Southern American English

"Southern Drawl" redirects here. For the album by Alabama, see Southern Drawl (album).
This article is about English as spoken in the Southern United States. For older English dialects spoken in this same region, see Older Southern American English. For English as spoken in South America, see South American English.

Southern American English or Southern U.S. English is a collection of related American English dialects spoken throughout the Southern United States, though increasingly in more rural areas and primarily by white Americans.[1] Commonly in the United States, the dialects are together simply referred to as Southern.[2][3][4] Other, much more recent ethno-linguistic terms within the U.S. include Southern White Vernacular English and Rural White Southern English.[5][6]

A regional Southern American English consolidated and expanded throughout all the traditional Southern States since the last quarter of the nineteenth century until around World War II,[7][8] largely superseding the older Southern American English dialects. With this more unified and younger pronunciation system, Southern American English now comprises the largest accent group in the United States.[9] As of 2006, its Southern accent is strongly reported throughout the U.S. states of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina (excluding the Charleston area), Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, as well as much of Texas, southern Missouri, West Virginia, and metropolitan Jacksonville in Florida; the Southern accent's character is also documented to a weaker extent (often identified as a South Midland accent) throughout Oklahoma, Maryland, Kansas, the southern halves of Illinois and Indiana, the Miami Valley in Ohio, and in some speakers in Delaware, southern Pennsylvania, and Greater St. Louis in eastern Missouri.[10]

Southern American English as a regional dialect can be divided into various sub-dialects, the most phonologically advanced ones being southern varieties of Appalachian English and scattered varieties of Texan English. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has many common points with Southern English dialects due to the strong historical ties of African Americans to the region.

Speech example
An example of a Texas-raised male with a rhotic accent (George W. Bush).

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Speech example
An example of a Plains, Georgia male with a non-rhotic accent (Jimmy Carter).

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Speech example
An example of a southwestern Arkansas male with a rhotic accent (Bill Clinton).

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The dialects collectively known as Southern American English stretch across the south-eastern and south-central United States, but exclude the southernmost areas of Florida and the extreme western and south-western parts of Texas as well as the Rio Grande Valley (Laredo to Brownsville). This linguistic region includes Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as most of Texas, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and northern and central Florida. Southern American English dialects can also be found in extreme southern parts of Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and Illinois.[11][12]

Southern dialects originated in large part from a mix of immigrants from the British Isles, who moved to the American South in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the creole or post-creole speech of African slaves. Upheavals such as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II caused mass migrations of those and other settlers throughout the United States.

Phonology of the Southeastern super-region

Blue represents major cities of the Southern accent; darker blue represents cities with the strongest features of this accent.[13] Purple represents the related Midland accent, which together with the Southern accent falls under the "Southeastern super-region" (defined in this section).[14] Red represents nearby cities outside of that super-region.

Headed by William Labov, the 2006 Atlas of North American English (ANAE) identifies the South itself, as well a large area of states bordering all along the South, as constituting a "Southeastern super-region",[15] with even remote (including arguably Northern) areas that phonologically exhibit some noticeable "Southern character".[15] Essentially all of the modern-day Southern dialects, plus dialects marginal to the South, are thus considered a subset of this super-region.[note 1] Thus, a modern Southeastern dialectal super-region is defined by essentially the whole American South, including all of the Gulf region (even Florida), the Mid- and South Atlantic regions, and a transitional Midland dialect area between the South and the North, lying above the strict Southern region and comprising most of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, southeastern Nebraska, Southern Illinois, Southern Indiana, and Southern Ohio.[16] Put perhaps in clearer terms, the Southeastern super-dialect region encompasses all of these most general regional American dialects:

These are the minimal necessary features that identify a speaker from the Southeastern super-region:

The merger of pin and pen in Southern American English. In the purple areas, the merger is complete for most speakers. Note the exclusion of the New Orleans area, Southern Florida, and of the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. The purple area in California consists of the Bakersfield and Kern County area, where migrants from the south-central states settled during the Dust Bowl. There is also debate whether or not Austin, Texas is an exclusion. Based on Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:68).

The South

Mean formant values for the ANAE subjects (Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:?)) from the Southern U.S. (excluding Florida and Charleston, SC). The red symbol marks the position of monophthongized /aɪ/ before voiced consonants. The distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ is preserved mainly because /ɔ/ has an upglide. /eɪ/ is backer and lower than /ɛ/.

