Southern American English
Southern U.S. English
RegionSouthern United States
Early forms
Latin (English alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
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Southern American English or Southern U.S. English is a regional dialect[1][2] or collection of dialects of American English spoken throughout the Southern United States, though concentrated increasingly in more rural areas, and spoken primarily by White Southerners.[3] In terms of accent, its most innovative forms include southern varieties of Appalachian English and certain varieties of Texan English.[4] Popularly known in the United States as a Southern accent or simply Southern,[5][6][7] Southern American English now comprises the largest American regional accent group by number of speakers.[8] Formal, much more recent terms within American linguistics include Southern White Vernacular English and Rural White Southern English.[9][10]


A diversity of earlier Southern dialects once existed: a consequence of the mix of English speakers from the British Isles (including largely English and Scots-Irish immigrants) who migrated to the American South in the 17th and 18th centuries, with particular 19th-century elements also borrowed from the London upper class and enslaved African-Americans. By the 19th century, this included distinct dialects in eastern Virginia, the greater Lowcountry area surrounding Charleston, the Appalachian upcountry region, the Black Belt plantation region, and secluded Atlantic coastal and island communities.

Following the American Civil War, as the South's economy and migration patterns fundamentally transformed, so did Southern dialect trends.[11] Over the next few decades, Southerners moved increasingly to Appalachian mill towns, to Texan farms, or out of the South entirely.[11] The main result, further intensified by later upheavals such as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and perhaps World War II, is that a newer and more unified form of Southern American English consolidated, beginning around the last quarter of the 19th century, radiating outward from Texas and Appalachia through all the traditional Southern States until around World War II.[12][13] This newer Southern dialect largely superseded the older and more diverse local Southern dialects, though it became quickly stigmatized in American popular culture. As a result, since around 1950, the notable features of this newer Southern accent have been in a gradual decline, particularly among younger and more urban Southerners, though less so among rural white Southerners.


The approximate extent of Southern American English, based upon The Atlas of North American English[14][15]

Despite the slow decline of the modern Southern accent,[16] it is still documented as widespread as of the 2006 Atlas of North American English. Specifically, the Atlas definitively documents a Southern accent in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina (though not in Charleston), Georgia (though not consistently in Atlanta), Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana (where it co-occurs with Cajun and New Orleans accents), southern West Virginia, the Springfield area of southern Missouri, the Jacksonville area of northern Florida, and much of Texas.[17] Other 21st-century scholarship further includes southern and eastern Oklahoma, southern Maryland, central West Virginia, other parts of southern Missouri and northern Florida,[18] and southeastern New Mexico.[19] The Atlas documents a South Midland accent as sharing key features with the Southern accent, though to a weaker extent; these features extend across all of Texas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia as well as throughout eastern and central Kansas, southern Missouri, southern Indiana, southern Ohio, and possibly southern Illinois.[20][18] African-American accents across the United States have many common points with Southern accents due to the strong historical ties of African Americans to the South.

Social perceptions

In the United States, there is a general negative stigma surrounding the Southern dialect. Non–Southern Americans tend to associate a Southern accent with lower social and economic status, cognitive and verbal slowness, lack of education, ignorance, bigotry, or religious or political conservatism,[21] using common labels like "hick", "hillbilly",[22] or "redneck accent".[23] Meanwhile, Southerners themselves tend to have mixed judgments of their accent, some similarly negative but others positively associating it with a laid-back, plain, or humble attitude.[24] The accent is also associated nationwide with the military, NASCAR, and country music. Furthermore, non–Southern American country singers typically imitate a Southern accent in their music.[23] The sum of negative associations nationwide, however, is the main presumable cause of a gradual decline of Southern accent features, since the middle of the 20th century onwards, particularly among younger and more urban residents of the South.[16]

