Fincher Jarrell left the family farm on the Pee Dee River in central North Carolina some 50 years ago, earned a law degree and built a successful legal practice in Charlotte. But theres one thing from his roots in the rural South that Jarrell still carries with him:
The word fine glides out of his mouth in three slow syllables. Fa-ah-ne. Unless hes in court before a judge or in a deposition with an out-of-town attorney. In those situations, hes as deliberate about the way he talks as he is about what he says.
Jarrell, who is 67, is proud of his heritage, and that includes his accent. But hes as familiar as any of us with the stereotype of the dumb Southern redneck.
Ill be extra careful to try to speak more distinctly and try to get rid of the drawl a little bit, he said.
Not that hes embarrassed by his accent. Thats where I was raised, he said. Its something we ought to be proud of.
Our Southern dialect
If you grew up in the South and have traveled outside the region, undoubtedly someone has poked fun at the way you talk. Whenever I see a certain friend from up North, he greets me with an exaggerated Hah! despite the fact that I pronounce Hi the way he does, with a long i.
And talk about accents: Hes from New York City, bless his heart.
I asked Walt Wolfram, a linguist at N.C. State University, about how our accent feeds the stereotype of the dumb Southerner. He said many unjustifiable stereotypes are associated with dialects, and then he made an observation about the Southern accent that I especially enjoyed:
If youre talking about selling a car, its great to have a Southern dialect, but you wouldnt want a judge to talk that way, he said. At the same time, people think its very charming, and very sexy, for a woman to talk that way.
The Confederate A
Early immigrants influenced the way people talk around here, including the Scots Irish, who came willingly, and the African-Americans, who were enslaved.
The Southern drawl owes its lyricism to those first black Southerners. While forced to work as slaves, they created an unwritten creole language of their own, a melodic blend of Old English and West African called Gullah. Black people on remote sea islands of the Carolina Low Country spoke Gullah well into the last century, but by now it has all but disappeared.
That interaction between historical African-American Vernacular English and Anglo European speech has influenced the dialects we get in the South, said Becky Roeder, an assistant professor of linguistics at UNC Charlotte.
But though the roots of our drawl date back to the plantation South, Wolfram said many of its unique attributes developed after the Civil War.
Because of the cultural divide, with the North and South not having much to do with each other, the Southern dialect developed as a separate Southern identity, Wolfram said.
The most recognizable feature of our dialect is the way many Southerners pronounce the vowel in words such as fine, light, high and my. Instead of a long i, it comes out as a soft ah. Some linguists call it the Confederate A.
Mah, what a fa-ah-ne day it is!
Another distinction is the way Southerners pronounce words ending in the letter r. They often hush the last consonant so that car because cah.
Jarrell thinks that some of the rap Southerners get is more because of grammar than pronunciation. He grew up on the farm saying aint. After he moved to the city, he worked to eliminate that word from his vocabulary as well as the Southern habit of dropping the G at the end of words, which he calls speaking lazy.
I coached Little League baseball, and I remember last season, I said, Go get your battin helmet, Jarrell said. Its not a battin helmet. Its a batting helmet.
A Charlotte accent?
Roeder, the UNCC professor, believes Charlotte has its own variation of the Southern accent. She is studying the way different generations from here talk and hopes to discover whether were losing features of the dialect more quickly than people in rural areas.
One of the things I love about North Carolina is the enormous amount of variation you get across the state, said Roeder, who grew up in Chicago. I do think Charlotte has a distinctive accent. I cant explain exactly what makes it unique yet.
She believes stereotypes about Southerners have more to do with social and cultural history than they do with the way we talk.
Northerners and their accents gained the upper hand after the Civil War.
Which begs the question: If the South had won, would people think were smarter because of our drawl?