Speaking Southern

Good morning Everyone!

The subject of speaking Southern came up in our house a couple of days ago because we addressed Tyra by one of her nicknames, Tyra Belle.  According to Webster’s, the word “bell” is a single syllable, but anyone down here in the South is aware that if spoken correctly, “bell” consists of two syllables “be-ell.”  However, it is possible, if speaking extreme Southern, to stretch the word out into three syllables – “be-uh-ell.”  We know this because we heard Kayla do exactly that.  This lengthening of words is one reason why the Southern American accent is also known as the Southern drawl.

Southern American English is spoken generally by natives in parts of Virginia, all of West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, the northern part of Florida, including the panhandle (the panhandle is also known here as “L.A.”, standing for “lower Alabama,” although I haven’t heard the phrase for a while), Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and probably Oklahoma.  I say probably Oklahoma because I haven’t had the chance to spend any time in the state.  As a general rule, neither Maryland nor Delaware natives have a Southern accent, even though they are technically below the Mason-Dixon line.

There are many regional variations, of course, and I lack the phonetics background to begin to describe them.  However, to give you a sense of the historic precedents involved in at least some variations, I will mention the Louisiana Cajun accent, one of the most distinctive Southern English variations.  The Cajun accent comes from people who are native to areas where the descendants of French Canadians who emigrated to Louisiana after England took over Canada sometime in the 1600 or 1700’s still live today.

All Southern English dialects are spoken slowly.  We don’t care to rush our words, partly because we generally feel that what we are saying is worth listening to and partly because at 98 degrees outside with 100% humidity, it’s just too hot to do anything quickly.

Another characteristic of Southern American English is the pronunciation of words like “you” – phonetically, it would sound like “yew” or rhyme with “chew.”  I think this was designed by God to teach all church music ministers in this area of the country humility – rare is the church concert indeed where at least one “yew” doesn’t slip through the cracks into the singing somewhere.

Southern American English is best known for its use of the word “y’all.”  “Y’all” is a contraction of the words “you all” and can be thought of as the second person plural.  Before those of you in other areas of the country start laughing at the use of the word “y’all,” you should perhaps stop and reflect upon whether “y’all” doesn’t sound a bit better than other variations from other regions, such as “you’s guys.”  Besides, it avoids our having to use “yew” too very often in normal conversation.

Southern American English also is known for its use of colorful colloquialisms.  The best colorful colloquialisms I have heard have been from a friend raised in Texas, and of course at this moment (5:51 a.m.) all of them have fled my mind.  One region wide expression worth sharing is “even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then.”  This expression is used to describe the surprising success of an individual in a field of endeavor that he or she has little experience in (or is just plain rotten at.)

Regional colloquialisms abound as well.  In the areas of North Carolina where my husband and I lived when we were first married, children “trimmed” their pencils instead of sharpening them (although we still sharpen them here in Alabama) and if they missed the bus, they had been “bus left.”  In Alabama, if we are getting ready to go somewhere or do something, we might also say that we are “fixin’ to” do it, as in “I am fixin’ to have some ice cream.  Would y’all like some too?” Some of us “carry” people places, rather than drive them there.  I use “fixin’ to” and  “y’all” frequently, but haven’t picked up “carry” for driving yet.

Native Southern American English speakers can spot a non-native speaker a mile away.  This fact creates a great deal of frustration on the part of the South when actors try to manufacture a Southern accent without truly doing their homework.  There are movies Mark and I have cringed through due to the butchering of a Southern accent.  On the other hand, it is a real pleasure to listen to the accent when an actor gets it right.  One of the best Southern accents I have heard from a movie actor was Kevin Spacey’s accent in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

I am not a native Southern American English speaker, although I have been progressively learning it for over 31 years now.  Anyone from any other region of the country would peg me as Southern, but as recently as two months ago, someone asked me, “You’re not from around here, are you?” because of the way I speak.  (Note:  To be “from around” a place translates to being born and bred at that place.) It was the first time in years someone had said that to me, but even so, he was exactly right.

From the most educated parts of our population down to the least educated parts of the population, we all speak a version of Southern American English.  In the South, we have an unfortunate predilection for displaying our least educated members on television or in the news, so the rest of you haven’t yet seen our college professors and rocket scientists who speak Southern, giving you a warped vision of what Southern American English can be.  And yes, we do have rocket scientists here in the Deep South, particularly in Huntsville, Alabama and Houston, Texas, where extensive NASA facilities are located.

One nice feature in Southern English is the phrase “bless her [or his] heart.”  You can get away with saying anything about anyone else as long as you say it in a gently compassionate voice, with a smile, and include the statement “bless his heart” somewhere in the sentence.  For example, the statement, “Bless his heart, John Smith is crazy as a loon,” is perfectly acceptable and taken as an expression of concern rather than derogation.

If you haven’t had the chance to spend some time down here, I strongly urge you to do so.  A week or two among the people of the South would be good for everyone in other areas of the country, both to give you a true sense of who we are, and to simply enjoy the different sounds of speech around you.  (The same is true for us in the South; it’s good for us to visit y’all, too.)  And, when you get ready to leave, don’t be surprised if someone says, “Y’all come back, you hear!”

Have a great day everyone!


13 responses to “Speaking Southern

  1. When I lived in eastern Tennessee, I heard people say “you’uns,” as in “You’uns gonna go to the store?” Some also had the coolest phrase, “I ain’t studyin’ that” to let you know they weren’t going to waste any time on something. Now I was born and raised in Alabama, but those were new ones on me.

  2. Great post. I’m from West Virginia and lived in North Carolina for 20 years. People automatically deduct 30 points from my IQ (which I can’t afford) when I speak.

    • My husband had people who would do that when he was growing up, too. He learned to use it to his advantage. It’s a shame that it happens, though. Thank you for stopping by and deciding to follow!


  3. Built a log cabin and lived in the hills of Arkansas for many years. These are some of my best memories. I fell in love with the south and it’s people.

    • I know the feeling. When we first moved to Montgomery when I was 16, it took my family only a month or two to decide that the advantages of living in the South were some of the best kept secrets in the country.


  4. Fascinating Nancy. As you know, I am Georgian 🙂 I recall saying to the tall person yesterday, “How’n duh Sam Hill did you ever gicherself in a sichy-ayshun whirr duh fish er a-bitin’ an’ you ain’t got no pole?” Does this qualify as a Southern drawl? 🙂

    • Oh Bassa, it was a noble effort, but you’re from the country Georgia, which is not the same as the state Georgia. I haven’t ever heard the expression “how in the Sam Hill” but my friend Bonnie says that her father used to say it, so I guess you know a little bit more about the South than I do.

  5. HA! I love Southerners. I remember going to North Carolina for the first time as a teen agers and almost freaking out at how slow everything was. Later in life, I learn to appreciate this quality! (I never pictured you with a Southern accent. Now I’ll have to re-read all your posts with a drawl in my head 😉

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