Older Southern American English

Lynda Myles and Maury Leo Erickson imitated older Tidewater accents as the stars of a 1975 Taming of the Shrew performance, set in the American South and directed by Keith Fowler.

Older Southern American English was a set of American English dialects of the Southern United States, primarily spoken by white Americans before the American Civil War, moving towards a state of decline by the turn of the nineteenth century, further accelerated by World War II and again, finally, by the Civil Rights Movement.[1] These dialects have since been largely replaced throughout the South by a more unified, younger Southern American English, notably recognized today by a highly unique vowel shift and certain other characteristics. Some features unique to older Southern U.S. English persist today, though typically in only very localized dialects or speakers.


This dialects of American English evolved over a period of four hundred years, primarily from older varieties of British English spoken by those who initially settled the area. Given that language is an entity that is constantly changing,[2] the English of the colonists was quite different from any variety of English being spoken today. The colonists who initially settled the Tidewater area spoke a variety of Early Modern English, which itself was very varied.[3] The older Southern dialects thus originated in large part from a mix of immigrants from the British Isles, who moved to the South in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the creole or post-creole speech of African slaves.

Atlantic Coast

The earliest English settlers of the colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts were mainly people from Southern England. However, Virginia received more colonists from the English West Country, bringing with them a distinctive dialect and vocabulary.

The Boston, Massachusetts; Norfolk, Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina areas maintained strong commercial and cultural ties to England. Thus, the colonists and their descendants defined "social class" according to England's connotations. As the upper class English dialect changed, the dialects of the upper class Americans in these areas changed. Two examples are the "r-dropping" (or non-rhoticity) of the late 18th and early 19th century, resulting in the similar r-dropping found in Boston and parts of Virginia during the cultural "Old South," as well as the trap–bath split, which came to define these same two areas (and other areas of the South that imitated this phenomenon) but virtually no other region of the United States.

Given that there are over 2.8 million people in the area,[4] it is difficult to account for all variants of the local accent, which have largely been supplanted by newer Southern features. The area is home to several large military bases such as Naval Station Norfolk, Little Creek Amphibious Base, Oceana Naval Station, and Dam Neck Naval Base. Since a significant portion of the area's inhabitants are actually natives of other areas, there is constant linguistic exposure to other dialects. This exposure could be a reason why the younger generations do not exhibit most of the traditional features.


The phonologies of older Southern speech in the United States were diverse. The following pronunciation features were very generally characteristic of older Southern as a whole:

Virginia Piedmont and Tidewater

The old Virginia accent was mostly spoken in the central and eastern regions of the state, excluding the Eastern Shore of Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula.

The major central (Piedmont) and eastern (Tidewater) regions of Virginia, excluding its Eastern Shore, once spoke in a way long associated with the upper or aristocratic plantation class in the Old South, often known as a Tidewater accent. Additional phonological features of this Atlantic Southern variety included:

Down East/Pamlico/Outer Banks and Delmarva/Chesapeake

Main article: High Tider

The "Down East" Outer Banks coastal region of Carteret County, North Carolina, and adjacent Pamlico Sound, including Ocracoke and Harkers Island, are known for additional features, some of which are still spoken today by generations-long residents of its unincorporated coastal and island communities, which have largely been geographically and economically isolated from the rest of North Carolina and the South since their first settlement by English-speaking Europeans. The same is true for the very similar dialect area of the Delmarva (DelawareMarylandVirginia) Peninsula and neighboring islands in the Chesapeake Bay, such as Tangier and Smith Island. These two regions historically share many common pronunciation features, sometimes collectively called a High Tider (or "Hoi Toider") accent, including:

Lowcountry (Charleston and Savannah)

The Lowcountry, most famously centering on the cities of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, once constituted its own entirely unique English dialect region. Traditionally often recognized as a Charleston accent, it included these additional features, most of which no longer exist today:[20]


Main article: Appalachian English

Due to the former isolation of some regions of the Appalachian South, the Appalachian accent may be difficult for some outsiders to understand. This dialect is also rhotic, meaning speakers pronounce Rs wherever they appear in words, and sometimes when they do not (for example, "worsh" or "warsh" for "wash"). Because of the extensive length of the mountain chain, noticeable variation also exists within this subdialect.

