I am a native of Charleston, South Carolina who is well-versed with the variety of Southern accents out there.
Living in the South
The Southern Accent
Living in South Carolina my entire life, I have always been surrounded by the Southern accent and the slow Southern drawl. The accent changes from Southern state to Southern state, and even city to city. I have a Charleston accent, which is actually quite different from the traditional Southern accent. Many people ask where I am from because it does not quite match the general South Carolina accent.
As distinct as the British accent, the Southern accent means different things to different people. Some embrace the slow and friendly drawl, while others make fun of it. If you are not that familiar with the Southern accent and find yourself visiting or moving to a Southern state, you may need this guide to translate and understand what is being said. No, it is not a separate language, but there is a noticeable accent, and we have different terms and sayings as well.
Where Does the Southern Accent Come From?
The development of the Southern accent occurred over hundreds of years and had many contributing factors to its spread, most notably immigration and slavery. The main origin of the accent comes from British immigrants. The older Southern American accent, which became less prominent following the Civil War, had stronger similarities to the British accents of Northern England. Over the years, the Cockney accent became less prominent and the influence of the Creole language from slaves became more prominent.
The Southern Drawl
The first noticeable thing about the way a Southerner talks is the speed. Southerners are typically more laid back and that is reflected in the speech which has drawn-out vowel sounds. You will also notice words that run together like gonna (going to) and lem-me (let me). No, we are not "slow" or "backwards," but we usually take our time and enjoy life. Some find the Southern drawl irresistible. Think of Matthew McConaughey in the movie A Time to Kill.
Growing up, we had friends that moved to England for a year. When the girls first arrived at school, their new classmates would beg them to talk and then just squeal in delight over their Southern drawl and accent. Then there are others that assume a person with a Southern drawl is lazy and even ignorant—that is until they actually meet a real Southerner!
What Is a Southern Twang?
A twang is quite distinctive from a drawl. The drawl, which is more common in the Deep South, tends to drop the "R" sound and sounds softer to the ear as syllables are drawn out. The twang, which is more common as you head further north and west, is faster and sharper to the ear. The twang can sound almost nasally and the "R" sound is more pronounced.
The US South
Southerners don't say I or eye the way you do. It is more of an aah with a short "a" sound. We also say mah for the word my, also with the short "a." So, for example, you may hear "Aah have an aah-lash in mah aah" (I have an eyelash in my eye).
The word get does not rhyme with yet here in the South. We say it like git. There is a common rhyme teachers use at school when students complain about not getting their first choice. In the North, you might say: "You get what you get, so don't be upset." But that does not rhyme for us. We say "You git what you git, so don't throw a fit." Pretty interesting, huh?
Southerners with a heavy country accent don't say tire like you do. It is more of a taar—that being one syllable instead of two. So you may hear "Lordy be, Aah've got a flat taar." (Oh no, I have a flat tire.) Or it may be, "Lem-me put mah feet up - Aah'm taard." (Let me put my feet up - I'm tired.) Fire follows the same rule and is pronounced faar.
The word can't in many small towns here actually rhymes with paint. Hmmm...maybe that is where ain't came from. Likewise, again is pronounced the way it looks, and rhymes with rain. The preposition on is pronounced own. So, you may hear something like "Aah caint put own mah bray-own shoes ah-gain" (I can't put on my brown shoes again.)
What Is a Rhotic Accent?
Rhoticity in English refers to sounding out the "R" at the end of words and syllables. Some accents, like British English and Boston accents, are non-rhotic accents. Compare sounding out the "R" in the word "car" in a General American accent (cahrrr) as opposed to saying it in a non-rhotic accent (cah).
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The mid-18th century saw wealthy British people start dropping the "R" from their speech. This was done to label themselves as part of upper society. This non-rhotic accent carried over to America; it can still be heard in Boston and New York accents.
The Southern accent originally lacked the "R" sound; this was a trait carried over from England. Rhoticity has entered into the accent over the years as the Southern accent has receded.
