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from sea to shining sea
rolling hills of north carolina

Sounds of the South
Thoughts on southern speech

Dahling
Tracking R sounds in the movies over 50 years

They Speak 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 Southern, tracing the history and geography of dialects in American speech.  Read Full Essay.

Rful Southern varieties of American English are spoken over a large and increasingly populous area from the Virginia Piedmont down to North Florida and westward to Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Speakers of these varieties pronounce a definite R sound wherever one appears in the written form, even at the end of a word. Also, in words like my, mine and sometimes might, there is a vowel that some linguists informally and fondly called ‘Confederate A’, which makes my sound something like Ma. You can hear it in the speech of many performers of country music.

In the earliest-settled coastal areas of British North America, the R-dropping (Rless) speech varieties of Southeastern England were heavily represented. In the American South, much of the coastal plain (and later, the Mississippi delta) was dominated by the plantation system. In these varieties, R after a vowel is often dropped, so that bar sounds something like Bah.

When the tide of settlement began to swell into the uplands and mountains beyond the coastal plain, many of the newcomers were from northern and western Britain (the Scots-Irish) and also from German-speaking parts of Europe. They created the small towns and small farms of the Inland South. Their British dialects did not drop final Rs. Consequently, over almost the entire nation, Northern and Southern varieties of American speech still sound final Rs. For the electronic media emerging just before World War II, the choice of a broadcast ‘standard’ pronunciation agreeing with Rful Northern was easy to justify, given its seemingly durable national plurality of speakers.

Why then does the cultural importance of Rful Southern now extend far beyond its geographic base? Because for some time it, not Rful Northern, has in fact been the native variety of a plurality of Americans. It is the prevailing dialect of the US Army, of NASCAR racing, and of country music, whose performers are expected to imitate it unless they are native speakers such as Dolly Parton. It is popularly associated with the thriving Redneck subculture, as expertly lampooned by comedian Jeff Foxworthy. To understand the basis of its growing influence in American culture and society, we need only look at major regional population (and economic) shifts toward the Sunbelt, especially strong since the World War II.

Regional Population 1900 1930 2000

Northeast & Midwest 61% 59% 38%

South & West 39% 41% 62%

Total (Millions) 76.0 122.8 281.4

Over the past century, then, the main Northern dialect groups have lost about 20 percent of their share in the ever-growing population, and the Southern and Western dialects, mostly the inland Rful group, have gained about 20 percent. The ongoing Sunbelt shift, which has vast implications for the nation’s economic and demographic future, has already moved the Rful Southern type of American speech ahead of Inland Northern as the ‘typical’ American dialect. The South by itself now has a population of more than 100 million, the largest of the four Census regions. In time, after the usual cultural lag, Rful Southern will be accepted as Standard American speech. In the media, it is already well on the way.

Terms

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 usual treatment of R after a vowel and before a consonant or before a pause in speaking. Rful varieties are those where American R is normally sounded in such cases; Rless varieties are those where it is usually dropped or greatly reduced in such cases.


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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