English in the U.S. South
English in the U.S. South
- Kirk HazenKirk HazenWest Virginia University
English in the U.S. South contains a wide range of variation, encompassing ethnic, social class, and subregional variations all within the umbrella term of Southern English. Although it has been a socially distinct variety since at least the mid-19th century, many of the modern features it is nationally known for developed only after 1875. Lexical variation has long distinguished the U.S. South, but new vocabulary has replaced the old, and subregional variation in the U.S. South is no longer important for lexical variation. Social class still plays an important role in grammatical variation, but the rise of compulsory education limited previously wider ranges of dialect features. Despite traditional scholarship’s primary focus on lexical and grammatical language variation in the U.S. South, phonological variation has been the main area of scholarship since 1990s. Within phonological variation, the production of vowels, the most socially salient features of the U.S. South, has been a heavily studied realm of scholarship. Prosodic, consonant, and perception studies have been on the rise and have provided numerous insights into this highly diverse dialect region.
As Charles Reagan Wilson described, “The American South embodies a powerful historical and mythical presence, both a complex environmental and geographic landscape and a place of the imagination” (Montgomery & Johnson, 2007). The region is difficult to define precisely, and as Wolfram (2003) wrote, the South contains anywhere between 11 and 17 states: thus, the geographic boundaries are necessarily flexible and a matter of debate (Nagle & Sanders, 2003; Wheatley, 1934; Wise, 1933). Wolfram (2003, p. 124) also argued that “it is safe to conclude that no region in the United States has a stronger sense of its identity.” This article introduces some of the linguistic research topics for English in the U.S. South with those identities in mind.
In examining language variation in the U.S. South, a primary question is whether there is a single set of features that natives to the region share. Like all large regions in the United States, the answer is complex, and current research does not have a sufficiently detailed explanation of all the language nuances that speakers produce. Yet from extant research, there are certain dialect features that, for many Americans, are socially marked as “Southern”: these include /ay/ ungliding, the front-lax merger, and the front vowel movements of the Southern Vowel Shift, all described in later sections. Lexical features such as fixin’ to and y’all may also be marked as Southern, but for some Americans these may be primarily associated with African American English. The extent to which anybody in the U.S. South uses any of these features varies widely along a quantitative scale, but all Southerners have access to these dialect features.
English in the American South has had a socially charged history. From the U.S. Civil War to contemporary discussions of race and social class, language variation across the region plays an important role in people’s identity (Wolfram, 1974). Perceptions of Southern English have not wavered much since the middle of the 20th century. Preston (1997) documented that the South is the most commonly noted dialect region in the United States, and thus “the South is the touchstone for the perception of the differences in American English.” In Preston’s studies, Americans recognize Southern speech as unique and find it identifiable on pronunciation alone. Often, with this recognizability comes negative judgements. In juxtaposition to that negative evaluation, Southerners and many other Americans find Southern speech to be pleasant and down-to-earth (Preston, 1997). This level of social awareness for Americans of Southern speech is not caused by any particular dialect feature in itself but by the historical relations of the U.S. South with the rest of the nation (Wilkerson, 2020).
One important topic of future research is the history of language variation in the U.S. South. For the study of U.S. dialects, Hans Kurath (1949) established a basic assumption that regional dialects are the result of settlement history and that the boundaries were largely stable by the time the nation was formally created. Montgomery and Johnson (2007) discussed the settlement history of the South developing into a Lower South and Upper South, with the boundaries fading toward the western edges of the South. Dialectologists have assumed that a dialect’s features may change but that regional boundaries in the United States have remained largely the same; Bailey (1997) argued that this set of assumptions may be overly simplistic for the U.S. South. For example, as Brown (1991) demonstrated, the front-lax merger did not emerge in any widespread fashion in the U.S. South until 1875 and became dominant only after 1930.
The most evidence-driven and detailed history of English in the U.S. South is Bailey (1997), which worked through 23 phonological features, such as the front-lax merger; four morphosyntactic features, such as multiple modals; and six lexically driven features, such as fixin’ to. Bailey found that several of the oldest Southern features that were present before 1875, such as R-dropping, had faded in the period between 1945 and 1980. Features such as the front-lax merger and /ai/-ungliding that were not present before 1875 saw a dramatic expansion after that point and became the norm by 1945. Only one older feature, perfective done, was found to be strong from before 1875 until 1980, while a few others had marginal status and persisted, including upgliding of /ɔ/, y’all, fixin’ to, and fronting of /u/ and /ʊ/. Bailey found that 20 of the features that were part of modern Southern English in Texas were not present before 1875. Although Bailey noted that the social motivations for such innovations need to be more thoroughly researched, he pointed to the rise of stores in the South, along with increasing size of towns, as important conduits and indicators for how people’s social networks changed from highly rural and agricultural societies to villages and then towns and then cities.
While the features that Kurath (1949) documented have changed since his study, the boundaries for the South have not changed as dramatically. In many ways, the history of English in the region is a history of immigration and social stratification. At times geography did affect settlement, population movement, and dialect development. Baranowski (2007) described these processes of language variation and change in Charleston, South Carolina. He found that traditional variants not usually considered Southern have changed in Charleston speech over the 20th century, including the introduction of postvocalic rhoticity, a distinction between /ihr/ and /ehr/, the loss of monophthongal /e:/ and /o:/, and Canadian Raising for /aw/ and /ay/. These features had marked Charleston, South Carolina, as distinctive from the rest of the South, and in modern dialect atlases those boundaries are still present (Labov et al., 2006). Similarly, McNair (2005) is a variationist study of the generational changes in a small, rural community and its adjacent industrial village; through those changes, McNair described the effects of modernization on language variation that has affected many communities across the South.
