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The Triumph is in the Talking: The Strength of the Southern Dialects

Updated on September 12, 2014

The Stigma

Southerners are stigmatized by the rest of the country and the world.The southern “drawl” often reflects negatively on the speaker who exhibits it. Southerners are sometimes known as slow, stupid, and backward. Swaim says, “Southem accents serve as shorthand for stupidity” (15). This is an unfair stereotype. However, there is, as in the cases of many stereotypes, evidence to support this assumption, as well. Before and during the Civil War, many southern children did not attend school, while northern children were much more likely to be “properly” educated. In fact, “in 1860, only 35 percent of Southern children attended school, whereas 72 percent of non-Southern children did so” (Swaim 15). It is worth mentioning here that, while southern children did not attend school as much as northern children, the south had more colleges than did the north, and more southerners attended college than northerners. Yet, just as negative views of military opponents still color perceptions many years later, so the idea that southerners place less value on formal education still persists to affect opinions. Being a southerner is equated with illiteracy or simple-mindedness (15). A study conducted at Georgia Regents University confirms that most people judge such things as competency and intelligence based solely on accent. Although the participants in this particular study listened to the same exact content twice—once in the reader’s “natural” accent and once in a southern accent, an astounding number of them claimed that the person reading the sample text in the natural accent was both more competent and more grammatically correct than the person who read using a southern accent (Henry 30). Further, the researchers involved in Georgia Regents study speculate that “the rural accent may have prompted stereotypical thinking associated with economically deprived regions historically known for underperforming schools” (31). This idea helps explain why southerners may be viewed as uneducated. The stereotypes, therefore, are related to economic status and class, and people gather all this negative information simply from an accent they hear for less than five minutes.

The Triumph is in the Talking: The Strength of the Southern Dialects

There's a southern accent, where I come from.
The young 'uns call it country.
The Yankees call it dumb.
I got my own way of talkin',
But everything is done, with a southern accent
Where I come from. (Tom Petty)

Many people who live in the northern United States hold very strong views about people who live in the southern United States. Specifically, southerners are critical of the way northerners speak. The reverse is also true. Southerners are often stigmatized for their use of language—arguably more than many other people groups. Many of these attitudes can be traced back to the Civil War. Lasting animosity between southerners and “Yankees” contributes to the strong and lasting nature of the southern dialect. Even though the Civil War is long over, the lines between north and south were drawn so deeply that people on both sides are still tightly grasping some of the ideas originally held about their “enemies.” This extends to use of language-- particularly the southerners’ use of language. Holding onto their unique dialects allows southerners to resist the oppression they feel both within their own communities and from the rest of the country—specifically the northern United States. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Americans who are born and raised in the southern United States are clinging to an identity that goes along with their accents—an identity of independence, pride, and power.


Southern Pride

Negative stigmas somehow equate with southern pride. Griffin says, “a debased label associated with ‘southernness,’ such as ‘redneck’ or ‘hillbilly,’ is transmuted from a mark of stigma to one of pride by those who are so labeled” (7). People have the tendency to feel loyalty to the place in which they live. They get a sense of pleasure from each nuance of their own tradition. Also, “there is also a trend toward ‘acceptability’ of the southern dialect and its related accent; thus, many southerners now cling to their dialect tenaciously as a point of pride” (Alford and Strother 50). Kretzschmar points out, however, that “This pride may be reversed…when the dialect is set against the ideal Correct English that our schools try to teach” (16). Interestingly, though, non-southerners who assimilate into the south often embrace the idea of being a southerner despite any negative associations. Positive ideas such as sincerity and friendliness allow these people to connect—even identify themselves—with the culture of the south (Griffin 10).


