American Dialect: Southern Speech
Perhaps no American dialect is more famous or recognizable than the Southern dialect. It certainly covers the widest swath of territory of any of the variants on standard America speech.
First, let us dispense with the myth that Southerners speak with a purer form of English, one that is closer to Elizabethan English and the language of Shakespeare than any other dialect. Some Southerners love to tell tales of how Elizabethan English is preserved in the backwoods and hollows of the South, living relics of the original English settlers. Utter bunk. Southern speech is no closer to Elizabethan English than is Brooklynese or Australian. Sure, it shares some common features with Elizabethan English that are not found in other dialects, but it has just as much that is not in common with the language of Shakespeare.
Furthermore, the South is not a linguistically uniform region. It is much too large for that. There are variations on pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary within the region. But there are enough similarities in the speech of the region that we can deal with it as a single dialect with some minor regional variations.
The heart of the South stretches from Virginia to eastern Texas, and includes the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (although Louisiana has so many other influences and unique traits that we’ll deal with it in a separate article). But the Southern dialect extends further north and inland from these states, into the region known to linguists as the South Midlands or Upper South. This border region includes the Appalachian states of western North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas, as well as Maryland, eastern Oklahoma, Missouri, and the southern parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Some even place western Pennsylvania, centered on the Pittsburgh dialect, in the South Midlands.
Several areas of the South have all but lost the distinctive Southern speech patterns in recent years, most notably southern Florida. Northern accents are now dominant in South Florida, with Cuban and other Hispanic accents coming a close second. Northern Florida, however, still retains the Southern speech patterns. A smaller, but politically important, region that has lost its Southern speech patterns is Washington, DC and the surrounding suburbs of Maryland and Northern Virginia. Once linguistically part of the South, the influx of northerners and westerners in the post-WWII years has eradicated the native Southernisms. You do not have to go far from the city, however, to hear Southern speech patterns again. Travel the 60 or so miles to Baltimore to the north or Fredericksburg to the south and you will again hear Southernisms.
The Southern dialect is a non-Rhotic one, like that of New York or New England, dropping the /r/ sound after vowels. So in the South far becomes /fah/ and river becomes /rivuh/. This dropping of the Rs is much less common in the South Midlands, where the Rs tend to be pronounced. And the Midlands even goes a step further and adds an /r/ sound in words like wash, pronounced /warsh/, and the nation’s capital is pronounced /warshington/. And in the Appalachians, words that end in a long O are likely to have an /r/ added to the end. Hence hollow is pronounced /holler/ and meadow is /meder/.
Another consonant change occurs in one particular word, greasy. In the South, the /s/ sound is pronounced as a /z/, /greazy/. Strangely, the root noun grease is still pronounced with the /s/. This pronunciation of greasy extends well into the North, but it is centered in the South.
Southern speech also clips the /g/ sound from the suffix –ing. This is hardly unique to the South, but it is characteristic of the dialect.
The other pronunciation differences are chiefly in the vowel sounds. In the South, the long I sound becomes /ah/. Tire is pronounced /tahr/ and hide becomes /hahd/.
Also, the short E is pronounced as a short I. So, pen and pin are pronounced alike. This has given rise to the word inkpen, which Southerners use for the sake of clarity. Also, both these short vowels are lengthened or drawn out in Southern dialect. Pen is not pronounced simply as /pin/, but rather as /piy-un/. The drawing out also occurs with the short O. Hence dog is /daw-ug/.
Another vowel sound that is different is /oy/. In the South this becomes a long O when it is followed by an L. So, boy is pronounced /boy/, but boil becomes /bowl/. Similarly, the short O in the word on also becomes long, pronounced as /own/.
Southerners also have a habit of inserting a /y/ sound before /ew/. All Americans do this with some words, such as few, /fyew/, or music, /myewzic/, but Southerners do it generally when the vowel sound is followed by an /n/, /d/, or /t/. So, a Yankee would watch the evening news, but a Southerner watches the /nyews/, Duke University in North Carolina is /dyewk/ not /dook/, and the day of the week is /tyewsday/.
The Appalachians is home to several distinct pronunciations. People from this region often insert an a- in front of verbs, such as “He likes to go a-hunting.” Note that the a- is only used for verbs beginning with a consonant, ending in –ing, and that are accented on the first syllable. The a- is not used with gerunds. One would not say, “He enjoys a-hunting.”
Another insertion common to the region is an /h/ sound in it and ain’t, so they become /hit/ and /hain’t/.
Also in the Appalachians, the short A sound is often lengthened. Chance is pronounced /chaince/, for example.
The Southern dialect also has several distinct grammatical and syntactical formations. One is the use of multiple auxiliary verbs. In most of the United States, only one auxiliary verb (e.g., may, might, can, could, would) can be used with the main verb. But in the South, you are permitted to use as many as three. “I might should better try” and “you may might can get one” are legitimate sentence structures.