Montgomery and Johnson (2007) documented the nearly five centuries of contact between “Old World and New World languages” in the U.S. South, including West African languages of the Niger-Congo family, Spanish, French, and German, and then extensive heterogeneity from the British Isles. Montgomery and Johnson (2007) worked through the history of Native American languages in the South, many of which had influence on local English varieties through place names (e.g., Tennessee and Yazoo) and some local fauna and flora terms (e.g., appaloosa, opossum, raccoon, persimmon). African languages were part of the region ever since 1619, when enslaved people were brought to Virginia (Wilkerson, 2020), yet because of the caste structure and a dearth of historical studies, the influence from those languages is not well known apart from the foundational work of Lorenzo Dow Turner on Gullah (Turner, 1949). Spanish was the first European language in the region, and it has influenced several varieties of English in the South. French has been in the South for more than 300 years and was used in government in the Louisiana area up until 1803, and Cajun French has influenced English in that region (Dajko & Walton, 2019). German immigrants from Pennsylvania have been in the South for over 200 years, traveling the Appalachian mountains south to Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, sometimes forming long-term communities in Amish or Mennonite sects. Montgomery and Johnson (2007) noted that Scottish Gaelic, Scots, and Irish were spoken by immigrants to many areas of the South, and although these speakers were from the British Isles, they did not consider themselves English. These other British varieties appear not to have left many indelible influences on English in the U.S. South. In contrast, as Montgomery and Johnson (2007) noted, sizable populations of immigrants from at least 17 countries have made the South their home since the 1970s (McDavid, 1979a), and the influence of those languages on the English varieties of the second and third generations will provide wide-ranging opportunities for language variation.
This article cannot do justice to the debates about the origins of African American English, but those debates necessarily involve the history of English in the U.S. South. As African Americans left the South during the Great Migration, they brought dialect features from the South to Northern cities (Wilkerson, 2010). Regardless of whether those features were shared by ethnic groups in the South or differentiated those groups, when they were brought to Northern cities, they were perceived as African American dialect features. Wolfram and Thomas (2002) explored findings from several rural, North Carolina, African American communities to find that African Americans born earlier in the 20th century shared many dialect features with the surrounding European American communities, but that African American speakers diverged as the 20th century wore on. Green (2002), Lanehart (2015), Mufwene et al. (2007), and Rickford (1999) are the gateway sources for discussions about dialect affinity with the U.S. South and the history of African American English. As Montgomery and Johnson (2007, p. 15) stated, “African languages contributed to the vocabulary of the region as a whole and to the vocabulary and grammar of African American English throughout the country.” Gullah is the only English-based creole in the United States and is based in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Montgomery and Johnson (2007) reported that about 5 percent of Gullah vocabulary comes from African or Caribbean sources, but Caribbean varieties did influence phonological and morphological patterns.
3. Lexical Variation
Several of the regional U.S. maps were based on lexical variation, including Kurath (1949) and Carver (1987), as lexical variation was the foundation for dialectological studies up until the 1960s. Yet since the 1960s, phonological variation and to some extent morphological variation have superseded the study of lexical variation. Only a few studies since the 1990s have included analysis of lexical variation in the U.S. South, including Johnson (1996) and Montgomery and Heinmiller (2021).
Johnson (1996) drew on several rich data sets of Southern English, including the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States (LAMSAS) (1930s) and additional interviews she collected in the 1990s to replicate those earlier methods. This breadth of lexical diversity underscores the richness and complexity of language variation in the speech of the southeastern United States, a region that Raven McDavid claimed contained “more language variety than any other part of the country” (Johnson, 1996, p. 29). For Johnson, region was the most important social factor in the 1930s, but in 1990 region was the least influential social factor, with race, age, and sex all becoming more important. Johnson regarded many of the changes to the vocabulary of the South between 1930 and 1990 as resulting from major social changes, including the percentages of urban populations (18% in 1930 and 56% in 1990), women working outside the home, the struggle for African American equity, and universal compulsory education. Differences between urban and rural places at times strongly correlated with which words participants used: for example, rural residents in the 1930s would use pole cat rather than skunk as well as loft rather than attic, and urban participants would use trousers rather than britches or pantaloons. Johnson noted that rurality continues to shape Southerners’ speech (1996, p. 110).
Some U.S. Southern lexical items have taken on celebrity status, including fixin’ to and bless your heart. Fixin’ to has developed a range of pronunciations and finely delineated meanings since its first usage in 1829, and it continues to expand geographically in the 21st century (Zeigler, 2007, p. 133). The most common usage in the South is one of immediate future: I’m fixin’ to put the burgers on means the burgers are on their way to the grill. Zeigler reported that fixin’ to moved with African Americans during the Great Migration to northern areas and transformed eventually into the equally renowned finna. She also noted that speakers can use fixin’ to give a “a false promise or the subtle implication that an action is being (or has been) delayed” as in I was just fixin’ to do that when the reality of the intent was not so immediate (p. 134).
Bless your heart is a phrase that has thrived in the South and also has gained wide national popularity as a Southern phrase (Moore, 2019). The phrase is an idiom that can hold any second- or third-person pronoun in its middle: Bless his heart, bless her heart, bless y’all’s hearts. Although it can convey actual empathy or sincere pity, and, apocryphally, genteel Southern women predominantly use those meanings of it, bless your heart is nationally known for being subversively cutting while holding forth surface-level concern: You got caught for DUI again? Bless your heart.
4. Grammatical Variation
With dialects in the South such as those found on coastal islands (Wolfram et al., 1999) and the mountainous highlands (Hazen et al., 2010), the concern is often focused on what dialect features are fading and what dialect features endure. Bernstein (2007) along with Bernstein et al. (1997) documented the ebb and flow of dialect features in the South broadly, including changes to verbs, other morphological patterns, and pronouns.
