Have you ever heard someone from the American South? They probably grew up in a state like Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia and say words like “y’all” (you all) and “didja” or “didju” (did you).
Though not everyone from the South speaks this way—I’m from Texas and have no accent—the Southern Drawl is easy to tell apart from the way people from Northern U.S. states speak.
But how do you define the Southern accent? What is it really? Like any accent, it has a long history and even offshoot (something that developed from something else) accents. There are also a lot of stereotypes (a widely believed idea about a person or thing) about people with a Southern Drawl.
As a non-native, it might be difficult to understand, and you may also have heard (or even believe) some of those myths about people from the South. In this article, we’ll explore the Southern Drawl, and help you to better understand the accent and its origin.
Where Exactly is The South?
There’s no official boundary that splits the United States into The South and the North. Some may say the Mason-Dixon line is the boundary, but the line dates back to the American Civil War (1861-1865). It doesn’t characterize the cultural and linguistic divide seen today.
There are a lot of unofficial language tests that draw boundaries between people who say “y’all” instead of “you all” or “you guys” and “red light” instead of “traffic light.” Another example is the pronunciation of “pen” and “pin.” People in the South tend to pronounce both words the same while Northerners have a distinction in the sound of the vowels.
The pen/pin distinction is the best boundary one can draw for mapping the boundaries.
Origin of the Southern Drawl
The Southern Drawl, like any accent, developed over the course of hundreds of years. There were many factors that contributed to its evolution including: plantation and farm life, Western expansion, immigration, and an increasing number and size of American cities.
The original distinction goes all the way back to the mid-1700s when wealthy British traders started dropping the “r” sound from their speech as a distinction (a difference between similar things or people) of their class.
To this day, this is the reason people from cities like Boston drop the “r” from many of their words, e.g. “park the car” is spoken as “pahk the cah.”
However, rural and less wealthy classes who came from Northern England settled in the South. And they did (and still do) pronounce the “r” sound in words. This is where the origins of the Southern Drawl lie.
Note that there are places in the South that don’t pronounce the “r” but still have a similar accent. Americans still consider these accents to be Southern, and they vary by area. It depends on the origin of the original immigrants.
Many Forms of the Southern Accent
Because of the local differences in accent, it’s difficult for anyone to tell exactly where someone is from based solely on the Southern accent. Even native Southerners have trouble knowing if a person came from Mobile, Memphis, or Jackson.
The South is a very large geographic area that has a variety of sub-accents still classified as Southern. The biggest discussion you’ll hear about the accents is distinguishing the Southern Drawl from the Southern Twang.
The key difference is that the drawl is spoken much slower and doesn’t pronounce “r’s” as much. Whereas the twang is spoken faster, is more nasal, and pronounces “r’s” more sharply.
Here are some of the key dialects:
Lower Southern/Coastal Dialect
This is the classic Southern Drawl you hear on TV and movies based in the American South. It’s spoken slowly and has elongated vowels (e.g. “drahwer” instead of “drawer”). You’ll generally hear this in states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.
This dialect is spoken in Tennessee and areas within the lower Appalachian mountains. It features long “O” sounds and words that end in “en”, “em”, or “im” sound more like “in.” As in, “I’ve ‘bin’ sittin’ here for twenty minutes.”
The Texas dialect is almost its own distinct accent. Linguists are still studying what exactly sets the Texas dialect apart from other Southern dialects. The biggest difference is the pool of words with vowels that merged over time. “Fire” and “Far” sound the same with a Texas dialect.
New Orleans/Creole Dialect
Also known as a Cajun dialect, it is local mainly to New Orleans but can be heard in other parts of Louisiana. The dialect rounds the vowels “a” and “o.”
Rural vs. City
In addition to the differences in region, you will also hear a distinction between a city and rural Southern accent. The cost efficiency of the cities in the South caused major population booms which brought in people from other regions of the country and even all over the world.
Because of this migration, many Southerners who live in the larger cities have started to lose their accent and speak in General American.
Southern Drawl Characteristics
Without the variations, here are the key characteristics of a Southern accent aside from the usage of the “r” sound.
The Southern Drawl
The meaning of the term drawl links to the spoken length of vowels. This means that many vowels in a Southern accent are split into two syllables. It comes out in words like “there” and “bed” which are pronounced “they-yur” and “bay-ehd.”
The Sound of the Letter “i”
The vowel “i” is merged in many Southern words. Though you may have trouble distinguishing the split in other accents, it exists. But in the South, the pronunciation of “i”, as in “ay-ee”, is shortened to just “ah.” So it’s pronounced bah for the word “buy.” As in: “I’m ‘unna bah a used car” for “I’m going to buy a used car.”
Syllable Stress on the First Syllable
Last, a key indication of a Southern accent is the syllable stress in the first syllable with specific words. For example words like “cement”, “umbrella”, and “police” are spoken as “CEE-ment”, “UHM-brella”, and “PO-leese.”
While this isn’t the whole story of the Southern drawl, hopefully this gives any ESL learner a small picture of what to expect to hear when traveling in the American South. Remember, there are many dialects in the South and a whole host of slang vocabulary words that would take years to learn.
And if you want to speak with real Americans, be sure to join the Magoosh Speaking Club where you can practice your English with native speakers. They can help you to distinguish and understand the Southern drawl along with a host of other American accents.