The South proper as a present-day dialect region generally includes all of the pronunciation features of the larger Southeastern super-region, plus additional features listed below, which are together popularly recognized in the United States as a "Southern accent". However, there is still actually wide variation in Southern speech regarding potential differences based on factors like a speaker's exact sub-region, age, ethnicity, etc. The following phonological phenomena focus on the developing sound system of the more recent Southern dialects of the United States that altogether largely (though certainly not entirely) superseded the older Southern regional patterns:

Inland South and Texas

ANAE identifies the "Inland South" as a large linguistic area of the South located mostly in southern Appalachia (specifically naming the cities of Greenville SC, Asheville NC, Knoxville and Chatanooga TN, and Birmingham and Linden AL), inland from both the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, and the originating region of the Southern Vowel Shift. The Inland South, along with the "Texas South" (an urban core of central Texas: Dallas, Lubbock, Odessa, and San Antonio)[10] are considered the two major locations in which the Southern regional sound system is the most evolved, and therefore the core areas of the current-day South as a dialect region.[41]

The accents of Texas are actually diverse, for example with important Spanish influences on its vocabulary;[42] however, much of the state is still an unambiguous region of modern rhotic Southern speech, strongest in the cities of Dallas, Lubbock, Odessa, and San Antonio,[10] which all firmly demonstrate the first stage of the Southern Shift, if not also further stages of the shift.[43] Texan cities that are noticeably "non-Southern" dialectally are Abilene and Austin; only marginally Southern are Houston, El Paso, and Corpus Christi.[44] In western and northern Texas, the cot–caught merger is very close to completed.[45]

Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah

The Atlas of North American English identifies Atlanta, Georgia as a dialectal "island of non-Southern speech",[46] Charleston, South Carolina likewise as "not markedly Southern in character", and the traditional local accent of Savannah, Georgia as "giving way to regional [Midland] patterns",[47] despite these being three prominent Southern cities. The dialect features of Atlanta are best described today as sporadic from speaker to speaker, with such variation increased due to a huge movement of non-Southerners into the area during the 1990s.[48] Modern-day Charleston speakers have leveled in the direction of a more generalized Midland accent, away the city's now-defunct but traditional Lowcountry accent, whose features were "diametrically opposed to the Southern Shift... and differ in many other respects from the main body of Southern dialects".[49] The Savannah accent is also becoming more Midland-like. The following vowel sounds of Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah have been unaffected by typical Southern phenomena like the Southern drawl and Southern Vowel Shift:[48]

However, the modern accents of Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah do incorporate many of the general Southeastern super-regional features listed above and can be regarded roughly as varieties of Midland English;[48][50] some speakers from all three cities (though most consistently Charleston and least consistently in Savannah) demonstrate the Southeastern fronting of //. The status of the pin–pen merger is highly variable in all three cities.[50] Non-rhoticity (r-dropping) is now rare in these cities, yet still documented in some speakers.[51]

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,[52] 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.


Main article: Cajun English

Since the early 1900s, Cajuns of southern Louisiana, though historically monolingual French speakers, began to develop their own vernacular dialect of English, which retains some influences and words from Acadian/Cajun French, such as "cher" (dear) or "nonc" (uncle). This dialect fell out of fashion after World War II, but experienced a renewal in primarily male speakers born since the 1970s, who have been the most appealed by, and the biggest appealers for, a successful Cajun cultural renaissance.[52] Speakers of Cajun Vernacular English demonstrate these major features, among many others:[53]

New Orleans

Main article: New Orleans English

One historical English dialect spoken only by those raised in the Greater New Orleans area is non-rhotic and noticeably shares more pronunciation commonalities (due to very strong historical ties) with the New York accent than with other Southern accents. Since at least the 1980s, this local New Orleans dialect has popularly been called "Yat", from the common local greeting "Where you at?". The New York City English features shared with this dialect include:[48]

Yat also lacks the typical vowel changes of the Southern Shift and the pin–pen merger that are commonly heard elsewhere throughout the South. Yat is associated with the working and lower middle classes, though a spectrum with fewer notable Yat features is often heard the higher one's socioeconomic status; such New Orleans affluence is associated with the New Orleans Uptown and the Garden District, and its speech patterns are sometimes considered a separate variety altogether from the Yat dialect.[54]

Additionally, many unique terms such as "neutral ground"[55] for the median of a divided street (Louisiana/Southern Mississippi) or "banquette"[56] for a sidewalk (southern Louisiana/eastern Texas) are found in New Orleans and elsewhere in coastal Louisiana.