Throughout the history of English, verbs have been a fertile area for variation. In the U.S. South, modals, verbal -s, perfective done, and several permutations of the verb be have undergone changes and carried their share of social meaning. Double modals, such as I might could make it Friday, are holding their own (Reed & Montgomery, 2021) and even expanding outside the South by way of African American English (Bernstein, 2007), but it is unclear whether the range of possible types is narrowing or not. A quality of verb conjugation in modern English is that third-person singular subjects trigger the addition of a verbal -s in standard varieties. For many dialects of English, including the U.S. South, the loss of this suffix has been a variable process, occurring most prominently with some verbs such as do: She don’t want to go out. With most verbs, the loss of this verbal suffix has declined over time, becoming rare for many parts of the South although findings indicate that it is more common in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) than in White varieties in both rural and urban areas.
An area of continuing variability between regions and social groups is perfective done. As an auxiliary verb, this use of done indicates that an action is complete (e.g., We done washed the dishes), and it has been reported as declining in the U.S. South (Bernstein, 2007) including Appalachia (Hazen et al., 2010). When perfective done is expressed, it functions as a part of the verb phrase, usually immediately preceding another verb, although there are instances when other specifiers come between done and the verb (e.g., I done already put in for my social security). Despite this widespread usage, perfective done is generally stigmatized outside of these speech communities, and it has become a sociolinguistic stereotype that is often employed in the use of racist or otherwise socially demeaning jokes (Rickford & Rickford, 2000).
Since the beginnings of English, the verb be has been subject to more variation and more types of variation than any other verb in English. Variation with be started in Old English and continues today in the U.S. South. Invariant be has been part of Southern English since the Scots Irish immigration, and African-American Vernacular English borrowed from that variety the habitual aspect, with She be laughing all the time as a contrast to the progressive aspect of She is laughing (Bernstein, 2007, p. 139; Rickford, 1999, p. 175). Because of the stigma associated with it and perhaps because of the use of it by non-native speakers in ungrammatical ways in social media, traditional uses of habitual be appear to have declined since 2000 but remain strong in rural areas for African Americans. In another corner of be variation, copula absence has had a long history in the U.S. South. Copula absence, the non-production of present tense be as in she Ø gonna go tomorrow, has been a feature of Southern speech generally, although its range of environments is wider in AAVE (Feagin, 1979; Green, 2002). For many White Southern varieties, copula absence primarily occurs in traditional are environments (e.g., They Ø complaining every chance they get), aided often by phonological R-dropping. For AAVE, copula absence occurs in both is and are environments (e.g., She Ø the president; they Ø winning) (Hazen, 2000). Copula absence from the U.S. South played an important role in the debate about the origins of AAVE (Green, 2002; Mufwene et al., 2007).
In many vernacular dialects, speakers often pair plural subjects with the singular verb form of past tense be (e.g., We was there). Was leveling has a rich history in English. It continues on throughout the U.S. South, despite its increase in social saliency and its decrease in overall frequency. In the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the vernacular past be paradigm is organized by polarity, with the negative past be leveled to weren’t (e.g., He weren’t there) and positive past be leveled to was (e.g., We was there) (Wolfram et al., 1999). In most of the U.S. South, including Appalachia, was leveling occupies the entire past be paradigm (e.g., We was there; we wasn’t there). In some rural areas there are past be forms analogous to ain’t, as in We wont there (Hazen, 1998). Across North America, including the U.S. South, there are relatively high rates of leveled was in plural existential environments (e.g., There was three of them). The kind of grammatical subject has a wide range of influence on the rate of was leveling, as has been found in most varieties of English. Often conjoined NPs show the highest rate of was leveling (e.g., The dog and the cat was fighting). In many parts of the U.S. South, the social class effect on the rates of was leveling is apparent: the lower the social class, the higher the rate of leveling. Other social factors also play a role, as those speakers with no college experience have dramatically higher rates of was leveling (Hazen, 2014).
4.2 Other Morphosyntactic Variation
A-prefixing is a morphological feature with phonological constraints that is probably used in more areas of the South performatively than otherwise in casual conversation (Montgomery, 2009; Wolfram, 1988). A-prefixing is a showcase feature of country speech and has been used widely in media representations over the last century. Like leveled was, this feature has deep roots, as it is believed to be derived from the prepositions at or on (Montgomery, 2009). It originated in sentences like She is at working, meaning that the action was going on at that moment. The final consonant was eventually lost through a phonological change, and the vowel became an [ə] attached to the verb. At one point a-prefixing was common throughout many varieties of English, but its rate has dropped precipitously in modern times. One study of Appalachia did not find any speakers born after 1947 who used a-prefixing in interviews (Hazen et al., 2010). As used in regular conversations, a-prefixing is a feature that is more often found among lower-class speakers without post-secondary schooling. Burkette and Antieau (2021) examined a-prefixing in the Linguistic Atlas Project, finding over 3,800 a-prefix usages from 1,527 speakers from across the United States (collected from 1931 to 2006). They found that a-prefix usage was not exclusively a Southern feature as much as it was predominantly an Eastern U.S. feature. People around the world are exposed to this feature through various forms of media, including The Dukes of Hazard and The Beverly Hillbillies, as well as comic strips such as Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. A-prefixing is, in fact, not a common part of everyday English in the U.S. South although some areas such as Appalachian Tennessee use a-prefixing in their home registers (Hazen, 2020, Chap. 3), and it is part of family narratives (Burkette, 2013).
The variable (ING) accounts for the variation of the production of two previously separate morphemes: an alveolar nasal [-ɪn] and a velar nasal [-ɪŋ], as in I was walk[ɪn]/[ɪŋ] and Walk[ɪn]/[ɪŋ] is fun. For over two centuries, nonlinguists and linguists alike have discussed the prescriptive and descriptive values of this variable. Houston found an early negative prescriptive evaluation in a 1902 editorial letter that decried “a disloyal crusade against the Queen’s English . . . which . . . will . . . deprive present participles of their final ‘g’” (Houston, 1985, p. 338). This complaint is an indication that, at least by the 20th century, the [-ɪŋ] was considered the unmarked form. The alveolar nasal form [-ɪn] has been linked with rural speech and U.S. Southern speech in particular (Labov, 2001). Hazen (2008) conducted a study of ING variation in the West Virginia area of Appalachia and found that women, Southerners, and those with no college experience all had higher rates of alveolar (ING) than their demographic counterparts. Most other studies in North America have found that men lead with higher rate of ING. Additionally, the rate of alveolar (ING) has an inversely proportional relationship with social class. Syntactic context is the predominant and usually only linguistic conditioning factor for the U.S. South. Gerunds and adjectives have considerably lower rates of alveolar (ING) than do progressives and gerund participles.
