settlers to the area.
Gulf of Mexico
Gulf Southern and Mississippi Delta
This area of the South was settled by English speakers moving west from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas, along with French settlers from Louisiana (see the section below). This accent is common in Mississippi, northern Louisiana, Arkansas, western Tennessee, and East Texas, roughly covering the Mississippi Embayment. Familiar speakers include Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Dialects found in Georgia and Alabama that are not Southern Appalachian have characteristics of both the Gulf Southern dialect and the Virginia Piedmont/Coastal Southern dialect.
This dialect is found throughout several regions of Florida and in south Georgia. Several variations of the dialect are found in Florida. From Pensacola to Tallahassee, the dialect is non-rhotic and shares many characteristics with the speech patterns of southern Alabama. Another form of the dialect is spoken in northeast Florida, Central Florida, the Nature Coast and even in rural parts of South Florida. This dialect was made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' book The Yearling.
The accents of southern and central Louisiana, while considered Southern, are diverse. Many dialects are unique to the region.
Main article: Cajun French
Southern Louisiana, southeast Texas (Houston to Beaumont), and coastal Mississippi, feature a number of dialects. There is Cajun French, which combines elements of Acadian French with other French and Spanish words. This dialect is spoken by many of the older members of the Cajun ethnic group and is said to be dying out. Many younger Cajuns speak Cajun English, which retains Acadian French influences and words, such as "cher" (dear) or "nonc" (uncle). The French language can also still be heard in some parts of southern Louisiana.
Main article: Louisiana Creole French
Louisiana Creole French (Kreyol Lwiziyen) is a French-based creole language spoken in Louisiana. It has many resemblances to other French creoles in the Caribbean - particularly in the French West Indies (Guadeloupe, Martinique, ect). While Cajun French and Louisiana Creole have had a significant influence on each other, they are unrelated. While Cajun is basically a French dialect with a grammar similar to that of standard French, Louisiana Creole applies a French lexicon to a system of grammar and syntax that differs considerably from French grammar.
Main article: Yat (New Orleans)
This dialect is spoken in and around the greater New Orleans area. It is referred to as Yat, from phrases such as "Where y'at?" (for "Where are you?") Additionally, many unique terms such as "neutral ground" for the median of a divided street (Louisiana/Southern Mississippi) or "banquette" for a sidewalk (Southern Louisiana/Eastern Texas) are found here.
The following dialects were influenced by African languages.
Main article: Gullah language
Sometimes called Geechee, this creole language originated with African American slaves on the coastal areas and coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The dialect was used to communicate with both Europeans and members of African tribes other than their own. Gullah was strongly influenced by West African languages such as Vai, Mende, Twi, Ewe, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Kikongo. The name and chorus of the Christian hymn "Kumbaya" is said to be Gullah for come by here. Other English words attributed to Gullah are juke (jukebox), goober (Southern term for peanut) and voodoo. In a 1930's study by Lorenzo Dow Turner, over 4,000 words from many different African languages were discovered in Gullah. Other words, such as yez for ears, are just phonetic spellings of English words as pronounced by the Gullahs, on the basis of influence from Southern and Western English dialects.
African American Vernacular English
Main article: African American Vernacular English
This type of Southern American English originated in the Southern States where Africans were at that time held as slaves. These slaves originally spoke indigenous African languages but eventually picked up English to communicate with their masters and one another. Since the slave masters spoke Southern American English, that is the dialect of English the slaves learned. Over time, the form of SAE spoken by these slaves developed into what is now African American Vernacular English, which retains many SAE features. While the African slaves and their descendants lost most of their language and culture, some vocabulary and grammatical features from indigenous West African languages remain in AAVE. While AAVE may also be spoken by members of other ethnic groups, it is largely spoken by and associated with blacks in many parts of the U.S. AAVE is considered by a number of English speakers to be a substandard dialect. As a result, AAVE speakers who seek social mobility typically learn to code-switch between AAVE and a more standardized English dialect. Liberian English is said to be at least partially based on AAVE, since that dialect of English was modeled after American English and not British English.
External Links And Readings
Old Virginia accent
Regional vocabularies of American English
U.S. dialect map
Glossary of Southernisms by Dr. Robert Beard
Southern Accent Tutorial, with Voices of Native Speakers