Older Southern American English
RegionSouthern United States
Early forms
Language codes
ISO 639-3

Older Southern American English is a diverse set of American English dialects of the Southern United States spoken most widely up until the American Civil War of the 1860s, before gradually transforming among its White speakers, first, by the turn of the 20th century, and, again, following the Great Depression, World War II, and, finally, the Civil Rights Movement.[1] By the mid-20th century, among White Southerners, these local dialects had largely consolidated into, or been replaced by, a more regionally unified Southern American English. Meanwhile, among Black Southerners, these dialects transformed into a fairly stable African-American Vernacular English, now spoken nationwide among Black people.[2] Certain features unique to older Southern U.S. English persist today, like non-rhoticity, though typically only among Black speakers or among very localized White speakers.


This group of American English dialects evolved over two hundred years, from older varieties of British English, primarily spoken by those who initially settled the area. Given that language is an entity that is constantly changing,[3] the English varieties of the colonists were quite different from any variety of English spoken today. In the early 1600s, the initial English-speaking settlers of the Tidewater area of Virginia, the first permanent English colony in North America, spoke a variety of Early Modern English, which itself was diverse.[4] The older Southern dialects thus originated in varying degrees from a mix of the speech of these and later immigrants from many different regions of the British Isles, who moved to the American South in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as perhaps the English, creole, and post-creole speech of African and African-American slaves.

One theory of historian David Hackett Fischer's book Albion's Seed is that, since indentured servants chiefly from England's South and Midlands primarily settled the Tidewater Virginia region and poor Northern English and Ulster Scots families primarily settled the Southern backcountry, the Tidewater and backcountry (now, Appalachian) dialects were most directly influenced by those two immigrant populations, respectively.[5] Indeed, the Appalachian dialect shows such likely immigrant influences as evidenced by, for example, their preservation of rhoticity.[6][7] However, linguists have disputed many of the specifics of Fischer's theory, instead arguing that dialect-mixing in both regions was in fact more varied and widespread.[8] For example, an Appalachian Journal linguistic article reveals the flawed premises and misrepresentation of sources in Albion's Seed and asserts that the early Southern dialects are actually difficult to trace to any singular influence.[9]

In the decades following the American Revolution of the 1760s to 1780s, major population centers of the coastal American South, such as Norfolk, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina maintained strong commercial and cultural ties to southern England and London. Thus, as the upper-class standard dialect around London changed, some of its features were mirrored by: the dialects of upper-class Americans in eastern Virginia and the Charleston area, followed by the regional dialects of these areas in general, regardless of socioeconomic class. One such example accent feature is the "r-dropping" (or non-rhoticity) of the late 18th and early 19th century, resulting in the similar r-dropping found in these American areas during the cultural "Old South". Contrarily, in Southern areas away from the major coasts and plantations (like Appalachia), on certain isolated islands, and variously among lower-class White speakers, accents mostly remained rhotic. Another example feature is the trap–bath split, which also helped define the eastern Virginia accent in its British-style imitation. The split was also adopted in the Gulf, Appalachian, and plantation regions of the South, though with their own articulation distinct from the British one. The feature is extinct in virtually all these areas today.[10]

By the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s, many different Southern accents had developed, namely: eastern Virginia accents (including the Tidewater accent), Lowcountry (or Charleston) accents, Appalachian accents, plantation accents (those primarily of the Black Belt region), and accents among secluded Pamlico and Chesapeake islands.


After the Civil War, the growth of timber, coal, railroad, steel, textile, and tobacco mill industries throughout the South, along with the whole country's resulting migration changes, likely contributed to the expansion of a more unified Southern accent (now associated with the 20th century), which gradually ousted 19th-century Southern accents.[11] The South's 19th-century linguistic prestige was rooted in the plantation areas and higher-class White people, including features such as non-rhoticity. However, by the mid-20th century, linguistic features originating from Texas, Appalachian towns, and lower-class White people—such as rhoticity—were suddenly expanding throughout all the Southern States. Also, before World War II, the demographic tendency of the South was out-migration, but after the war a counter-tendency emerged, with the South receiving masses of migrant workers from the North, especially toward urban areas: another possible motivation for the abandonment of older Southern accent features. Finally, the Civil Rights Movement seems to have led White and Black Southerners alike to resist accent features associated with the other racial group and even develop newly distinguishing features, which may have further contributed to the sudden mid-20th-century adoption of rhoticity among White Southerners of all classes, despite continuing non-rhoticity among Black Americans.[11] Today, this linguistic divide on the basis of rhoticity (and other accent features) largely persists between Black versus White Southerners.