Demonstrative pronouns in modern English standardly have four forms: this, that, these, those. The four forms are divided strictly by number (singular this and that; plural these and those) and loosely by ‘distance’ (proximate this and these; distal that and those, although there is a great deal of variation in actual speech). For vernacular dialects in the U.S. South, there is another option for the plural form: them as in Get some of them chairs. From assessing the distribution of demonstrative them (Hazen et al., 2011), it appears that it alternates primarily with those. In what few studies have been done, speakers prefer combinations such as them chairs and these people, where them is paired with inanimate complements and these is paired with animate complements. This dialect feature has been prominent in the stereotypes of English in rural areas generally, including Appalachia and the U.S. South, and it is strongly associated with stigmatized social perceptions. Most likely because of its negative stereotype, the use of demonstrative them decreased dramatically across the 20th century. Demonstrative them still maintains a foothold in some rural communities, especially among working-class speakers.
Pleonastic pronouns are pronouns used to sum up a preceding noun phrase. The pronouns “she,” “he,” “it”, “we,” and “they” have all been found to serve as pleonastic pronouns (e.g., Amanda, she was loud; Hazen et al., 2010). Although pleonastic pronouns are present throughout English dialects in the United States, they are usually identified as a vernacular feature (Schilling-Estes, 2002) and are part of Southern dialects broadly and AAVE (Rickford & Rickford, 2000). Though long noun phrases usually accompany pleonastic pronouns in most dialects of English, shorter preceding noun phrases of one, two, and three words can be common. For U.S. dialects, the shorter the noun phrase in this construction, the more vernacular it may be considered. The biggest linguistic predictor for pleonastic pronouns is the animacy of the preceding noun phrase, and their use has continued apace in parts of the South (Hazen et al., 2010).
Personal datives are also a construction used in the U.S. South as in Shei went to the store to get heri some candy (Webelhuth & Dannenberg, 2006, p. 31). Sometimes, these are known as the Southern Double Object Construction, and they are considered normal features for Southern vernacular varieties and hence are not generally stigmatized for those varieties.
Personal datives have been much researched since Christian (1991), as there are syntactic implications in their usage. Wood and Zanuttini (2018) examined the syntactic underpinning of the Southern personal datives as in I love me some baked beans and its non-use of reflexive morphology. Their findings support Christian’s (1991, p. 18) claim that not only are personal datives part of Southern U.S. English but that they are expanding beyond the region.
A popular slogan in the fight for LGBTQ rights across the U.S. South has been Y’all means all. The slogan conveys that the quintessential Southern pronoun includes all people. It also shows how certain pronouns become a badge for the region. Before the mid-1600s, English speakers had a more diverse repertoire of personal pronouns. For a little over a thousand years in English, the pronouns for second-person singular were different from those of second-person plural. People could say “Thou were right!” and everyone knew that sentence referred to one person. By the 1700s, thou, thee, and thine had lost the competition with you, and people began to use you as both singular and plural. To fill the gap in second-person singular and repair the unbalanced pronoun paradigm, many English dialects have attempted to innovate new second-person plural pronouns. In the U.S. South, the pronoun y’all developed over time, with the earliest citations coming in 1824 (Tillery et al., 2000). As Montgomery (1989) noted, variant spellings have arisen, and the origins of the form have been debated for decades. Some areas of the upper South have two forms, either you all or the shorter y’all for second-person plural. In the Smoky Mountains, the plural you’uns, was the dominant form for decades, but it gave way to you all in many spots (Montgomery & Heinmiller, 2021). Tillery and colleagues (2000) found that an increasing number of speakers use y’all across apparent time and that a sizable number of non-Southerners use y’all. Maynor (2000) found that as more Southerners were adopting y’all as a form, more Southerners were also willing to use you guys at times. Within most of the U.S. South, y’all is unmarked in daily speech. It has also taken on an enthusiastic crowd of adherents. Y’all means all has been taken up as a slogan, and it has become a positive symbol of inclusivity, adding to its semantic range.
5. Phonological Variation
Production of speech has been the main focus for scholars studying English in the U.S. South. Perception of Southern speech has not been as thoroughly pursued, but Thomas (2020) reviewed several perception works. One common approach has been ethnolect identification where researchers assess listeners’ abilities to correctly identify the ethnicity of the speaker. Thomas and Reaser (2004, 2015) conducted several studies in this research area. Although previous researchers found high levels of correct ethnic identification for African American and white speakers, Thomas and Reaser found that certain African American voices were more difficult to correctly identify, depending on a myriad of social factors and linguistic clues. In a different approach, Shport (2018) tested perceived femininity in Southern states and found that fronter and longer allophones of KIT, DRESS, and LOT were heard as more feminine, correlating with a few of the advanced components of the Southern Vowel Shift (see section 5.3).
Along with the overview by Thomas (2020) into socio-phonetic variation in the U.S. South, interested readers should peruse Herd and Shport (2020, p. 525) who highlighted the importance of research on Southern phonetics, especially in regard to “socially meaningful variation in vowel trajectories, nasalance of vowels, and temporal characteristics.”
5.1 Prosodic Variation
There is little research on prosody for U.S. Southern English. The available studies compare ethnic or regional groups of speakers.