Civil War

The Civil War greatly influences attitudes southerners and northerners have toward each other—even today. Southerners have not forgotten the war. According to Swaim, “[a]lmost everything that's still distinctive about the American South is a more or less direct consequence of the War” (19). Some of the atrocities committed against southern people by the north left painful scars across the Deep South. While the war was undeniably terrible for both sides, the south in particular suffered devastating losses: “The Civil War destroyed the South: its young male population, its economy, its infrastructure” (Swaim 14). The war was arguably more personal and traumatic for the south, making it more likely for the people there to remain angry and bitter. The scars sustained as a result of these proceedings have been largely internalized, and while many southerners give little or no conscious thought to the Civil War or some of its significant events, this history still affects them. It is important to note, here, that these feelings are certainly felt on both sides—north and south—which is likely another reason for the lastingness of deeply held southern identity (Jansson 216). Southerners hold strong views about “Yankees”, specifically about the way they speak. One possible reason for this is the geographical distance between the north and the south. It makes sense that southerners would be less “opposed” to a Midwestern accent, since these people’s dialect is more similar to their own than the northern accents. However, it is also logical that southerners would—at least initially—avoid speaking the way their foes spoke. This is demonstrated by the fact that, while southerners and northerners certainly spoke differently before the Civil War, many of the traits now recognized as specifically southern dialect characteristics did not appear until after the war. In fact, four out of five distinct qualities of southern plantation speech did not appear until around 1875 (Kretzschmar 16-17).

Southern Accents by Tom Petty

Southern Identity

The southern dialect is a large part of southern identity, and is held onto more strongly than some other dialects. Jansson says, “[i]n the United States, ‘the South’ functions as an… Other. The region has long been considered the most distinctive in the country [emphasis added] …’the North’ has traditionally been considered the mainstream of America, whereas ‘the South’ has been isolated for its distinctiveness, and many argue that the region has maintained its distinctiveness in the present” (205). Griffin describes the south as “exceptional” (7), meaning that it is totally different—even opposite—from the rest of the country. This exceptionalism is an integral part of a southerner’s identity. The suggestion that those in the south have purposely held to their regional uniqueness leads to the question of why. Jansson goes on to discuss how southerners feel “othered” by the rest of the country. He quotes from interviews in which southerners consciously realize that they are looked down upon by others—specifically “Yankees” (208). However, this feeling of inferiority on the part of the south has been self-perpetuated. The collective south feeds cyclically on the idea that southerners are separate and negatively viewed. “[C]ertain constructions of identity can also create a sense of oppression” (Jannson 204). Not only do southerners ostracize themselves, but they are further “othered” by a north who uses the described exceptionalism of the south to excuse their own negative characteristics—such as racism (Barton 8). This means that views on the south held by northerners and southerners alike —especially negative views—are inevitably lasting. For better or for worse, the southern identity is cemented by almost unbreakable labels. Even the simple term “the South” was not in use until the Civil War (Barton 28), which lends further credence to the idea of a purposeful separation between north and south dictated by both parties.


Southern Accents in Media

There is a great deal of southern influence in media. Compared to other regions, it is much more evident in popular culture. “It is not uncommon to find references to various regional dialectal and/or accent groups in the popular press, especially for humorous, condescending, or derogatory purposes.” (Alford and Strother 50). Alford and Strother identify only three general accents. They say, “most people recognize broad, regional ‘accents’ and would identify them as, for example, (1) southern, (2) northern,and (3) Midwestern” (50). There also appears to be a great deal of top down language modification by certain groups of people who want to appear more southern, namely sportscasters and politicians (Alford and Strother 51). Aside from the idea that people who are working in the south with southerners—namely Joe Namath—wish to appear more appealing and approachable to southerners, this conscious decision to alter language use is likely because, in Jansson’s words, “there is…a history of positive portrayals of ‘the South’ that focus in particular on friendliness, hospitality, devotion to place, and devotion to family” (206).Television shows such as The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons fit solidly into this positive stereotype. Indeed, television seems rife with southern references and settings. Most recently, the show Duck Dynasty has enthralled the nation with its “down home” values and almost ridiculously strong southern accents. Politicians such as George W. Bush have garnered much attention with their southern speech. Bush, in particular, has been both lauded—because of his approachability—and mocked—for his repeated misspeaking.

