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videoJohn Fought discusses the dialect with Robert MacNeil

Sounds of the South
Thoughts on Southern speech

Tracking R sounds in the movies over 50 years

They Speak Really Bad English Down South and in New York City
Some Southerns buy into negative stereotypes about their speech

Additional Resources
American Varieties Index

American Varieties

Rful Southern

Starting with the Coast
John Fought explains why so many Americans now speak Suthin’, tracing the history and geography of dialects in American speech. Read Summary

Most Americans can tell a “Southern accent” from the speech patterns of other regions. Among many sound features recognized as Southern, one in particular stands out: a distinctive pronunciation of the vowel in words such as my, high, light and nine. In the North and West, words such as these have a -y glide after the vowel; in the South, this -y offglide is missing some or all of the time, leading to dialect spellings such as ma,mah and so on. Some dialectologists affectionately term this vowel “Confederate A.” It is also heard sometimes in speech from areas next to the Old South, such as Oklahoma, southern Iowa, and farther west.

Regional differences in how we pronounce R sounds are another important feature of American English dialects. Studies of American dialect geography show that R before a vowel, in words such as red, bread, raw, around, is pronounced in much the same way all over the country. Likewise, in most of the United States, in words with an R before a consonant (or before a pause at the end of a word or phrase), for example in card, fire, fork, turn, the R sounds are also pronounced. But in a number of relatively small areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, R before a consonant or pause is “dropped.” That is, speakers lengthen the preceding vowel sound. These zones of what linguists sometimes call Rless or R-dropping dialects are found in Eastern New England, including Boston (paahk the caah); in New York City, and in pockets along the coastal plains of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and the Florida panhandle.

Why do Bostonians drop the r ?

Where did the “Confederate A” come from? Why do Bostonians drop the r? The answers lie deep in our past.

These coastal plains were areas of early European settlement; except for New York City and New Orleans, their early settlers came mainly from the Rless areas of Southeastern England , where both prestigious and popular speech varieties had become Rless shortly before emigration began. In America, some of the aura of the Rless English prestige dialect clung to such speech through its association with the influential proprietors of the Southern plantation agricultural system and with the metropolitan speech of large Northern seaboard cities. For a long time, however, the perceived status of American Rless dialects has been paradoxical, evoking both negative and positive stereotypes.

Putting Dialect on the Map

To understand how the coastal southern Rless zones formed, we must look at the early history of their European settlement. The prime farmland of the tidewater zone of the South was mostly occupied by 1750. This was the first American zone of plantation agriculture, where farmers first grew commercial crops of rice, indigo, tobacco, and (later on) cotton. Most of these crops required plenty of water for cultivation and for transportation to market. Such pockets along the Southern coastal zone and its rivers fostered a plantation system of large-scale, capital-intensive farming, soon dominated by slave labor, in zones with rich soil, rainfall and waterways. Along the geological break between the coastal plain and the higher piedmont to its west, the rivers have rapids or waterfalls forming the Fall Line, a barrier to easy water transport of bulk cargo. This Fall Line, together with differences in soil type, made it disadvantageous to operate plantations in much of the inland zone.

AAVE has the greatest number of speakers of any variety of Rless Southern

What does this have to do with language? Differences between the agriculture of the coastal and inland zones came to be matched by other cultural differences. Where the plantation system and its wealthy proprietors dominated, there was also a large slave population, sometimes a majority. Millions of slave descendents, although now unevenly dispersed throughout the United States, retain a vernacular speech that is Rless and Southern in its vowel system. This variety, known as African American Vernacular English, has by far the greatest number of speakers of any variety of Rless Southern.

Immigration continued to shape our language. Starting about 1750 and continuing for more than a century, Scots Irish speakers of Rful dialects from northern and western Britain emigrated to America in growing numbers for political and economic reasons. By that time, tidewater areas and their port cities along the Southern coasts had been colonized and their farmlands taken up. Newly arriving British Northerners, who had left family subsistence farms and small towns, found open land that suited them in the uplands of the piedmont and along the valleys and streams of the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains. Many of them entered America through the port of Philadelphia, in that early period the largest and busiest in the nation. Most of them moved inland west and southwest, following the rivers that were then the arteries of inland transportation. Their part of the South was settled, in a sense, from behind.

Continuing migration helped to fill in the Inland South, extending it beyond the Mississippi to Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and beyond. Dialect maps show how language features traveled with the new Americans, taking Inland Southern down the major rivers. A pioneering article by Raven McDavid, a great American dialect scholar brings these two layers of cultural history together as they shaped the basic patterns of coastal and inland agriculture, speech and politics in South Carolina.


country singers

Over the past century, it appears, the Rful inland varieties of both Northern and Southern speech have continued to gain population and influence not only within their own primary areas, but also at the expense of the Rless coastal varieties. The changing pattern of economic concentration within the country may be driving this shift. Whatever the reason, the cultural importance of Rful Southern now extends far beyond its old upland geographic base. It has long been the prevailing dialect of the military services (except possibly for the Navy), of NASCAR and other auto sports, and of country music, whose performers are expected to imitate it unless they are native speakers, as is Dolly Parton. Rful Southern is naturally associated with the thriving “Redneck” subculture so expertly lampooned by the comedian Jeff Foxworthy, also a native speaker of Rful Southern. In many parts of the country outside its large home territory, even where it is not the dominant dialect, it is strongly represented. Although it is hard to be sure, it seems that not long ago, Rful Southern overtook Rful Northern as the variety of American English spoken by the greatest number of people.