Thomas (2015), McLarty (2018), and Holliday (2021) investigated intonation of African Americans in the U.S. South. Making a comparison of formerly enslaved African Americans and European American Confederate-era speakers with modern speakers from Raleigh, North Carolina, McLarty (2018) found that African Americans across time averaged more pitch accents per syllable than their European American counterparts while also producing higher ratios of the rising L + H* pitch accent to other pitch accents. Thomas (2015) reviewed available studies of prosodic features for all varieties of African American English, concluding that African American intonation is distinctive in many communities but exactly in what ways it is distinctive varies (2015, p. 425), as the intonational features are “subject to style shifting, social class variation, and quite likely, regional variation.” Bringing an extra layer to that broader variation, Holliday (2021) examined biracial Black men in Washington, D.C., and found that they controlled their racialized stylistic variation, especially L+H* pitch accents, in accordance with topic and audience when they discussed police narratives, avoiding African American intonational features.
Reed (2016) compared southern Appalachian accents with other Southern varieties: Overall, Appalachians in Tennessee showed a greater incidence of the rising L+H* pitch accent in comparison to the falling H* than other Southern varieties. Reed (2020) set this variation in context as part of the distinguishing phonological profile of English variation in Appalachia.
Thomas and Carter (2006) found that White Southern speech has remained highly stress timed. In contrast, Southern African American speech was more syllable timed (even intervals) in the mid-19th century but converged with white speech by 1900 (2006, p. 349). By comparing North Carolina speakers with Jamaican English for prosodic rhythm, Thomas and Carter found that “African American English was once similar to Jamaican English in prosodic rhythm” (2006, p. 345). Looking to other ethnic variation, Coggshall (2008) analyzed Cherokee and Lumbee speech in North Carolina and found that Cherokee was stress timed across generations. In contrast, Lumbee speech had been highly stress timed since at least the 1950s but had moved toward syllable timing after the 1990s.
Regional comparisons of prosodic features include those between the U.S. South and other regions and between smaller areas in the South. The most frequently commented on prosodic feature is the term Southern Drawl, which, when used by the general public, refers to supposedly slower speech by Southerners. Thomas (2020) reviewed several studies concerning the timing of speech and found that the few studies that exist have mixed reports about the rate of speech for Southerners compared to other regions. Several studies have compared Southern speakers with speakers from the Midwest. Clopper and Smiljanic (2011) found that Southern males produce more pauses whereas Southern women had more intonational differences when compared to Midland women. Fox et al. (2013) showed that North Carolinians had earlier peaks and greater falls from those peaks than Midwesterners when examining F0 contours for stressed vowels. They also corroborated the finding that variation in pitch is wider for those vowels that move more in vowel space. In a study comparing six U.S. regions, Clopper and Smiljanic (2015, p. 1) found “that Southern American English is characterized by a slow overall articulation rate, long pauses, and highly variable syllable-to-syllable vowel durations.” In contrast, Ray and Zahn (1990) and Kendall (2013) found no regional difference for the South in terms of speech rate.
The perceived rate of speech might connect to vowel durations. Jacewicz et al. (2007) found that their Southern Appalachian community had the longest duration for all of the vowels they analyzed. Fridland and colleagues (2014) showed that Southerners had longer KIT durations than FLEECE durations, which differentiated the South from other regions.
5.2 Consonant Variation
Consonant variation overall has received less scholarly attention than vowels, but the 2010s saw numerous studies begin to explore the wide range of possible variation for English in the U.S. South. Studies focused on voicing are the most numerous, followed by those on VOT and place assimilation. In terms of social salience, it is perhaps R-vocalization, popularly known as R-dropping, that became the showcase variable for Southern consonant variation. The related L-vocalization is also part of Southern speech, but it does not maintain the same social salience.
Herd (2020) reported from Mississippi data that African Americans demonstrate prevoicing voicing of /p, t, k/ more to a greater extent than European Americans. These two ethnic groups did not, however, differ in respect to their production of VOT for the voiceless consonants when reading a word list. For both groups, gender differences were not significant, pointing to a strong dialect difference rooted in the social motivation of ethnicity. Jacewicz et al. (2009, p. 367) found significant dialect differences in western North Carolina for the voicing of /b/. This examination took place within the specific context of the “juncture of two words such as small bids, in a position between two voiced sonorants.” The defining characteristic of the North Carolina speakers were “fully voiced closures.” Through further examination of emphasis and voicing, the authors concluded that the North Carolina speakers perform “active articulatory maneuvers” in the voicing of consonants.
Beyond stops, fricatives are a fertile area for voicing studies of consonants, as well as a long-standing area of interest for fricative stopping (Dubois & Horvath, 1998). Like Jacewicz et al. (2009), Walker et al. (2017) found that European Americans from southwest Virginia produce greater voicing of /z/ and that rurality and orientation to the South play a role in this variation. Walker et al. (2017) also investigated variation with following environments and discovered /z/ productions are least voiced before pauses. Lastly, their southwest Virginia speakers demonstrate greater phrase final fortition. Apparently, context is correlated with consonant variation for Southern speakers.
Several studies take up /s/ retraction in /str/ clusters, so that it has a palatal realization more than an alveolar realization, including Wilbanks (2017) and Stuart-Smith et al. (2019). Raleighites (North Carolina) have higher levels of /s/ retraction than most other varieties in the United States and England, and this variable can have social indexing in some communities.
Relatedly, Hazen et al. (2016) investigated voicing of /w/ and /h/ lenition in West Virginia speakers. For /w/ voicing, the historical merger of <wh> and <w> has been in progress for centuries and is seemingly almost complete in the United States. Labov et al. (2006, p. 50, Map 8.1) found that large areas of the South still maintain the distinction, but most of the United States does not. Hazen et al. (2016) did find wide variation for their West Virginia speakers, with some producing much greater voicing for some historical /w/ words, but they also found some speakers producing more voicing for historical /ʍ/ words, indicating that voicing is highly variable but that speakers are no longer constrained by historical patterns of word classes, with fully voiced /w/ being the most frequent production. For /h/ lenition, they investigated H + vowel combinations, finding that the /h/ segments contained little voicelessness and that longer segments led to greater degrees of voicelessness.