The Southern Appalachian dialect can be heard, as its name implies, in north Georgia, north Alabama, east Tennessee, northwestern South Carolina, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, western Maryland, and West Virginia. Southern Appalachian speech patterns, however, are not entirely confined to the mountain regions previously listed.

Almost always, the common thread in the areas of the South where a rhotic version of the dialect is heard is a traceable line of descent from Scots or Scots-Irish ancestors amongst its speakers. The dialect is also not devoid of early influence from Welsh settlers, the dialect retaining the Welsh English tendency to pronounce words beginning with the letter "h" as though the "h" were silent; for instance "humble" often is rendered "umble".

Researchers have noted that the dialect retains a lot of vocabulary with roots in Scottish "Elizabethan English" owing to the make-up of the early European settlers to the area.[25]

Gulf Coast

Older speech of the Gulf Coast of the United States includes these features:

Southern Louisiana

Southern Louisiana, as well as some of southeast Texas (Houston to Beaumont), and coastal Mississippi, feature a number of dialects influenced by other languages beyond English. Most of southern Louisiana constitutes Acadiana, dominated for hundreds of years by monolingual speakers of Cajun French,[27] which combines elements of Acadian French with other French and Spanish words. This French dialect is spoken by many of the older members of the Cajun ethnic group and is said to be dying out. A related language called Louisiana Creole also exists.

New Orleans English was likely developing in the early 1900s, in large part due to dialect influence from New Yorker immigrants in New Orleans.

Grammar and vocabulary

Current projects

A project devised by Old Dominion University Assistant Professor Dr. Bridget Anderson entitled Tidewater Voices: Conversations in Southeastern Virginia was initiated in late 2008.[28] In collecting oral histories from natives of the area, this study offers insight to not only specific history of the region, but also to linguistic phonetic variants native to the area as well. This linguistic survey is the first of its kind in nearly forty years.[29] The two variants being analyzed the most closely in this study are the /aʊ/ diphthong as in house or brown and post-vocalic r-lessness as in /ˈfɑːðə/ for /ˈfɑːðər/.


  1. (Thomas (2006:4)
  2. Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent. New York, New York: Routledge.
  3. Wolfram, W, & Schilling-Estes, N. (2006). American English. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
  4. Thomas (2006:7–14)
  5. Even in 2012 Random House Dictionary labels due, new and tune as having the /yu/ sound as a variant pronunciation.
  6. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:53–54)
  7. 1 2 3 Thomas (2006:17)
  8. Thomas (2006:3, 16)
  9. Thomas (2006:10–11)
  10. Thomas (2006:15)
  11. 1 2 Thomas (2006:6)
  12. Thomas (2006:10)
  13. Thomas (2006:18)
  14. 1 2 3 Thomas (2006:8)
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 Thomas (2006:11–12)
  16. (Thomas (2006:4, 11)
  17. Wolfram, Walt (1997). Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks: The Story of the Ocracoke Brogue. University of North Carolina Press. p. 61.
  18. 1 2 3 4 (Thomas (2006:12)
  19. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:259–260)
  20. (Thomas (2006:9)
  21. Thomas (2006:10)
  22. Thomas (2006:9)
  23. Thomas (2006:9)
  24. "The Dialect of the Appalachian People". Wvculture.org. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
  25. (Thomas (2006:16)
  26. Dubois, Sylvia and Barbara Horvath (2004). "Cajun Vernacular English: phonology." In Bernd Kortmann and Edgar W. Schneider (Ed). A Handbook of Varieties of English: A Multimedia Reference Tool. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 412-4.
  27. Batts, Denise (January 22, 2009). "ODU team records area's accent - English with 'deep roots'". hamptonroads.com. The Virginian Pilot. Retrieved November 15, 2014.
  28. Watson, Denise (2009-01-22). "ODU team records area's accent - English with 'deep roots' | HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com". HamptonRoads.com. Retrieved 2012-08-06.

External links

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