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American Varieties

Sounds of the South

Southern American
The good news: It’s widely known. The bad news: Known for what? Guy Bailey and Jan Tillery report on the pluses and minuses of Southern American English in the popular imagination. (The research cited in this essay was first published in 2000.)

Southern American English (SAE) is the most widely recognized regional dialect of American English, but as most of its speakers know, widespread recognition is a mixed blessing. SAE is also the regional dialect that is most negatively evaluated. In a recent study of folk beliefs about American dialects, Dennis Preston (1996) found that 90% of his respondents from Michigan and Indiana and 96% of those from South Carolina recognized SAE as a distinct variety of American English. Both the Michigan and Indiana respondents, however, also evaluated SAE as the most “incorrect” variety of American English (New York City speech was the only serious competitor), and the South Carolina respondents were ambivalent about its correctness as well.

The widespread recognition and negative evaluation of SAE can have practical consequences for its users that in some cases include negative stereotyping and linguistic discrimination, just as with African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics. While SAE almost never generates the extreme reactions and extensive prejudice that AAVE often does, its users can anticipate at least polite (and often not so polite) condescension to their speech by non-Southerners. In spite of its low status outside of the South and of standardizing forces such as interregional migration and universal education that threaten many minority languages and dialects, SAE continues to persist.

Some Features of Southern American English

Misunderstandings of what comprises SAE are widespread

Misunderstandings about what comprises SAE are almost as widespread as the recognition of its distinctiveness. These misunderstandings in large part have been fueled by media portrayals in movies such as Gone With the Wind and in television shows such as The Dukes of Hazard that presented grossly exaggerated and inaccurate stereotypes of SAE. More recent portrayals in television shows such as Designing Women, Evening Shade, and Grace Under Fire are more accurate, but their effect on the public knowledge of SAE is unclear.

Traditionally, SAE differed from other varieties of American English in some of its lexical, grammatical, and phonological features, but many of the lexical differences, which were rooted in an agrarian economy and a traditional society, have begun to disappear. For instance, most younger Southerners are as likely to use green beans as snapbeans and are more likely to use dragon fly than either snake doctor or mosquito hawk. Just as these book terms have replaced the older folk terms with the advent of universal education, a significant part of the regional vocabulary associated with farm life has become obsolete as the artifacts to which they refer have disappeared. Few Southerners under 50 know what a singletree is (it is the bar of wood on a wagon to which the traces are attached) or have heard the term dogtrot used for a type of house (usually a two room house with an open hall down the middle). Many of the distinctive grammatical and phonological features of SAE still persist, however.

“I'm fixin to eat breakfast” means that I intend to eat breakfast in the next little while

Some of the grammatical differences between SAE and other varieties are well known. For example, most Americans immediately recognize you-all and yall as distinctively Southern second person pronouns, and many would know that fixin to, as in "I'm fixin to eat breakfast," is Southern as well. The latter represents a modification of the English auxiliary system that enables Southerners to encode an aspectual distinction grammatically that must be encoded lexically elsewhere: “I'm fixin to eat breakfast” means that I intend to eat breakfast in the next little while.

Other grammatical features are less widely known but are no less important. SAE also modifies the English auxiliary system by allowing for the use of more than one modal in a verb phrase. For instance, for most Southerners “I might could leave work early today” is a grammatically acceptable sentence. It translates roughly as “I might be able to leave work early,” but might could conveys a greater sense of tentativeness than might be able does. The use of multiple modals provides Southerners with a politeness strategy not available in other regional dialects. Although no generally agreed upon list of acceptable multiple modals exists, the first modal in the sequence must be might or may, while the second is usually could, can, would, will,should, or oughta. In addition, SAE allows at least one triple modal option (might shouldoughta) and permits useta to precede a modal as well (e.g., “I useta could do that”).

All three of these grammatical features remain robust in SAE, and migrants to the South from other parts of the country often appropriate both yall and fixin to. Multiple modals, on the other hand, are typically used only by native Southerners. Most of the phonological features of SAE are also typically used only by natives.