Deletion of final coronal stops has been a cottage industry of sociolinguists since the 1970s, and numerous studies have included the U.S. South. Farrington (2018) investigated glottalization and deletion for African Americans from three Southern cities in regard to alveolar stops. Deletion was more frequent for /d/ and glottalization was more frequent for /t/, and these two processes result in widespread final neutralization for these African American varieties. Considering such neutralization, Farrington found that preceding vowel duration is significantly longer for /d/, and that this phonetic cue may be the primary indicator of voicing rather than the articulation of the consonant itself. Also for coronal stop deletion, Hazen (2011, p. 133) compared Appalachian data with other Southern varieties drawn from Childs and Mallinson (2004), Mallinson and Wolfram (2002), Wolfram et al. (2000), and Wolfram and Thomas (2002),. Across the South, in both African American and European American varieties, rates of coronal stop deletion are high in following preconsonantal environments. African Americans have higher rates before following vowel environments than do European Americans.
Thomas and Van Hofwegen (2019) examined light and dark L in Anglo and Mexican Americans in Texas. Their Anglo speakers produced predominantly dark Ls whereas the Mexican Americans of all ages more often produced lighter (less velarized) Ls.
Perhaps the most important type of consonant deletion in the U.S. South is R-vocalization (Carmichael, 2017; McDavid, 1979b; Thomas, 2007). As a sociolinguistic pattern, it was brought by British English speakers in the mid-1700s and was associated with upper-class Southerners until World War II. For various reasons of social stigma, its social meaning became connected to rural African Americans and European Americans. Because of the Great Migration, in northern cities like Detroit and Chicago, it came to be seen as an African American feature. Since WWII, R-lessness has been declining in the U.S. South for European Americans (Thomas, 2007). African Americans have consistently been found to have higher rates of R-lessness than other ethnic groups in the U.S. South (Wolfram & Thomas, 2002).
5.3 Vowel Variation
Because vowels vary more often and change more quickly over time as compared to consonants, scholars prefer to study vowels to assess sociolinguistic patterns. Vowels in varieties of the U.S. South have been the most examined component of language for the region since at least Labov and Ash (1997).
Within vowel space, mergers occur when the phonemic contrast between two vowel classes is lost. The merged vowel may occupy the space of one or the other of the previously distinct vowels, or it may encompass the area of both the previous vowels. In the U.S. South, one vowel merger is more renowned than any other, the front-lax merger, also known as the pin~pen merger. Unlike some other regions, in the U.S. South this merger is usually a conditioned merger in that it happens only before nasal consonants. The merger happens between the historically separate vowel classes of KIT and DRESS in words such as tin/ten, rim/REM, and ping/penguin. As Brown (1991) found, the front-lax merger appears to have developed after 1875, and it has been a regular part of the U.S. South ever since. For commonly used words involved in the merger, lexical solutions have been developed to reduce any confusion. For example, ink pen and stick pin have been staples throughout many parts of the region. As Labov et al. (2006, Map 9.5) demonstrated, the reach of the front-lax merger covers the widest area of the cultural South and greatly overlaps with /ai/ ungliding.
Historically, the front-lax merger in the United States was considered a Southern merger (Montgomery & Eble, 2004), and the low-back merger originated in the Northeast and ran through western Pennsylvania and out through the expanse of the West. In the 20th century, the low-back merger began to expand into the front-lax merger territory, including northern parts of the U.S. South. The low-back merger is an unconditioned merger in most of the United States: the historical vowel classes of LOT and THOUGHT merged together in the low, back region of vowel space, with words such as cot/caught, hock/hawk, and Don/Dawn holding the same vowels (Fridland, 2015). It seems that by the 1920s in West Virginia and Kentucky, the low-back merger had started to spread below the traditional northern boundary of the Mason–Dixon line. It may have spread simply through contact with people from western Pennsylvania, but Irons (2007) suggested that another process may have played in the advance of the low-back merger. He found that the nuclei of the LOT and THOUGHT did overlap for his oldest speakers, but that they distinguished the vowels through a long, rising offglide on diphthongal THOUGHT. His younger speakers reduced that offglide, at times completely, so that the vowels were merged when both were essentially monophthongal. Hazen (2005) found that most speakers born after 1980 had both the front-lax merger and the low-back merger in West Virginia. Socially, the low-back merger is not stigmatized, as its social indexicality is so widely dispersed, whereas the front-lax merger, being associated with the South in contrast to the rest of the nation, is often more stigmatized.
Pre-L mergers are increasingly common throughout the United States, including the South, since the mid-20th century (Thomas, 2001). These include pull/pool and heel/hill mergers. Labov et al. (2006) showed that African Americans produced these mergers more often than European Americans.
Within vowel variation, vowel shifts are often more socially impactful than vowel mergers. Certainly, the Southern Vowel Shift (SVS) is a variable pattern that has been socially indexed in several ways and is important for synchronic variation in the U.S. South (Fridland & Kendall, 2015).
The SVS is not a singular or categorical process. Like the Great Vowel Shift, it can be seen as a unified event only after it is complete and even then only for some speakers (Labov, 2001). Over the millions of speakers in the U.S. South who participate in some aspect of the SVS, a small minority have a completely SVS system. The SVS is defined by three main stages although a fourth component is usually considered part of the process.
