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Y’all ever wonder why Suthinas talk the way we do?

Like many things, our accents date back to the Civil War

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

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 there’s one thing from his roots in the rural South that Jarrell still carries with him:

His accent.

The word “fine” glides out of his mouth in three slow syllables. “Fa-ah-ne.” Unless he’s in court before a judge or in a deposition with an out-of-town attorney. In those situations, he’s 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 he’s as familiar as any of us with the stereotype of the dumb Southern redneck.

“I’ll be extra careful to try to speak more distinctly and try to get rid of the drawl a little bit,” he said.

Not that he’s embarrassed by his accent. “That’s where I was raised,” he said. “It’s 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: He’s 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 you’re talking about selling a car, it’s great to have a Southern dialect, but you wouldn’t want a judge to talk that way,” he said. “At the same time, people think it’s 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 “ain’t.” 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. “It’s not a battin’ helmet. It’s 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 we’re 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 can’t 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 we’re smarter because of our drawl?

Leland: 704-358-5074
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