General Older South

The phonologies of early Southern English in the United States were diverse. The following pronunciation features were very generally characteristic of the older Southern region as a whole:

A list of typical older Southern vowels[12]
English diaphoneme Old Southern phoneme Example words
/aɪ/ [aɪ~æɛ~aæ] bride, prize, tie
[ai~aæ] bright, price, tyke
/æ/ [æ] (or [æɛæ~ɐɛɐ], often before /d/) cat, trap, yak
[æɛæ~eə] hand, man, slam
[æɛ~æe] bath, can't, pass
/aʊ/ [æɒ~æɔ] mouth, ow, sound
/ɑː/ [ɑ] or [ɒ] father, laager, palm
/ɑr/ [ɑː~ɒː] (non-rhotic) or
[ɒɻ] (rhotic)
ark, heart, start
/ɒ/ [ɑ] bother, lot, wasp
/eɪ/ [ɛɪ~ei] or
[eː] (plantation possibility)
face, rein, play
/ɛ/ [ɛ] (or [eiə], often before /d/) dress, egg, head
/ɜr/ [ɜɪ~əɪ] (non-rhotic before a consonant) or
[ɜː] (non-rhotic) or
[ɜɚ] (rhotic)
nurse, search, worm
/iː/ [iː~ɪi] fleece, me, neat
/ɪ/ [ɪ] kit, mid, pick
happy, money, sari
/oʊ/ [ɔu~ɒu] (after late 1800s) or
[oː~uː] (plantation possibility)
goat, no, throw
/ɔ/ [ɔo] thought, vault, yawn
cloth, lost, off
/ɔɪ/ [ɔoɪ] or
[oɛ~oə] (plantation possibility)
choice, joy, loin
/ʌ/ [ɜ] or
[ʌ] (plantation possibility)
strut, tough, won

Plantation South

The area in dark purple approximates the Plantation Southern dialect region, excluding the Lowcountry (the Atlantic coast of South Carolina and Georgia).

Older speech of the Plantation South included those features above, plus:


Main article: Appalachian English

Due to the former isolation of some regions of the Appalachian South, a unique Appalachian accent developed. This dialect is rhotic, meaning speakers consistently preserve the historical phoneme /r/. Moreover, Appalachians may even insert it innovatively into certain words (for example, "worsh" or "warsh" for "wash").

The Southern Appalachian dialect could be heard, as its name implies, in north Georgia, north Alabama, east Tennessee, northwestern South Carolina, 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.

The dialect here is often thought to be a window into the past, with various claims having been made that it is either a surviving pocket of Elizabethan English or the way that the people of Scotch-Irish origin that make up a large fraction of the population there would have spoken back when they first migrated and settled there. However, these are both incorrect. Though some of the distinctive words used in Appalachia have their origins in the Anglo-Scottish border region, a more realistic comparison is the way that some people in North America would have spoken in the colonial period.

Researchers have noted that the dialect retains a lot of vocabulary with roots in "Early Modern English" owing to the make-up of the early European settlers to the area.[26]


The Lowcountry, most famously centering on the cities of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, once constituted its own entirely unique English dialect region. Traditionally often recognized as a Charleston accent, it included these additional features, most of which no longer exist today:[27]

Pamlico and Chesapeake

Main article: High Tider

The "Down East" Outer Banks coastal region of Carteret County, North Carolina, and adjacent Pamlico Sound, including Ocracoke and Harkers Island, are known for additional features, some of which are still spoken today by generations-long residents of its unincorporated coastal and island communities, which have largely been geographically and economically isolated from the rest of North Carolina and the South since their first settlement by English-speaking Europeans. The same is true for the very similar dialect area of the Delmarva (Delaware–Maryland–Virginia) Peninsula and neighboring islands in the Chesapeake Bay, such as Tangier and Smith Island. These two regions historically share many common pronunciation features, sometimes collectively called a High Tider (or "Hoi Toider") accent, including:

Piedmont and Tidewater Virginia

The old Virginia accent was mostly spoken in the central and eastern regions of the state, excluding the Eastern Shore of Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula.