In Stage 1, the nucleus of the PRIZE vowel either fronts or backs along the periphery while the off-glide is reduced. At times, the PRIZE vowel may be fully monophthongized, but often the offglide is uprising but shorter or actually lowers and finishes at the nucleus, thus remaining diphthongal but not stretching beyond where it started. Bailey (1997) posited that this /ai/ ungliding started after 1875 and increasingly became part of Southern identity in the 20th century. Only in some regions of the South do speakers produce the unglided PRICE vowel (see Labov et al., 2006, Map 11.5). The pre-voiceless environment is a special case and was used in many parts of the South to index ethnic divisions, as unglided PRICE was part of the White community but was not part of the Black community before the 21st century (Fridland, 2003a, 2003b; Kohn et al., 2021). Labov et al. (2006) presented Map 11.3 to show the geographic boundaries they found for /ai/ ungliding. It incorporates large parts of Texas, the southern half of West Virginia, and most of the East Coast from approximately Richmond, Virginia, and then south to the Florida state line, excluding Charleston, South Carolina. Map 11.6 of Labov et al. (2006) showed different dialect levels (1–9) based on the SVS, and although a couple of intensely Southern level 7 speakers are in southern Ohio and West Virginia, fewer SVS shifted speakers are north of the /ai/-ungliding line across Clarksburg, West Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland. The next two stages of the SVS are geographically contained within Stage 1’s domain, as shown in Map 11.4 of Labov et al. (2006).
In Stage 2, the mid-front vowels FACE and DRESS shift past each other in a coordinated pattern. The FACE vowel is lowering and backing, possibly reducing its offglide (FACE is often diphthongal in American English); the DRESS vowel is raising and fronting, gaining a rising offglide (Labov et al., 2006, p. 125). Like Stage 1, Stage 2 is a sliding scale of shiftedness. As the Euclidean distance of DRESS and FACE vowels grows smaller, this stage of the SVS is more advanced (Dodsworth & Kohn, 2012; Farrington et al., 2018). In the most advanced speakers, DRESS and FACE are essentially switched, with DRESS in the periphery of front vowel space (Fridland, 2012; Thomas, 2003). Between these two vowels, a highly shifted DRESS vowel (e.g., bed [beɪd]) is more salient as Southern or rural than a highly shifted FACE vowel (e.g., date [dɛt]) (Kendall & Fridland, 2012).
In Stage 3, the high-front vowels FLEECE and KIT shift past each other like the mid-front vowels of Stage 2 (Labov et al., 2006, p. 125). The KIT vowel is rising and fronting, gaining an in-gliding offglide (e.g., bit [biət]). That particular shifted vowel is the most stigmatized for many communities. The FLEECE vowel is lowering and centering with a reduced off-glide (e.g., beet [bɪt]). Stage 3 of the SVS is the most geographically limited and the one that has retreated the most from the northern edges of the U.S. South (Hazen, 2018; Labov et al., 2006). The front-lax merger has taken on an additional role of prominence within the context of the SVS. With both KIT and DRESS vowels being raised, fronted, and diphthongized, the social indexing of their merged status at times goes unnoticed. When a sentence like I dropped my pen is rendered as [aː dɹap maː pʰiən] the state of merger for the speaker most likely goes unrecognized in the face of the socially more salient shifted front lax vowel.
The fourth component of the SVS is the fronting of back vowels. Usually two vowels are involved, the GOOSE and GOAT vowels, although FOOT can also be fronted. How fronted these vowels are and to what extent they are back-gliding diphthongs varies from community to community (Koops, 2010; Labov et al., 2006). For many SVS speakers, the three vowels are fronted at least to the center of vowel space, and by the end of the 20th century, they were front of schwa on the F2 dimension (Thomas, 2001). Lee (2016, 2018) characterized back vowel fronting for African Americans in Washington, D.C. Whether the fronting of back vowels is a necessary component of the SVS is an open question, as fronted back vowels can be found in Ohio as well as California (Thomas, 2001). Yet it is part of Southern U.S. English, and the presence of these variations in other dialects does not discount its reality as part of South English. Stanley et al. (2021) found that back vowel fronting has been part of Southern English since the end of the 19th century and has had well defined diachronic paths.
The stages of the SVS are set up in what is estimated to be their chronology. The oldest changes have the widest geographic distributions. Accordingly, Stage 1 is also the variable of the SVS that has undergone the most institutional enculturation: Forrest et al. (2021) found that /ai/ ungliding is used professionally in white-collar jobs to show authenticity as a Southerner. In line with the stages of the SVS’s geographical spread has come the reversal of the SVS, with the later stages retreating sooner and covering a smaller geographic area in the U.S. South. Dodsworth and Kohn (2012) found that all of the front vowels of the SVS were reversing toward non-SVS standards within the first generation of speakers who grew up with the large influx on northerners in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dinkin and Dodsworth (2017) showed intraregional differences in the South in conditioning of glide weakening of PRIZE/PRICE, finding that these vowels have a continuous distribution within the inland South but a more discrete separation outside of that subregion.
The SVS analysis in Labov et al. (2006) also includes /æ/ breaking, where /æ/ is raised and gains an offglide (Koops, 2014). Labov et al. (2006, p. 123, Map 11.2) found that /æ/ breaking falls in a well-defined area of the inner South. Dodsworth and Kohn (2012) showed that the reversal of /æ/ breaking is part of the larger reversal of the SVS. Perceptually, Allbritten (2011) found that /æ/ breaking and the Stage 2 lowering of the FACE diphthong were more correlated with identifications as Southern than monophthongization of PRICE/PRIZE or alveolar ING.
There are also differences in the South in regard to the SVS in African American communities. Fridland (2003a, 2003b) found that /ai/ ungliding has gone to completion for African Americans, and Thomas (2007) reported that glide weakening of /ai/ before non-voiceless obstruents for Southern African Americans has been documented for decades. In addition, Fridland also found that African Americans in Memphis have adopted a few of the vowel shifts associated with Southern Whites, including lowering of the FACE nucleus and fronting of GOOSE. Holt and colleagues (2015, 2016) showed that North Carolina African Americans had longer durations of their lax vowels than their tense vowels in reading word lists.
Kohn et al. (2021) conducted a large study of changes over the lifespan for African Americans in Durham, North Carolina, to assess ways the African American Vowel Shift differs from the SVS (see also Kohn & Farrington, 2013). For example, the TRAP, DRESS, and KIT vowels front and rise, but unlike the SVS they do not diphthongize, a key difference for listeners. Both Holt (2018) and Holt and Ellis (2019) corroborated these findings when they compared African Americans to Whites in eastern and western communities in North Carolina; they found that African Americans lacked fronting of GOAT and GOOSE but had more raised TRAP, BAIT, and DRESS. Kohn et al.’s study (2021) also found longitudinally that vowel space for African Americans shrank from early elementary school through their teens. While assessing many factors that could potentially influence their vowel systems, Kohn et al. (2021) showed that participants’ communities were the main indicators for vernacular variants of African American English.