Translating Southern Pronunciations
|Southern Pronunciation||Translation||Used in a sentence|
Say grace be-fo-ah you ate.
Have we met be-fo-wah?
Aah caint fit into this wed-din dray-ess, Mama!
You look lac a wet dawg.
Mama and Diddy sayd so!
Diddy's drive'n the faar-truck.
He's such a swate fellah.
four or for
One, two, thray, fo-wah
Git your boots off the table!
Aah'm gonna git you, Bubba!
Aah lak your pick-up truck.
Aah'm gonna mare you one day, swate pay.
Come own, girl!
Ate your grayn pays, swatie.
He looks lac a ray-ed neck.
Cuz I sayd so.
You best go back to scole.
Aw, that baby possum's so swate.
Mah truck has a flat taar.
Y'all come back now!
Give meh that yellah mustard for mah dawg.
Southern Terms and Sayings
The most famous Southern expression is y'all, which is an abbreviation for you all. The greeting Hey means Hello. A true Southerner would never ever say "Hello, you all" or "Hi, you guys." But, very often, you will hear "Hey, y'all." These are some other common Southern terms and sayings:
- just pickin: teasing - Aw, come own now, Aah'm just pickin wid ya.
- pitch a fit: complain - Don't pitch a fit about that dray-ess.
- now: We throw that word in anywhere - Hey, now; Run along now; Now don't you git sassy with meh.
- cut the light off: turn out the light - Cut the light off, Sugah.
- fixin: getting ready to do something - Aah'm fixin to change that taar.
- reckon: to figure or think - Aah reckon we kin make it in time.
Different Types of Southern Accents
The American South is a large area that features many different dialects of the Southern accent. Here are a few different types of Southern accents out there.
- Coastal/Lowland Southern English: This can be thought of as the classic Southern accent. It is the kind that you often hear in various media like films and TV. It features non-rhotic speech, gliding vowels, and elongated pronunciation of vowels.
- Inland/Mountain Southern English: This is the dialect often heard from people living in areas like Appalachia, Texas, and Tennessee. A common trait is words ending in im, en, or em sounding more like in (Ben would sound more like Bin). Long "O" sounds are also usually fronted more (goose can sound more like gus).
- New Orleans English: This dialect is exclusive to the city of New Orleans. The accent developed from the mixture of French as well as the Creole language that was predominant in Louisiana. Traits of the accent include the lowering and rounding of "A" and "O" sounds and the loss of rhoticity in words ending in T.
The Charleston Southern Accent
Natives from Charleston, South Carolina have a unique Southern accent, and not so much the slow drawl of our neighbors. Our accent was affected by the local African-American Gullah dialect, as well as different European influences. We seem to avoid final and middle "r" sounds, so the name of our city is pronounced Chaahs-tun. Other words you may hear are:
- riv-ah - river
- ow-wah - our
- pow-ah - power
- few-cha - future
- hee-yah - here
- ovah - over
The pronunciation of house is strange. It is not quite hass, but more like hahss. So, you may hear "Now y'all come on ovah hee-yah to owwah rivah hahss for drinks" (Now you guys come on over here to our river house for drinks.) Even this particular accent has variation. There are some Charlestonians that clip their words a bit, so house is more like huss.
Charlestonians do not use Southern expressions like just pickin, though we do use the famous y'all. We don't say taar or faar, either, for tire and fire. It would be fair to say that the Charleston accent is less "country" sounding. There is very little, if any, twang, but definitely a different pronunciation of some words.
Sadly, the charming Charleston accent seems to be dying out. My grandmother spoke with a heavy accent, and my mother has some traces. My accent contains only hints, and my children even less.
Finding the Southern Accent
If you travel the South, you will notice some areas with a very strong twang, while others are less noticeable. In bigger cities like Charleston and Atlanta, you may not consistently hear the accent, because so many people from other places live there now. The stronger Southern accents are more widespread in the smaller towns and communities.