The most widely recognized phonological features of SAE are the merger of the vowels in words like pen and pin or ten and tin (the vowel in both words has the sound of the second member of the pair) and the loss of the offglide of the /ai/ diphthong in words like hide (so that it sounds like hahd). SAE is also characterized by a series of vowel rotations that William Labov (1993) has called the “Southern Shift.”  Describing the shift would require an extensive technical phonetic descriptions of SAE vowels, but people can hear its most important feature simply by listening to Bill Clinton’s pronunciation of the vowel in way or stayed.  The beginning of the vowel (which is a diphthong in SAE) will sound something like the vowel in father. Vowel differences such as these are hard to describe in non-technical terms, but they are what makes people immediately recognizable as speakers of SAE -- long before a might could, fixin to, or yall crops up in their speech.

Change and Persistence in SAE

Much of the research on SAE has focused on its relationship to British regional dialects

Much of the research on SAE has focused on its relationship to British regional dialects -- on what many linguists see as its roots. This focus is primarily a result of the assumptions that American regional dialects are a reflex of settlement history and that they were formed during the colonial period. Recent research on SAE, though, suggests that both assumptions are inadequate. A case in point is the pen/pin merger. This merger occurred in the American South at least as early as the second quarter of the 19th century (see Brown 1991), but it occurred in only a relatively small segment of the population. During the last quarter of the 19th century, however, the pen/pin merger began to spread rapidly throughout the South until by World War II virtually all Southerners had the merger. This same 50 year period also saw the emergence and spread of the lost offglide in /ai/ and of the distinctive vowel pronunciation in words like way.  Moreover, during this time grammatical features such as fixin to and yall also expanded rapidly. general store, alabama

The diffusion of these features after 1875, after the initial settlement of the South, may seem odd, but demographic and socioeconomic developments of this era suggest why these features may have begun to spread when they did. In The Promise of the New South, Edward L. Ayers points out that during the last quarter of the 19th century the emergence of stores, villages, and towns and a dramatic expansion of the rail system set in motion a process of urbanization that would ultimately reshape the region. In 1860 less than one in ten Southerners lived in urban areas (communities with populations of 2500 or more), and only 21 towns from Virginia westward through Texas had populations of 5000 or more. By 1900 the urban population of the South had doubled, and it doubled again by the onset of World War II. What seems to have happened linguistically is that migration to towns and cities created contact among dialects that were formerly local and insular, and as a result, features that were relatively restricted in occurrence began either to spread out or disappear. The parallel processes of diffusion and extinction eliminated many local vernaculars but at the same time gave rise to the larger regional dialect known today as SAE. Vestiges of some local vernaculars still persist among older residents of insular communities, as the work of Wolfram and his associates shows, but among younger Southerners they have all but disappeared.

Demographic developments since World War II raise some interesting questions about future prospects for SAE. The urbanization that began before World War II expanded dramatically during and after the war, but with some significant differences. Before World War II people in Southern towns and cities came from the surrounding countryside, and most industry involved low wage, manual labor operations such as cotton mills and petroleum processing plants. After the war, and especially after 1970, migration to Southern cities was as likely to come from the North as the South, and new industries often included such things as the corporate headquarters of J.C. Penny and the Dell computer production facilities. In addition, in Texas, Florida, Virginia, and in large cities throughout the South, migration from outside the United States is now occurring at an astonishing rate.

The linguistic impact that the new arrivals from outside the South will have is not yet clear, but some trends are already becoming apparent. In Texas and Oklahoma and in many metropolitan areas around the South, some national linguistic trends such as the merger of the vowels in caught and cot (both sound like the latter) are emerging, and in several of the larger metropolitan areas (e.g., Dallas-Fort Worth and Memphis) some traditional Southern vowel features such as the distinctive pronunciation of the vowel in words like way are beginning to wane. Even as these developments take hold in metropolitan areas, however, traditional grammatical features such as yall and fixin to are spreading to non-Southerners migrating to the region. While the long-term linguistic consequences of the new developments are impossible to predict, it is apparent that SAE is continuing to evolve -- just as it has over the last century and a half. The extent to which the results of that evolution yield something that is recognizably “Southern” remains to be seen.

Reprinted courtesy: Language Magazine

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.
Guy Bailey is Provost and Executive Vice-President at the University of Texas at San Antonio and continues the work he began on Texas speech in the 1980s. A Texas native, Jan Tillery is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio who researches the dialects of Texas and Southern American English generally.
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