The people of the major central (Piedmont) and eastern (Tidewater) regions of Virginia, excluding Virginia's Eastern Shore, once spoke in a way long associated with the upper or aristocratic plantation class in the Old South. Additional phonological features of this Atlantic Southern variety included:

Southern Louisiana

Southern Louisiana, as well as some of southeast Texas (Houston to Beaumont), and coastal Mississippi, feature a number of dialects influenced by other languages beyond English. Most of southern Louisiana constitutes Acadiana, dominated for hundreds of years by monolingual speakers of Cajun French,[33] which combines elements of Acadian French with other French and Spanish words. This French dialect is spoken by many of the older members of the Cajun ethnic group and is said to be dying out, although it is experiencing a minor resurgence among younger Franco-Louisianaise. A related language called Louisiana Creole also exists. The older English of Southern Louisiana did not participate in certain general older Southern English phenomena, for example lacking the Plantation South's trap–bath split and the fronting of //.[34]

New Orleans English was likely developing in the early 20th century, in large part due to dialect influence from New York City migrants in New Orleans.

Grammar and vocabulary

Current projects

A project devised by Old Dominion University Assistant Professor Dr. Bridget Anderson entitled Tidewater Voices: Conversations in Southeastern Virginia was initiated in late 2008. In collecting oral histories from natives of the area, this study offers insight to not only specific history of the region, but also to linguistic phonetic variants native to the area as well. This linguistic survey is the first of its kind in nearly forty years.[35] The two variants being analyzed the most closely in this study are the /aʊ/ diphthong as in house or brown and post-vocalic r-lessness as in /ˈfɑðə/ for /ˈfɑðər/.


  1. ^ Thomas (2006:4)
  2. ^ Thomas, Erik R. "Rural White Southern Accents" (PDF). De Gruyter. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-03-24. Retrieved 2020-12-21.
  3. ^ Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent. New York, New York: Routledge.
  4. ^ Wolfram, W, & Schilling-Estes, N. (2006). American English. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
  5. ^ Fischer, David Hackett (1992). "From the South of England to Virginia". Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. On line stores/Public Libraries: OUP USA. ISBN 978-0195069051.
  6. ^ Devlin, Thomas Moore (December 13, 2017). "The United States of Accents: Southern American English". Babbel.
  7. ^ Pool, Jake (16 January 2021). "The Southern Drawl: Breakdown Of An American Accent". Magoosh.
  8. ^ Kirkpatrick, Routledge (ed.) (2010). The Routledge Handbook of World Englishes. Routledge: London and New York. pp. 97-99.
  9. ^ Michael Ellis (1992). "On the Use of Dialect as Evidence: "Albion's Seed" in Appalachia". Appalachian Journal. 19 (3): 278–297. ISSN 0090-3779. JSTOR 40933361.
  10. ^ a b c d e Thomas (2006:8)
  11. ^ a b Thomas (2006:4–5)
  12. ^ a b Thomas (2006:7–14)
  13. ^ Even in 2012 Random House Dictionary labels due, new and tune as having the /yu/ sound as a variant pronunciation.
  14. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:53–54)
  15. ^ a b c Thomas (2006:17)
  16. ^ Thomas (2006:3, 16)
  17. ^ Thomas (2006:10–11)
  18. ^ Thomas (2006:15)
  19. ^ a b Thomas (2006:6)
  20. ^ a b c Thomas (2006:10)
  21. ^ Thomas (2006:18)
  22. ^ Thomas (2006:16)
  23. ^ a b c d Thomas (2006:9)
  24. ^ Thomas (2006:7)
  25. ^ Thomas (2006:11)
  26. ^ "The Dialect of the Appalachian People". Wvculture.org. Archived from the original on 2012-10-23. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
  27. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:259–260)
  28. ^ a b c d Thomas (2006:12)
  29. ^ a b c d e Thomas (2006:11–12)
  30. ^ a b c d e f g Kurath, Hans; MacDavid, Raven Ioor. The pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Vol. 3. University of Michigan Press, 1961. HathiTrust. pp. 18-22.
  31. ^ Thomas (2006:4, 11)
  32. ^ Wolfram, Walt (1997). Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks: The Story of the Ocracoke Brogue. University of North Carolina Press. p. 61.
  33. ^ Dubois, Sylvia and Barbara Horvath (2004). "Cajun Vernacular English: phonology." In Bernd Kortmann and Edgar W. Schneider (Ed). A Handbook of Varieties of English: A Multimedia Reference Tool. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 412-4.
  34. ^ Thomas (2006:8, 11)
  35. ^ Watson, Denise (2009-01-22). "ODU team records area's accent - English with 'deep roots' | HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com". HamptonRoads.com. Archived from the original on 2015-07-31. Retrieved 2012-08-06.