To understand the basis of its growing influence in American culture and society, we need only look at major regional population (and economic) shifts to the Sunbelt, which have been especially strong since World War II.

Regional Population 1900 1930 2000

Total Population (Millions) 76.0 122.8 281.4

Northeast & Midwest 61% 59% 38%

South & West 39% 41% 62%

Over the past century, the main Northern dialect groups have lost about 20 percent of their share in the ever-growing population. Southern and Western dialects, including the inland Rful group, have gained about 20 percent. The South by itself now has a population of more than 100 million people, the largest of the four Census regions. If we add Rful Southern speakers from parts of other adjoining states where speech is often perceived as “Southern,” this might shift another 10 million speakers from the Northern to the Southern count.

In time, as the Sunbelt shift continues (allowing for the usual cultural lag), we should expect Rful Southern to become accepted as Standard American speech, even if this is not always true today. One might begin to trace the cultural shift thus far through changing attitudes toward Rful Southern speech. Consider the growth in the size and spread of the audience for Country Music and the diversification of the genre itself. The genre began with regional performers singing in their native accent at live venues and on regional radio broadcasts. Like jazz and the blues, it has grown into an international style with an international audience. Among the international performers are a number of singers whose native language is not English, who imitate Inland Southern. The roster of participants and the audience for most types of car racing is also dominated by speakers of Inland Southern.

Power of the Media?

A common misperception is that TV will make us all sound alike

National distribution systems for voice media were first developed in the 1930s. First came the motion picture production and distribution syndicates, followed by national radio and television networks that encouraged their performers to use standardized pronunciations. There is a common misperception that the advent of these media led to a homogenization of American English. But much diversity remains: we learn the foundations of our language before mass media play a major role in our lives. It is surely significant that the emergence of early media standards did not cause America’s decentralized, locally controlled school systems to make any serious efforts to define and impose national standards of pronunciation — as is common in many European educational systems.

What's more, the brief and partial emergence of media standards appears to have been different in sound films and in broadcasting. Silent films (all that was possible until 1929) were at first a natural extension of the well-developed industry of theater and vaudeville. For decades, films drew on those resources, which may help to explain the very noticeable stagy diction, much of it at least Rless Northern if not quite British, heard in many early sound films.

This stage style steadily gave way to more relaxed American pronunciations (and acting styles). A careful study by Nancy C. Elliott of a sample of American actors in American films made from the 1930s through the 1970s shows a steady decline in the average rates of R-dropping, from about 60 percent in the 1930s to zero percent in the 1970s. Even individual performers with long careers modified their pronunciation over time. In this, broadcasting seems to have been different from films. Due to limited technology, radio broadcasting originally only reached local listeners, and regional varieties of speech were commonly heard over the airwaves. (Even now, we often hear local speech varieties in local newscasts; even more so in local commercials.) However, once national radio networks came into being, their central offices adopted network-wide pronunciation standards for employees to use on the air. These standards came to be based on the speech of the Inland Northeast and the Northern Midwest regions, whose dialect group, Inland Northern, had a plurality of speakers in America by the 1930s.

Rless Southern and Rless Northern are losing ground…Rful varieties are gaining

It is hard to forecast the pace and extent of the changes in usage, let alone language attitudes and expectations, that lie ahead. It is clear, however, that for generations both Rless Southern and Rless Northern speech have been losing ground and that Rful varieties have been gaining. It may be that in practical terms, we already have a well-established dual standard of Rless Northern and Rless Southern, each dominant in its own region, and each accepted outside it. If this is not yet so, it seems very likely that soon it will be. Time will tell if Inland Southern will continue to grow in geographic and social importance until it becomes the new “General American” variety.


American R: a special vowel sound with lip-rounding, raising or curling back of the tip of the tongue, and raising of the back of the tongue.

Rful, Rless: these informal terms refer to the dropping or retention of R after a vowel and before a consonant or before a pause in speaking.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Elliott, Nancy C. 'A Study in the Rhoticity of American Film Actors.' Voice and Speech Review. 2000.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • McDavid, Raven. 'Postvocalic R in South Carolina: A social analysis' American Speech 23 (1948):194-203. Reprinted: Dell Hymes, ed., Language in Culture and Society: A reader in linguistics and anthropology, New York: Harper & Row, 1964; A. S. Dil, ed., Varieties of American English: Essays by Raven McDavid, Jr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.
John G. Fought, now an independent scholar, was an Associate Professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and has also taught at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and at Pomona College. He written on modern Mayan , Chorti (Mayan) Texts I, University of (Pennsylvania Press, 1972) and on the history of American linguistics Leonard Bloomfield: Assessments of Leading Linguists, (Routledge, 1999), and, with Dell Hymes, American Structuralism, (Mouton, 1981). He has studied and taught American regional and social dialectology for many years.
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