The Differences Between Regional Southern Accents, According To A Linguist

Southern accents have nuances to them. Here, a linguist explains how they came to be and what the key differences are.

<p>Beth Gwinn/Getty Images</p>

Beth Gwinn/Getty Images

There isn't one thing that makes a Southern accent. The regions' iconic sounds go back hundreds of years.

According to Margaret E.L. Renwick, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Georgia, it was inevitable that speech would evolve. “Language change is going to happen, there’s no stopping it,” she says. “It’s natural, and it changes from generation to generation.” Even today, despite there being evidence that the Southern accent is on the decline, people are influenced in their language choices. For example, children are influenced by their caregivers, teachers, parents, and grandparents and might therefore pick up words like “pocketbook” instead of “purse.”

Language communicates more than just words. “Language is aspirational. Younger kids and teenagers will form ways of talking that are unique to their groups. If they don’t want to be a part of a particular group, they might signal that with their speech,” she says. “A lot of how we talk is social.”

Meet The Expert

Margaret E.L. Renwick Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Georgia,

Predominant Southern Accent Features

The first English speakers in the South included the English, the Irish, the Scottish, and enslaved Africans, all contributing to grammar and pronunciation changes over time. The result of the mingling of language has produced one of the country's most recognizable accents. “The Southern accent has been shown in studies to be the most perceptually salient regional U.S. accent,” says Renwick.

  1. There are a few key giveaways to a Southern accent, with some pronunciations older than others. “One of the oldest sounds we know about is the ‘i’ sound, like ‘ride,’ ‘why,’ ‘white,’ and ‘fire,’ she says, noting that historians have traced these sound changes as far back as the Civil War. She calls the way that Southern accents pronounce “ride” as one of the most characteristic aspects of a Southern accent. “That change in the ‘i’ is classic, an original Southern characteristic and recognizable across regional accents.”

  2. Another sound change is “pen” and “pin.” Some Southerners pronounce the two words with the same vowel. In linguistics, it’s called a merger, when two distinct pronunciations become indistinguishable.

  3. A third classic example that has been around for a long time is called fronting, or where people pronounce a vowel sound with their tongue farther forward in their mouths, instead of at the back. “U” fronting in particular is commonly seen in Southern pronunciations of words like “boot” and “goose,” which is why it sounds different than someone who is from Wisconsin saying it, explains Renwick.

Differences In Southern Accents

Renwick stresses that Southern accents, which stretch from Maryland to Texas, cannot be put into boxes or necessarily separated by state lines, as immigration, urbanization and migration patterns have all contributed to how we talk. But there are two significant buckets of accents: inland and coastal.

  • “Classic” Southern pronunciations like mergers and fronting can be found in inland Southern accents, as can long vowels or the breaking of vowels, where Southerners shift words to become almost two syllables. Some of these characteristics stretch all the way to Texas thanks to migration. Regions like North Alabama, East Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky, far North Georgia, western North Carolina, and western South Carolina may have the highest concentration of “classic” Southern accent characteristics, with nuances in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The Appalachian Mountain region has some of the most recognizable of these characteristics.

  • The coastal Southern accent sounds slightly different. Prominent in former plantation areas like Tidewater Virginia and the Lowcountry, this accent can also stretch further West. The accent features the dropping of the “r,” so words like “car” sound like “cah.” You might also hear variations on words in areas like the Delmarva Peninsula, which covers the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia, and the Pamlico Sound area of North Carolina. For example, Renwick says that the vowel in the word “prize” doesn’t have an “ay” pronunciation; instead it has an “oy” sound. “It’s why residents of the Outer Banks are called ‘Hoi Toiders’ instead of ‘High Tiders,’ ” she explains.

  • Like many Southern states, Louisiana has many accent variations that derive from several influences. The more rural Cajun accent has a historical explanation, according to Katie Carmichael, Ph.D., an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech and an expert on the subject. “Cajun accents feature evidence of the French heritage in Louisiana. French was maintained longer in the rural areas of the state, since many residents of the bayous and prairies didn’t need to speak English for traditionally common occupations in these regions as trappers, trawlers, and farmers,” she says. “Many French pronunciations and words are still heard in these regions as a result.”

  • The New Orleans accent, on the other hand, can sound like it’s straight out of New York. Carmichael says the real answer as to why is an unsatisfying one: “We don’t know for sure,” she says. However, there were direct lines between New York and New Orleans, potentially from the cotton trade, albeit it’s tricky to nail down the historical specifics of migration between the two cities. The two locales also had similar working class populations from Germany, Ireland, and Italy settle there prior to the 1900s, likely having similar linguistic and cultural influence. Despite there being empirical evidence, there’s enough linguistic evidence for the connection to be made. “It’s not just superficial; linguistic evidence points to deep structural similarities between the two accents,” she says. She’s quick to point out, though, that like all Southern accents, there’s not one dominating influence. “New Orleanians can also sound Southern,” she says. Just like with other Southern accents, there’s fronting, vowel changes and other distinguishing features. “What’s fascinating is that when people hear a New Orleans accent, they ignore [Southern] features and default to the stronger New York-sounding features,” she says.

What It Means To Have A Modern Southern Accent

Accents hold a lot of power in telling people about yourself, says Renwick. “We take language for granted all the time, but we are good at cueing into details and transmitting our identity through language.”

As popular TikToker Landon Bryant has shown, while people might be losing their accents, they’re finding other ways to hold on to their “Southernness.” Says Renwick,

“What it means to be Southern is changing for people, and that might mean that the way they project their Southerness is through speech change. Just because someone doesn’t have a traditional Southern accent doesn’t mean they’re going to sound like someone from Ohio. They just might choose different aspects of their pronunciation to transmit their Southernness,” she says.

Related: What's The Difference Between Y'all And Ya'll?

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