Sounds of the South
Thoughts on southern speech
Tracking R sounds in the movies over 50 years
Speak Bad English Down South and in New York City
Some southerns buy into negative stereotypes about their speech
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.
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.
Rless: these informal terms refer to
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.
William and Flora Hewlett
© COPYRIGHT 2005 MACNEIL/LEHRER PRODUCTIONS. All Rights Reserved.