An Act of Resistance

It may seem to outward observers that geographical location is the primary reason for the stalwart southern dialect. However, it becomes clear that southern identity is directly tied to the constant resistance of the South to the North (Jansson 209). Indeed, the southerner, who is often viewed as non-standard, is always in the act of resisting against the powerful social forces of the rest of the country. Michel Foucault, a renowned scholar of communication, has spoken extensively on the subject of power. An article about his theories about power suggests that “a power relation is not just a one-way, top-down projection; it is also projected from the bottom up. Thus, although Foucault admits the possibility of domination projected from the top, he also insists on being mindful of the fact that resistance [emphasis added] will stem from below” (Dore 737). In connection with the relationship between the south and the rest of the country, Foucault’s theories indicate that the south is in a constant state of resistance.

Media Exaggeration

Burton argues that it is not only the good qualities associated with the south that draw viewers’ rapt attention, but it is, in actuality, the contradiction between southern hospitality and manners and negative characteristics, like violence and perceived closed-mindedness (Burton 18-19). An interesting example of this type of dichotomy in popular media is in the film Interview with a Vampire. A portion of the movie is set on a plantation in Louisiana. Southern manners and elegance are abundant, along with brutal and bloody vampiric action. Films such as these are indicative of the perpetual dialectical tensions that southerners internally experience.

Additionally, southerners have frequently been portrayed using exaggerated characters, such as in the case of The Dukes of Hazard (Alford and Strother 50). Television shows such as these, while entertaining to many, are “dangerous” to southerners, because they lead to the formation of generalizations by viewers whose only concept of the south springs from this venue. Indeed, “Southerners like to complain about the way movies and television constantly link the South with doltishness and naiveté” (Swaim 15).

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Southern Accent as the Voice of Freedom and Power

All dialects can be interesting to observe and study. However, the southern dialect is particularly fascinating, due to its exceptional strength and persistence of use. It is an accent that is immediately recognizable by people from other regions of the country and the world. Not only is it recognized, but it is admired and adopted, as well as looked down upon and stereotyped. Those who live in the south have purposefully held to their identity as southerners, largely by maintaining and evolving an extensive accent and vocabulary. As is demonstrated in the song “Southern Accents” by Tom Petty, this identity is reinforced externally—by the “Yankees”—and internally—by the “young ’uns”. Undeniably, the Civil War has been a great factor in southern language development; its consequences, though devastating, led to the empowerment of the south and the formation of the solid southern identity. Southerners have clung to their distinctiveness, because this resolute uniqueness is their way of resisting against the perceived majority of the rest of the country. Southern language is not a language of a defeated minority, but is, in fact a dialect that exemplifies the southerners’ strength of self and their value on freedom and power.

Works Cited

Alford, Randall L., and Judith B. Strother. "A Southern Opinion Of Regional Accents." Florida Communication Journal 20.2 (1992): 49-59. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Boucher, Cheryl, et al. “Perceptions of Competency As A Function Of Accent.” Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research 18.1 (2013): 27-32. Web. 1 May 2013. [[Citation corrected 12 September 2014]]

Burton, Orville Vernon. "The South As ‘Other,’ The Southerner As ‘Stranger’." Journal Of Southern History 79.1 (2013): 7-50. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.

Dore, Isaak. "Foucault On Power." UMKC Law Review 78.(2010): 737. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

Griffin, Larry J. "The American South And The Self." Southern Cultures 12.3 (2006): 6-28. Web. 17 Apr. 2013

Jansson, David. "Racialization And “Southern” Identities Of Resistance: A Psychogeography Of Internal Orientalism In The United States." Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers 100.1 (2010): 202-221. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Kretzschmar, William A. Jr. "Language In The Deep South: Southern Accents Past And Present." Southern Quarterly45.2 (2008): 9-27. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.

Petty, Tom. "Southern Accents” Song Meanings. n. d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013 <>.

Swaim, Barton. "On Being A Southerner." New Criterion 30.3 (2011): 13. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.


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      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 4 years ago from Philippines

      I find the southern culture to be very interesting. I met a girl in Boston who happened to come from the south. We were talking about accents and she said the southern accent is very gentle. It seemed quite evident when she spoke to me. She was also very humorous. Southern culture is part of American culture that gives the entire country texture and substance.