Phonology of the older South

Prior to becoming a phonologically unified dialect region, the South was once home to an array of much more diverse accents at the local level. Features of the deeper interior South largely became the basis for the newer Southern regional dialect and Southeastern super-regional dialect discussed above; thus, older Southern American English primarily refers to the English spoken in the coastal and former plantation areas of the South, best documented before the Civil War, on the decline during the early 1900s, and basically non-existent in speakers born since the Civil Rights Era.[57]

Very little unified these older Southern dialects, since they never formed a single homogeneous dialect region to begin with. Some older Southern accents were rhotic (most strongly in Appalachia and west of the Mississippi), while the majority were non-rhotic (most strongly in plantation areas); however, wide variation existed. Some older Southern accents showed (or approximated) Stage 1 of the Southern Vowel Shiftnamely, the glide weakening of //however, it is virtually unreported before the very late 1800s.[58] In general, the older Southern dialects clearly lacked the Mary–marry–merry, cot–caught, horse–hoarse, wine–whine, full–fool, fill–feel, and do–dew mergers, all of which are now common to, or encroaching on, all varieties of present-day Southern American English. Older Southern sound systems included those local to:[5]

Grammar and vocabulary

Newer features

Frequency of either "Y'all" or "You all" to address multiple people, according to an Internet survey of American dialect variation.[59]
Frequency of just "Y'all" to address multiple people, according to an Internet survey of American dialect variation.[59]

Shared newer and older features

These grammatical features are characteristic of both older Southern American English and newer Southern American English.

Relationship to African American English

Discussion of "Southern dialect" in the United States popularly refers to those English varieties spoken by white Southerners;[6] however, as a geographic term, it may also encompass the dialects developed among other social or ethnic groups in the South, most prominently including African Americans. Today, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a fairly unified variety of English spoken by working- and middle-class African Americans throughout the United States. AAVE exhibits an evident relationship with both older and newer Southern dialects, though the exact nature of this relationship is poorly understood.[63] It is clear that AAVE was influenced by older speech patterns of the Southern United States, where Africans and African Americans were held as slaves until the American Civil War. These slaves originally spoke a diversity of indigenous African languages but picked up English to communicate with one another, their white masters, and the white servants and laborers they often closely worked alongside. Many features of AAVE suggest that it largely developed from nonstandard dialects of colonial English (with some features of AAVE absent from other modern American dialects, yet still existing in certain modern British dialects). However, there is also evidence of the influence of West African languages on AAVE vocabulary and grammar.

It is uncertain to what extent early white Southern English borrowed elements from early African American English versus the other way around. Like many white accents of English once spoken in Southern plantation areasnamely, the Lowcountry, Virginia Piedmont and Tidewater, lower Mississippi Valley, and western Black Beltthe modern-day AAVE accent is mostly non-rhotic (or "r-dropping" ). The presence of non-rhoticity in both black English and older white Southern English is not merely coincidence, though, again, which dialect influenced which is unknown. It is better documented, however, that white Southerners borrowed some morphological processes from black Southerners.

Many grammatical features were used alike by older speakers of white Southern English and African American English more so than by contemporary speakers of the same two varieties. Even so, contemporary speakers of both continue to share these unique grammatical features: "existential it", the word y'all, double negatives, was to mean were, deletion of had and have, them to mean those, the term fixin' to, stressing the first syllable of words like hotel or guitar, and many others.[64] Both dialects also continue to share these same pronunciation features: /ɪ/ tensing, /ʌ/ raising, upgliding /ɔː/, the pin–pen merger, and the most defining sound of the current Southern accent (though rarely documented in older Southern accents): the glide weakening of //. However, while this glide weakening has triggered among white Southerners a complicated "Southern Vowel Shift", black speakers in the South and elsewhere on the other hand are "not participating or barely participating" in much of this shift.[65] AAVE speakers also do not front the vowel starting positions of // and //, thus aligning these characteristics more with the speech of nineteenth-century white Southerners than twentieth-century white Southerners.[66]

One strong possibility for the divergence of black American English and white Southern American English (i.e., the disappearance of older Southern American English) is that the civil rights struggles caused these two racial groups "to stigmatize linguistic variables associated with the other group".[67] This may explain some of the differences outlined above, including why all traditionally non-rhotic white Southern accents have shifted to now becoming intensely rhotic.