6. Social Forces
When considering Southern speech as a whole, readers must keep in mind that it contains a wide range of variation, and that they should resist the categorization of Southern African American English as separate from Southern English in general. Too often in the past, the term Southern English was reserved for “white, folk speech,” but if it is to be an accurate and useful term, it must cover the wide diversity of ethnic varieties in the region, both urban and rural.
Diversity is also found within ethnic groups. Several studies over the years have considered small African American communities, including Anshen (1969) and Andres and Votta (2009). Despite the community focus, African American speech was too often considered monolithic in previous decades, but studies such as Childs et al. (2010) found a sizable degree of diversity in vowels from an urban dialect in Georgia, rural dialects in North Carolina, and French in Louisiana. Kohn et al. (2021), the largest study of African American speech in the U.S. South, examined many sociolinguistic variables, including educational test scores. Even for their one urban area, schools and family differences such as mother’s education level correlated with the extent of vernacular usage. Social class plays a large role in differentiating varieties of Southern African American speech, as Middle-Class African American English demonstrates, differentiating characteristics of code-switching and camouflaged features (Weldon, 2021).
Place also interacts with ethnicity as social forces influencing language variation in the U.S. South. Grieser (2022) examined race, place, and a changing Black community in Anacostia, D.C. This area used to be a Southern community, but it has undergone both gentrification and a shifting boundary of regional Southernness, through which Grieser documented displacement through language variation. She found that residents promote certain morphosyntactic variants to craft connections between identities of race, place, and social class. Be it social class or ethnicity, speaker identity plays a crucial role in dialect variation. Hazen (2002) demonstrated that local orientation to a rural North Carolina county correlates more strongly with copula absence and leveled was than ethnicity in this tri-ethnic county.
Social forces guide all of the variation found in the U.S. South, including perceptions of it elsewhere. Outside the South, southern accents face much derision. Preston (1996, 1997) found that regional perceptions center on the South as it was the region that all of his respondents could readily identify. Northerners and some Southerners believe Southern speech to be the least correct but the most pleasant; in turn, Southerners find their own speech to be more friendly. Cramer (2016) found that Louisville, Kentucky, respondents ranked the South both least correct and least pleasant.
Varieties of English influenced by several varieties of Spanish are now a regular part of the South. Wolfram et al. (2004) and Carter (2013, 2014) examined the degree of Latinx accommodation to other ethnic norms in North Carolina. Carter (2014) found that rhythm patterns for Latinx speakers fall between those expected for other ethnic varieties and Spanish itself. Wolfram et al. (2004) conducted interviews in both an urban and rural area of North Carolina with Latinx speakers and found gradient adoption of /ai/ ungliding rather than widespread adoption, with the degree of local identity correlating with its production. Kohn (2019) compared two North Carolina cities, and Latinx speakers gravitated toward the norms of the majority group (AA or EA) in each city. Thomas’s book Mexican American English investigated growing ethnolects in Texas and North Carolina across multiple generations. Different varieties of Latinx English are now a regular part of the Southern language landscape, and though the varieties may have begun with Spanish interference features, they have evolved over several generations into stable ethnolects (Thomas, 2019). The effects of local social environments are illustrated in the assessment by Erin Callahan (2019) of past-tense unmarking in North Carolina: “Ethnicity functions in a more nuanced way in Durham, showing effects at the level of “micro-community” (here, school).
Native American varieties of English have been part of language variation in the U.S. South since English was first established in the region. Wolfram and colleagues (2002) described the sociolinguistic work conducted with Lumbee English in Robeson County, North Carolina, a variety that has lost its ancestral Native American language but whose language variation patterns in English continue to distinguish its speakers as ethnically distinct. Another Native American variety that has lost contact with its ancestral language is that of the Haliwa-Saponi in Warren County, North Carolina (Hazen, 2000), a variety that for several sociolinguistic variables such as copula absence and leveled was falls between the African American and European American speakers. A variety that is still in contact with its ancestral language is Cherokee English (Anderson, 1999; Coggshall, 2008). The documentary First Language (Hutcheson & Cullinan, 2014) described the accommodations Cherokee English makes to the ancestral language Cherokee and to the surrounding European American community in North Carolina.
Only since 2010 have social networks been thoroughly examined in the U.S. South. Dodsworth and Benton (2019) is a massive study of social networks in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the authors documented the changes that took place when the traditional Southern variety of the 1950s thoroughly comingled with in-migrating northern varieties. The study showed speakers making a rapid retreat from the SVS and toward other national vowel patterns; this change over time was constrained by social class and school contacts as shown through network connections.
Overall, social forces are the areas where diachrony and synchrony intersect. As Bernstein (1993) explained in her study of the relative influence of demographic factors in Texas, no one social factor may explain even the majority of variation, but usually some of them are relatively more influential than others, and modern statistical approaches in sociolinguistics are able to assess their relative influences. Researchers on English in the U.S. South need to incorporate those broader social influences with regional identity construction and local social networks to better explain how the modern language variation has emanated from the social histories of the U.S. South, following the lead of Tillery and Bailey (2003).
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- Every 10 years, there has been a conference dedicated to the study of Language Variation in the South (LAVIS). Four books have been published from the four conferences, and these would be the places to start for researchers interested in English in the U.S. South:
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- Speech Perception in Phonetics
- William Labov
- Copular Constructions in Syntax
- Early Modern English
- Phonetics of Vowels
- Phonetics of Consonants
- Grammaticalization in Morphology
- Non-Quantitative Approaches to Dialect Classification and Relatedness
- The Phonetics of Prosody