Modern phonology

A list of typical Southern vowels[25][26]
English diaphoneme Southern phoneme Example words
Pure vowels (monophthongs)
/æ/ [æ~æɛ̯æ̯~æjə̯] act, pal, trap
[æjə̯~eə̯] ham, land, yeah
/ɑː/ [ɑ] blah, lava, father,
bother, lot, top
/ɔː/ [ɑɒ̯~ɑ] (older: [ɔo̯~ɑɒ̯]) off, loss, dog,
all, bought, saw
/ə/ [ə] about, syrup, arena
/ɛ/ [ɛ~ɛjə̯] dress, met, bread
[ɪ~ɪjə̯~iə̯][a] pen, gem, tent,
pin, hit, tip
// [i̞i̯~ɪi̯] beam, chic, fleet
/ʌ/ [ɜ] bus, flood, what
/ʊ/ [ʊ̈~ʏ] book, put, should
// [ʊu̯~ʉ̞u̯~ɵu̯~ʊ̈y̯~ʏy̯] food, glue, new
// [aː~aɛ̯] ride, shine, try
([aɛ̯~aɪ̯~ɐi̯]) bright, dice, psych
// [æɒ̯~ɛjɔ̯] now, ouch, scout
// [ɛi̯~æ̠i̯] lake, paid, rein
/ɔɪ/ [oi̯] boy, choice, moist
// [əʊ̯~əʊ̯̈~əʏ̯] goat, road, most
[ɔu̯][b] goal, bold, show
R-colored vowels
/ɑːr/ rhotic Southern dialects: [ɒɹ~ɑɹ]
non-rhotic Southern dialects: [ɒ~ɑ]
barn, car, park
/ɛər/ rhotic: [eɹ~ɛ(j)əɹ]
non-rhotic: [ɛ(j)ə̯]
bare, bear, there
/ɜːr/ [ɚ~ɐɹ] (older: [ɜ]) burn, first, herd
/ər/ rhotic: [ɚ]
non-rhotic: [ə]
better, martyr, doctor
/ɪər/ rhotic: [i(j)əɹ]
non-rhotic: [iə̯]
fear, peer, tier
/ɔːr/ rhotic: [ɔɹ~o(u̯)ɹ]
non-rhotic: [ɔə̯]
horse, born, north
rhotic: [o(u̯)ɹ]
non-rhotic: [o(u̯)ə̯]
hoarse, force, pork
/ʊər/ rhotic: [uɹ~əɹ]
non-rhotic: [uə̯]
poor, sure, tour
/jʊər/ rhotic: [juɹ~jɚ]
non-rhotic: [juə̯]
cure, Europe, pure

Most of the Southern United States underwent several major sound changes from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century, during which a more unified, region-wide sound system developed, markedly different from the sound systems of the 19th-century Southern dialects.

The South as a present-day dialect region generally includes all of the pronunciation features below, which are popularly recognized in the United States as making up a "Southern accent". The following phonological phenomena focus on the developing sound system of the 20th-century Southern dialects of the United States that altogether largely (though certainly not entirely) superseded the older Southern regional patterns. However, there is still variation in Southern speech regarding potential differences based on factors like a speaker's exact sub-region, age, ethnicity, etc.

The merger of pin and pen in Southern American English. In the purple areas, the merger is complete for most speakers. Note the exclusion of the New Orleans area, Southern Florida, and of the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. The purple area in California consists of the Bakersfield and Kern County area, where migrants from the south-central states settled during the Dust Bowl. There is also debate whether or not Austin, Texas, is an exclusion. Based on Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:68).

Inland South and Texas

Main articles: Appalachian English and Texan English

William Labov et al. identify the "Inland South" as a large linguistic sub-region of the South located mostly in southern Appalachia (specifically naming the cities of Greenville, South Carolina, Asheville, North Carolina, Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Birmingham and Linden, Alabama), inland from both the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, and the originating region of the Southern Vowel Shift. The Inland South, along with the "Texas South" (an urban core of central Texas: Dallas, Lubbock, Odessa, and San Antonio)[4] are considered the two major locations in which the Southern regional sound system is the most highly developed, and therefore the core areas of the current-day South as a dialect region.[53]

The accents of Texas are diverse, for example with important Spanish influences on its vocabulary;[54] however, much of the state is still an unambiguous region of modern rhotic Southern speech, strongest in the cities of Dallas, Lubbock, Odessa, and San Antonio,[4] which all firmly demonstrate the first stage of the Southern Shift, if not also further stages of the shift.[55] Texan cities that are noticeably "non-Southern" dialectally are Abilene and Austin; only marginally Southern are Houston, El Paso, and Corpus Christi.[4] In western and northern Texas, the cot–caught merger is very close to completed.[45]

Distinct phonologies

Some sub-regions of the South, and perhaps even a majority of the biggest cities, are showing a gradual shift away from the Southern accent (toward a more Midland or General American accent) since the second half of the 20th century to the present. Such well-studied cities include Houston, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina; in Raleigh, for example, this retreat from the accent appears to have begun around 1950.[16] Other sub-regions are unique in that their inhabitants have never spoken with the Southern regional accent, instead having their distinct accents.

Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah

The Atlas of North American English identified Atlanta, Georgia, as a dialectal "island of non-Southern speech",[56] Charleston, South Carolina, likewise as "not markedly Southern in character", and the traditional local accent of Savannah, Georgia, as "giving way to regional [Midland] patterns",[57] despite these being three prominent Southern cities. The dialect features of Atlanta are best described today as sporadic from speaker to speaker, with such variation increased due to a huge movement of non-Southerners into the area during the 1990s.[58] Modern-day Charleston speakers have leveled in the direction of a more generalized Midland accent (and speakers in other Southern cities too like Greenville, Richmond, and Norfolk),[59] away from the city's now-defunct, traditional Charleston accent, whose features were "diametrically opposed to the Southern Shift... and differ in many other respects from the main body of Southern dialects".[60] The Savannah accent is also becoming more Midland-like. The following vowel sounds of Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah have been unaffected by typical Southern phenomena like the Southern drawl and Southern Vowel Shift:[58]

Today, the accents of Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah are most similar to Midland regional accents or at least Southeastern super-regional accents.[58][62] In all three cities, some speakers (though most consistently documented in Charleston and least consistently in Savannah) demonstrate the Southeastern fronting of /oʊ/ and the status of the pin–pen merger is highly variable.[62] Non-rhoticity (r-dropping) is now rare in these cities, yet still documented in some speakers.[63]

Cajun English

Main article: Cajun English

Most of southern Louisiana constitutes Acadiana, a cultural region dominated for hundreds of years by monolingual speakers of Cajun French,[64] which combines elements of Acadian French with other French and Spanish words. Today, this French dialect is spoken by many older Cajun ethnic group members and is said to be dying out. A related language, Louisiana Creole French, also exists. Since the early 1900s, Cajuns additionally began to develop their vernacular dialect of English, which retains some influences and words from French, such as "cher" (dear) or "nonc" (uncle). This dialect fell out of fashion after World War II but experienced a renewal among primarily male speakers born since the 1970s, who have been the most attracted by, and the biggest attractors of, a successful Cajun cultural renaissance.[64] The accent includes:[65]

New Orleans

Main article: New Orleans English

A separate historical English dialect from the above Cajun one, spoken only by those raised in the Greater New Orleans area, is traditionally non-rhotic and noticeably shares more pronunciation commonalities with a New York accent than with other Southern accents, due to commercial ties and cultural migration between the two cities. Since at least the 1980s, this local New Orleans dialect has popularly been called "Yat", from the common local greeting "Where you at?". Some features that the New York accent shares with the Yat accent include:[58]

Yat also lacks the typical vowel changes of the Southern Shift and the pin–pen merger that is commonly heard elsewhere throughout the South. Yat is associated with the working and lower-middle classes, and a spectrum of speech patterns with fewer notable Yat features is often heard among those of higher socioeconomic status; such New Orleans affluence is associated with the New Orleans Uptown and the Garden District, whose speech patterns are sometimes considered distinct from the lower-class Yat dialect.[67]

Older phonologies

Main article: Older Southern American English

Before becoming a phonologically unified dialect region, the South was once home to an array of much more diverse accents at the local level. Features of the deeper interior Appalachian South largely became the basis for the newer Southern regional dialect; thus, older Southern American English primarily refers to the English spoken outside of Appalachia: the coastal and former plantation areas of the South, best documented before the Civil War, on the decline during the early 1900s, and non-existent in speakers born since the civil rights movement.[68]

Little unified these older Southern dialects since they never formed a single homogeneous dialect region to begin with. Some older Southern accents were rhotic (most strongly in Appalachia and west of the Mississippi), while the majority were non-rhotic (most strongly in plantation areas); however, wide variation existed. Some older Southern accents showed (or approximated) Stage 1 of the Southern Vowel Shift—namely, the glide weakening of /aɪ/—however, it is virtually unreported before the very late 1800s.[69] In general, the older Southern dialects lacked the Mary–marry–merry, cot–caught, horse–hoarse, wine–whine, full–fool, fill–feel, and do–dew mergers, all of which are now common to, or encroaching on, all varieties of present-day Southern American English. Older Southern sound systems included those local to the:[10]


These grammatical features are characteristic of both older and newer Southern American English.

