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Southern American English is a group of dialects of the English language spoken throughout the Southern region of the United States, from the southern extremities of Maryland, as well as most of West Virginia and Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, and from the Atlantic coast to most of Texas and Oklahoma. The Southern dialects make up the largest accent group in the United States. Southern American English can be divided into several regional sub-dialects. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has common points with Southern dialects due to the strong historical ties of African Americans to the region.
The Southern dialects collectively known as Southern American English stretch across the southeastern 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, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia. It also includes parts of southern and central Missouri, and parts of Florida and Maryland.
Southern dialects originated in large part from immigrants from the British Isles who moved to the South in the 17th and 18th centuries. Settlement also included large numbers of Protestants from Ulster, Ireland, and from Scotland. 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.
Few generalizations can be made about Southern pronunciation as there is great variation between the regions of the South (see the different southern American English dialects section below for more information), between older and younger people, and between people of different ethnic backgrounds.
The following features are characteristic of older SAE:
The following phenomena are relatively wide spread in Newer SAE, though the extent of these features varies across regions and between rural and urban areas. The older the speaker, the less likely he or she is to display these features:
The following features are also associated with SAE:
These grammatical features are characteristic of both older Southern American English and newer Southern American English.
What is commonly referred to as a "southern accent" in the United States may be one of the most distinguishable regional accents within the country. However, contrary to popular belief, there is no single "Southern accent". Instead, there are a number of sub-regional dialects found across the Southern United States, collectively known as Southern American English. Yet these dialects often share features of accent and idiom that easily distinguish them from the English spoken in other regions of the United States, features that identify those dialects as "Southern", particularly to other Americans. Although people in the Southern United States speak different "Southern" dialects, they can understand one another, as can, on a broader scale, residents of the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Virginia Piedmont dialect is possibly the most famous of Southern dialects because of its strong influence on speech patterns of the South. Because the dialect has long been associated with the upper or aristocratic plantation class in the Old South, many of the most important figures in Southern history spoke with a Virginia Piedmont accent. Virginia Piedmont is non-rhotic, meaning speakers pronounce "R" only if it is followed by a vowel. The dialect also features the Southern drawl (mentioned above).
Coastal Southern resembles Virginia Piedmont but has preserved more elements from the colonial era dialect than the dialects of almost all other regions of the United States. Coastal Southern can be found along the coasts of the Chesapeake and the Atlantic in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. It is most prevalent in the Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, areas. Like Virginia Piedmont, Coastal Southern is non-rhotic.
This dialect arose in the inland areas of the South. The area was settled largely by Scots-Irish, Scottish Highlanders, Northern and Western English, Welsh, and Germans.
This dialect's northern boundary follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moves from Kentucky, across far southern Missouri and Oklahoma, and tapers out in western Texas. This dialect is used by some people in Southern Illinois, Southern Ohio and Southern Indiana. It has assimilated some coastal Southern forms, most noticeably the loss of the diphthong /aj/, which becomes /aː/, and the second person plural pronoun "you-all" or "y'all". Unlike Coastal Southern, however, South Midland is a rhotic dialect, pronouncing /r/ wherever it has historically occurred.
The dialect of Oklahoma, for example, is a mixture of Midland American English and South Midland Southern American English. Native Americans in Indian Territory used Southern dialect forms, while white settlers who arrived in Oklahoma Territory from the Midwest in the late 19th century brought more Midland forms.
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 "R"s wherever they appear in words, and sometimes when they do not (for example "worsh" 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, Middle Tennessee, 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".
This dialect is found throughout several regions of Florida and in south Georgia. Several variations of the dialect are found in Florida. From Pensacola to Tallahassee, the dialect is non-rhotic and shares many characteristics with the speech patterns of southern Alabama. Another form of the dialect is spoken in northeast Florida, Central Florida, the Nature Coast and even in rural parts of South Florida. This dialect was made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' book The Yearling.
This area of the South was settled by English speakers moving west from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas, along with French settlers from Louisiana (see the section below). This accent is common in Mississippi, northern Louisiana, Arkansas, western Tennessee, and East Texas. Familiar speakers include Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Dialects found in Georgia and Alabama that are not Southern Appalachian have characteristics of both the Gulf Southern dialect and the Virginia Piedmont/Coastal Southern dialect.
The accents of southern and central Louisiana, while considered Southern, are diverse. Many dialects are unique to the region.
Southern Louisiana, southeast Texas (Houston to Beaumont), and coastal Mississippi, feature a number of dialects. There is Cajun French, which combines elements of Acadian French with other French and Spanish words. This dialect is spoken by many of the older members of the Cajun ethnic group and is said to be dying out. Many younger Cajuns speak Cajun English, which retains Acadian French influences and words, such as "cher" (dear) or "nonc" (uncle). The French language can also still be heard in some parts of southern Louisiana.
Louisiana Creole French (Kreyol Lwiziyen) is a French-based creole language spoken in Louisiana. It has many resemblances to other French creoles in the Caribbean. While Cajun French and Louisiana Creole have had a significant influence on each other, they are unrelated. While Cajun is basically a French dialect with a grammar similar to that of standard French, Louisiana Creole applies a French lexicon to a system of grammar and syntax that differs considerably from French grammar.
This dialect is spoken in and around the greater New Orleans area. It is referred to as Yat, from phrases such as "Where y'at?" (for "Where are you?") Additionally, many unique terms such as "neutral ground" for the median of a divided street (Louisiana/Southern Mississippi) or "banquette" for a sidewalk (Southern Louisiana/Eastern Texas) are found here.
The following dialects were influenced by African languages.
Sometimes called Geechee, this creole language originated with African American slaves on the coastal areas and coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The dialect was used to communicate with both Europeans and members of African tribes other than their own. Gullah was strongly influenced by West African languages such as Vai, Mende, Twi, Ewe, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Kikongo. The name and chorus of the Christian hymn "Kumbaya" is said to be Gullah for come by here. Other English words attributed to Gullah are juke (jukebox), goober (Southern term for peanut) and voodoo. In a 1930s study by Lorenzo Dow Turner, over 4,000 words from many different African languages were discovered in Gullah. Other words, such as yez for ears, are just phonetic spellings of English words as pronounced by the Gullahs, on the basis of influence from Southern and Western English dialects.
This type of Southern American English originated in the Southern States where Africans were at that time held as slaves. These slaves originally spoke indigenous African languages but eventually picked up English to communicate with their masters and one another. Since the slave masters spoke Southern American English, that is the dialect of English the slaves learned. Over time, the form of SAE spoken by these slaves developed into what is now African American Vernacular English, which retains many SAE features. While the African slaves and their descendants lost most of their language and culture, some vocabulary and grammatical features from indigenous West African languages remain in AAVE. While AAVE may also be spoken by members of other ethnic groups, it is largely spoken by and associated with blacks in many parts of the U.S. AAVE is considered by a number of English speakers to be a substandard dialect. As a result, AAVE speakers who seek social mobility typically learn to code-switch between AAVE and a more standardized English dialect. Liberian English is said to be at least partially based on AAVE, since that dialect of English was modeled after American English and not British English.