Also in the South, the word it is often used at the beginning of sentences where other speakers of English would use the word there. William Faulkner writes in Light in August, “It ain’t any human in this country going to dispute them hens with you.”
The South Midlands also has some distinct grammatical structures. In much of this region the verb to be is not required with the verbs needs and wants. Hence, “the car needs washed” and “the dog wants walked” are considered acceptable sentences.
Those from the Midlands also use the adverb anymore in a unique fashion. Throughout the English-speaking world, people use anymore in negative contexts such as, “he does not go there anymore.” But in the South Midlands, people will use it in a positive context, “he likes to go there anymore.”
Southern Words and Phrases
The premier Southernism is y’all. No other word characterizes Southern speech more than this one, which is why we lead off this section with it instead of placing at the end where it belongs alphabetically. Y’all is simply a contraction of you all and is used as a plural form of you. The contraction dates to the latter half of the 19th century, being found no earlier than 1886, although the full form you all has been a part of Southern speech since 1824. Some Southerners claim that y’all is actually a singular form and that to make the plural you must say y’allses or all y’all. Most however hold that it is a plural and y’all is never used to refer to one person, although a single person may be addressed as y’all if the reference is to a larger group (e.g., “How y’all doing?” is an inquiry about one’s family).
The following words and phrases can be found in Southern speech. If no particular state is listed, the term can be generally be found throughout the region.
Aim, v., is a Southern verb that means to plan, to intend. Formerly, it was used throughout the United States, but has fallen into disuse elsewhere.
Airish, adj., is another word that once was widespread, but is now chiefly found in the American South and in Scots. It means chilly or cool.
Arab, n., is a term for a street peddler or huckster in Baltimore.
Bad to, adj., means prone to, inclined, as in “he is bad to use whiskey.” Also found as bad for. (Appalachians, especially eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina)
Banker, n., to a North Carolinian does not mean someone who works in a bank. Rather it means a resident of the Outer Banks. The term dates to 1750.
Batter bread, n., is a Virginia term for cornbread made with eggs and milk. It is pronounced /baddy-bread/.
Bawlmer, prop. n., is the native pronunciation of Baltimore. Also Balamer.
Biggity, adj., means vain, haughty, self-important.
Blessing, n., is a reprimand, a scolding. It can also be used as a verb, to bless or to bless out means to scold.
Bog, n., is a rice dish. The name is usually formed with a type of meat that is mixed with rice, as in chicken bog or squirrel bog. (South Carolina)
Branch, n., is a small river or stream. The term dates to the 17th century and the early settlement of the Southern colonies. Hence branch water is water from a stream rather than a well.
Bucket, n., is a Southern word for a pail or water vessel that has become widespread throughout the United States. Of course it is not exclusively Southern, being found in many British works (including Shakespeare), but American usage was originally restricted to the South.
Butter bean, n., is what the rest of America calls a lima bean. The term dates from 1821.
Carry, v., means something different in the South than it does in the rest of the country. It means to escort, lead, or accompany. So the 1878 song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” is a request for a guide and companion on a journey home, not a request for a lift.
Cascade, v., means to vomit in South Carolina.
Case, adj., is a South Carolinian term for a single coin. A case quarter is a 25-cent piece, not two dimes and nickel. The etymology is unknown, but is perhaps from the idea that the value is in a single container or unit.
Chap, n., is a young child, or baby. Also chappie.
Chunk, v., means to throw or toss. It dates from 1834. The verb is from the noun meaning a block or lump of something. The noun chunk, in turn, is a variant of chuck, whose verb form also means to throw, only in the Northeast US.
Coke, n., can mean any carbonated beverage in the South, not just Coca-Cola. This generalized usage of the brand name is fairly recent, dating only to 1960 or so.
Come here, n., is a Virginia term for someone who moves into a community, as opposed to a native. The term is rather recent, dating to the mid-70s.
Cooter, n., is a type of freshwater turtle found in South Carolina and Georgia. It is pronounced with the short /oo/, as in cook.
Cowlick, n., is a lock of hair that is unruly or standing up, as if one’s head had been licked by a cow.
Curious, adj., is applied to persons in the South who are strange, odd, or eccentric.
Curl, n., is a nearly circular bend in a river (Virginia).
Dinner on the grounds, n., is an outdoor gathering, often connected with a church meeting, where food is brought and shared. Elsewhere it would be known as a covered dish or potluck meal. (Throughout the South, but especially Kentucky)
Dinner, n., in the South is served at midday. If the main meal of the day is served at the end of the afternoon it is called supper.
Directly, adv., is a Southern Janus word. That is it has two contradictory meanings. It can mean immediately, or it can mean after a while.
Doodly-squat, n., is a Southernism meaning something of little or no value. It is a euphemism.
Evening, n., like dinner, has different temporal sense in the South. Evening is synonymous with afternoon.
Fall off, v.phr., is a Southern term meaning to lose weight, especially as the result of an illness. In the Northeast US, this would be to fall away.