See also


  1. The only notable exceptions of the South being a subset of the "Southeastern super-region" are two Southern metropolitan areas, described as such because they participate in Stage 1 of the Southern Vowel Shift, but lack the other defining Southeastern features: Savannah, Georgia and Amarillo, Texas.


  1. Thomas (2006:4, 11)
  2. Stephen J. Nagle & Sara L. Sanders (2003). English in the Southern United States. Cambridge University Press. p. 35. ISBN 9781139436786[This page differentiates between "Traditional Southern" and "New Southern"]
  3. "Southern"., based on Random House, Inc. 2014[See definition 7.]
  4. "Southern". Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 2014[See under the "noun" heading.]
  5. 1 2 Thomas, Erik R. (2007) "Phonological and phonetic characteristics of African American Vernacular English," Language and Linguistics Compass, 1, 450–75. p. 453
  6. 1 2 (Thomas (2006)
  7. A Handbook of Varieties of English: Volume 1, p. 329
  8. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:241)
  9. "Do You Speak American: What Lies Ahead". PBS. Retrieved 2007-08-15.
  10. 1 2 3 Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:126, 131)
  11. Map from the Telsur Project. Retrieved 2009-08-03.
  12. Map from Craig M. Carver (1987), American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Retrieved 2009-08-03
  13. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:131, 139)
  14. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:131, 139)
  15. 1 2 3 4 Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:137)
  16. Southard, Bruce. "Speech Patterns". Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  17. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:141)
  18. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:263)
  19. Thomas (2006:14)
  20. Thomas (2006:9)
  21. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:61)
  22. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:261)
  23. Thomas (2006:16)
  24. Thomas (2006:15)
  25. Thomas (2006:1–2)
  26. Heggarty, Paul et al, eds. (2013). "Accents of English from Around the World". University of Edinburgh.
  27. A Handbook of Varieties of English: Volume 1, p. 332.
  28. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:244)
  29. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:245)
  30. A Handbook of Varieties of English: Volume 1, p. 301, 311-312
  31. 1 2 Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:248)
  32. 1 2 Thomas (2006:5)
  33. Stephen J. Nagle & Sara L. Sanders (2003). English in the Southern United States. Cambridge University Press. p. 151. ISBN 9781139436786.
  34. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:69–73)
  35. Thomas (2006:10)
  36. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:254)
  37. Thomas (2006:7)
  38. Wolfram (2004:55)
  39. A Handbook of Varieties of English: Volume 1, p. 331.
  40. Wells, John C. (1988). Accents of English 1: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. p. 164.
  41. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:148, 150)
  42. American Varieties: Texan English. Public Broadcasting Service. MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. 2005.
  43. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:69)
  44. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:131)
  45. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:254)
  46. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:181)
  47. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:304)
  48. 1 2 3 4 Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:260–1)
  49. 1 2 Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:259–260)
  50. 1 2 Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:68)
  51. Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:48)
  52. 1 2 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.
  53. 1 2 3 4 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. 409-10.
  54. Alvarez, Louis (director) (1985). Yeah You Rite! (Short documentary film). USA: Center for New American Media.
  55. "neutral ground". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Retrieved 2008-09-08.
  56. "banquette". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. Retrieved 2008-09-15.
  57. Thomas (2006:4)
  58. Thomas (2006:6)
  59. 1 2
  60. Harvard Dialect Survey - word use: a group of two or more people.
  61. Hazen, Kirk and Fluharty, Ellen. "Linguistic Diversity in the South: Changing Codes, Practices and Ideology". Page 59. Georgia University Press; 1st Edition: 2004. ISBN .0-8203-2586-4
  62. Regional Note from The Free Dictionary
  63. Thomas (2006:19)
  64. Lanehart, Sonja L. (editor) (2001). Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English. John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 113-114.
  65. Thomas (2006:19-20)
  66. Thomas (2006:4)
  67. Thomas (2006:4)


African-American English

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