It is not clear where the term comes from and when it was first used. According to dialect dictionaries, fixin' to is associated with Southern speech, most often defined as being a synonym of preparing to or intending to.[71] Some linguists, e.g. Marvin K. Ching, regard it as being a quasimodal rather than a verb followed by an infinitive.[72] It is a term used by all social groups, although more frequently by people with a lower social status than by members of the educated upper classes. Furthermore, it is more common in the speech of younger people than in that of older people.[71] Like much of the Southern dialect, the term is also more prevalent in rural areas than in urban areas.

Standard English would prefer "existential there", as in "There's one lady who lives in town". This construction is used to say that something exists (rather than saying where it is located).[73] The construction can be found in Middle English as in Marlowe's Edward II: "Cousin, it is no dealing with him now".[73]

Liketa is presumably a conjunction of "like to" or "like to have" coming from Appalachian English. It is most often seen as a synonym for almost. Accordingly, the phrase I like't'a died would be I almost died in Standard English. With this meaning, liketa can be seen as a verb modifier for actions that are on the verge of happening.[76] Furthermore, it is more often used in an exaggerated or violent figurative sense rather than a literal sense.[74]

Multiple modals

Standard English has a strict word order. In the case of modal auxiliaries, standard English is restricted to a single modal per verb phrase. However, some Southern speakers use double or more modals in a row (might could, might should, might would, used to could, etc.--also called "modal stacking") and sometimes even triple modals that involve oughta (like might should oughta)

The origin of multiple modals is controversial; some say it is a development of Modern English, while others trace them back to Middle English and others to Scots-Irish settlers.[71] There are different opinions on which class preferably uses the term. Atwood (1953) for example, finds that educated people try to avoid multiple modals, whereas Montgomery (1998) suggests the opposite. In some Southern regions, multiple modals are quite widespread and not particularly stigmatized.[79] Possible multiple modals are:[80]

may could might could might supposed to
may can might oughta mighta used to
may will might can might woulda had oughta
may should might should oughta could
may supposed to might would better can
may need to might better should oughta
may used to might had better used to could
can might musta coulda
could might would better

As the table shows, there are only possible combinations of an epistemic modal followed by deontic modals in multiple modal constructions. Deontic modals express permissibility with a range from obligated to forbidden and are mostly used as markers of politeness in requests whereas epistemic modals refer to probabilities from certain to impossible.[71] Multiple modals combine these two modalities.

Conditional syntax and evidentiality

People from the South often make use of conditional or evidential syntaxes as shown below (italicized in the examples):[81]

Conditional syntax in requests:

I guess you could step out and git some toothpicks and a carton of Camel cigarettes if you a mind to.
If you be good enough to take it, I believe I could stand me a taste.[81]

Conditional syntax in suggestions:

I wouldn't look for 'em to show up if I was you.
I'd think that whiskey would be a trifle hot.

Conditional syntax creates a distance between the speaker's claim and the hearer. It serves to soften obligations or suggestions, make criticisms less personal, and to overall express politeness, respect, or courtesy.[81]

Southerners also often use "evidential" predicates such as think, reckon, believe, guess, have the feeling, etc.:

You already said that once, I believe.
I wouldn't want to guess, but I have the feeling we'll know soon enough.
You reckon we oughta get help?
I don't believe I've ever known one.

Evidential predicates indicate an uncertainty of the knowledge asserted in the sentence. According to Johnston (2003), evidential predicates nearly always hedge the assertions and allow the respondents to hedge theirs. They protect speakers from the social embarrassment that appears, in case the assertion turns out to be wrong. As is the case with conditional syntax, evidential predicates can also be used to soften criticisms and to afford courtesy or respect.[81]


In the United States, the following vocabulary is mostly unique to, or best associated with, Southern U.S. English:[49]

Unique words can occur as Southern nonstandard past-tense forms of verbs, particularly in the Southern highlands and Piney Woods, as in yesterday they riz up, come outside, drawed, and drownded, as well as participle forms like they have took it, rode it, blowed it up, and swimmed away.[82] Drug is traditionally both the past tense and participle form of the verb drag.[82]


Main article: Y'all

Frequency of either "Y'all" or "You all" to address multiple people, according to an Internet survey of American dialect variation[94]
Frequency of just "Y'all" to address multiple people, according to an Internet survey of American dialect variation[94]

Y'all is a second-person plural pronoun and the usual Southern plural form of the word you.[95] It is originally a contraction – you all – which is used less frequently.[96] This term was popularized in modern Southern dialects and was rarely used in older Southern dialects.[97]

Southern Louisiana

Main articles: Cajun English and New Orleans English

Southern Louisiana English especially is known for some unique vocabulary: long sandwiches are often called poor boys or po' boys, woodlice/roly-polies called doodle bugs, the end of a bread loaf called a nose, pedestrian islands and median strips alike called neutral ground,[49] and sidewalks called banquettes.[98]

Relationship to African-American English

Main article: African-American Vernacular English

Discussion of "Southern dialect" in the United States sometimes focuses on those English varieties spoken by white Southerners;[10] However, because "Southern" is a geographic term, "Southern dialect" may also encompass dialects developed among other social or ethnic groups in the South. The most prominent of these dialects is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), a fairly unified variety of English spoken by working and middle-class African-Americans throughout the United States. AAVE exhibits a relationship with both older and newer Southern dialects, though there is not yet a broad consensus on the exact nature of this relationship.[99]

The historical context of race and slavery in the United States is a central factor in the development of AAVE. From the 16th to 19th centuries, many Africans speaking a diversity of West African languages were captured, brought to the United States, and sold into slavery. Over many generations, these Africans and their African-American descendants picked up English to communicate with their white enslavers and the white servants that they sometimes worked alongside, and they also used English as a bridge language to communicate with each other in the absence of another common language. There were also some African Americans living as free people in the United States, though the majority lived outside of the South due to Southern state laws which enabled white enslavers to "recapture" anyone not perceived as white and force them into slavery.

Following the American Civil War – and the subsequent national abolition of explicitly racial slavery in the 19th century – many newly freed African Americans and their families remained in the United States. Some stayed in the South, while others moved to join communities of African-American free people living outside of the South. Soon, racial segregation laws followed by decades of cultural, sociological, economic, and technological changes such as WWII and the increasing prevalence of mass media further complicated the relationship between AAVE and all other English dialects.

Modern AAVE retains similarities to older speech patterns spoken among white Southerners. Many features suggest that it largely developed from nonstandard dialects of colonial English as spoken by white Southern planters and British indentured servants, plus a more minor influence from the creoles and pidgins spoken by Black Caribbeans.[100] There is also evidence of some influence of West African languages on the vocabulary and grammar of AAVE.

It is uncertain to what extent current white Southern English borrowed elements from early AAVE, and vice versa. Like many white accents of English once spoken in Southern plantation areas—namely, the Lowcountry, the Virginia Piedmont, Tidewater, and the lower Mississippi Valley—the modern-day AAVE accent is mostly non-rhotic (or "r-dropping"). The presence of non-rhoticity in both AAVE and old Southern English is not merely coincidence, though, again, which dialect influenced which is unknown. It is better documented, however, that white Southerners borrowed some morphological processes from Black Southerners.

Many grammatical features were used alike by white speakers of old Southern English and early AAVE, more so than by contemporary speakers of the same two varieties. Even so, contemporary speakers of both continue to share these unique grammatical features: "existential it", the word y'all, double negatives, was to mean were, deletion of had and have, them to mean those, the term fixin' to, stressing the first syllable of words like hotel or guitar, and many others.[101] Both dialects also continue to share these same pronunciation features: /ɪ/ tensing, /ʌ/ raising, upgliding /ɔ/, the pin–pen merger, and the most defining sound of the current Southern accent (though rarely documented in older Southern accents): the glide weakening of /aɪ/. However, while this glide weakening has triggered among white Southerners a complicated "Southern Vowel Shift", African-American speakers in the South and elsewhere are "not participating or barely participating" in much of this shift.[102] AAVE speakers also do not front the vowel starting positions of /oʊ/ and /u/, thus aligning these characteristics more with the speech of 19th-century white Southerners than 20th-century white Southerners.[68]

Another possible influence on the divergence of AAVE and white Southern American English (i.e., the disappearance of older Southern American English) is that historical and contemporary civil rights struggles have over time caused the two racial groups "to stigmatize linguistic variables associated with the other group".[68] This may explain some of the differences outlined above, including why most traditionally non-rhotic white Southern accents have shifted to become intensely rhotic.[39]

See also


  1. ^ /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ are merged before nasal consanants due to the pin–pen merger.
  2. ^ preceding /l/ or a hiatus


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