Feisty, adj., is Southern word meaning aggressive, touchy, or excitable. Feist is also used as a noun for a small dog. The term is from the archaic fist, meaning a fart or foul stench. The term was apparently applied as an epithet to curs and acquired the current meaning through association with the excitable nature of small dogs.
Fetch, v., is a word found chiefly in the South midlands meaning to get or retrieve.
Fix, v., to intend, to plan. To most Americans, fixing means to take physical measures to accomplish some goal, but to a Southerner, it means to have the intention of doing something. It dates to the first half of the 19th century.
Frogsticker, n., is a knife, especially one with a long blade. It is also known as a pigsticker or toadsticker.
Hey, int., word of greeting. Hey is originally a Southernism, but is no longer restricted to its place of origin in the Deep South, being found throughout the United States nowadays. This spread is a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as the 1950s, Alabama-born baseball player Willie Mays’s trademark greeting of ”Hey!” was considered such an oddity in New York that he became the “Say Hey” Kid.
Hollow, n., is a stream in a valley, or the valley itself. (Appalachians)
Hon, n., is a term of address used throughout the South and the entire United States for that matter. But it has a special association with the city of Baltimore where it is especially common and a term of civic pride.
Hopping John, n., is a dish traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day for good luck in South Carolina and Georgia. It consists of black-eyed peas, rice, and bacon. It is also known as happy Jack, happy John, and hop-in John. The name, and the dish, is probably from the French West Indies and is a mispronunciation of pois pigeon (pigeon peas).
Hull, n., is a word for eggshell in Georgia.
If’n, conj., is a Southern form of if. It is also spelled iffen, effen, and ef’n.
Jackleg, adj., is a Southern adjective meaning inept, unprofessional, or dishonest. It is usually applied to members of a particular occupation. You do not, for example, want to take your car to a jackleg mechanic. The term dates to 1837. It may be from an older term, a jackleg knife or jackknife, perhaps first applied to carpenters who used jackleg knives. Jackleg knife dates to 1786.
Least, adj., is used in the Appalachians to mean youngest or smallest. If you are the least child, you are the baby of the family.
Lightbread, n., is leavened bread, as opposed to biscuits. The term dates to 1821 and comes from the bread having risen. Its also known as loafbread in parts of the South, a term that is quite old, dating to 1650.
Like to, v.phr., is used by Southerners to denote something that almost happened but did not. “He liked to have died,” does not mean he is suicidal; it means that he had a brush with death. The usage dates to 1808.
Mango, n., is what they call a green pepper in the Midlands. The term comes from the fact that green peppers were often pickled, as were real mangoes in the days before refrigeration and fast transportation to market.
Mash, v., is a Southern verb meaning to push or apply pressure. You mash the buttons in elevators. The verb is often used in a phrase with down, in, or on. It dates to 1845.
Nary, adj., means neither, no, or not a. Etymologically, it is a variant of ne’er a, and comes from English and Irish dialectical speech. The expression nary a one is common throughout the United States, adding the etymologically redundant indefinite article. In the South, speakers do not reinsert the indefinite article, keeping it nary one.
Obliged, adj., is a Southern adjective meaning indebted or required. The phrase much obliged is often used to mean thank you.
Poke, n., is relic from Middle English that has managed to survive in the South and in some other English dialects around the world. It means a bag or sack and is perhaps best known in the phrase pig in a poke. The word poke appears to be fading from use.
Polecat, n., is what is known elsewhere in country as a skunk. It is not the same creature as European polecats.
Razorback, n., is a term usually associated with Arkansas, but this breed of pig is found throughout the South.
Reckon, v., means to think, suppose, or opine. It is found across the United States, but is chiefly associated with the South.
Redlight, n., is what is known as a traffic light elsewhere. In the South you go on a green redlight, prepare to stop on a yellow redlight, and stop on a red redlight.
Shindig, n., is a Kentucky term that has become so widespread that it has lost any association with its original home. It means a party or dance. The origin is unknown, but there is an older Southern sense of shindig meaning a blow to the shins. The word could have undergone some semantic transfer from this older sense.
Snack, n. & v., Like hey, this word for a small amount of food or to eat a small amount of food got its start in the South. It is originally a Briticism that caught on in the South and then spread to the rest of the United States. The sense of food dates to 1757 and is from the older verb meaning to bite or snap.
Suit, n., is used in the South to denote a set of matching items, like a suit of furniture. Elsewhere the term would be suite. This use of suit is a 15th century usage that survives in the South (and is related to the suits in a deck of cards). The term is not used to mean a set of rooms, so a hotel suite might contain a bedroom suit.
Tote, v., means to carry, to haul. Because the verb to carry means something else in the South, another word is needed for this sense. The origin of tote is not known for certain, but it may have been brought to these shores from West Africa by slaves. Tota and tuta are Bantu words meaning to pick up or carry. The word is found in American usage as early as 1676-77.
Up and [verb], v. phr., meaning to do something suddenly and unexpectedly. To up and die is to die unexpectedly.
Want off, phr. v., means want to get off (Midlands).
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton