Campus News

Professor details the features of different Southern accents

Margaret Renwick, associate professor of linguistics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke with Southern Living about the differences between regional Southern accents.

According to Renwick, the evolution of speech is inevitable. Children are influenced by their caregivers, teachers, parents and grandparents. Instead of picking up words like “purse,” they may say “pocketbook.”

“Language change is going to happen, there’s no stopping it,” Renwick said. “It’s natural, and it changes from generation to generation.”

Language communicates more than just words.

“Language is aspirational. Younger kids and teenagers will form ways of talking that are unique to their groups. If they don’t want to be a part of a particular group, they might signal that with their speech,” said Renwick. “A lot of how we talk is social.”

The first English speakers in the South included the Irish, the English, the Scottish and enslaved Africans. All of these groups contributed to grammar and pronunciation changes over time, resulting in one of the country’s most recognizable accents.

“The Southern accent has been shown in studies to be the most perceptually salient regional U.S. accent,” Renwick said.

According to Renwick, one of the most characteristic features of a Southern accent is the “i” sound. Historians have traced this pronunciation as far back as the Civil War.

“One of the oldest sounds we know about is the ‘i’ sound, like ‘ride,’ ‘why,’ ‘white,’ and ‘fire,’” she said. “That change in the ‘i’ is classic, an original Southern characteristic and recognizable across regional accents.”

Some Southerners also pronounce “pen” and “pin” with the same vowel. In linguistics, this is called a merger, two distinct pronunciations becoming indistinguishable.

Fronting is another common way for Southerners to speak. This is an occurrence in which people pronounce a vowel sound with their tongue farther forward in their mouths, instead of at the back. “U” fronting is usually seen in Southern pronunciations of words like “boot” and “goose,” which is why it sounds different from someone who is from Wisconsin saying it, said Renwick.

There are two significant buckets of Southern accents: inland and coastal.

“Classic” Southern pronunciations like mergers and fronting are commonly found in inland Southern accents. Regions like North Alabama, East Tennessee, far North Georgia and western South Carolina have high concentrations of the “classic” Southern accent.

Coastal southern accents sound slightly different, featuring the dropping of the “r.” Words like “car” sound like “cah.” This variation can usually be heard in areas like the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia.

Accents hold significant power in telling people about yourself, Renwick said.

“We take language for granted all the time, but we are good at cuing into details and transmitting our identity through language,” she said.