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The Scientific Reason for the Southern Drawl

Updated on August 7, 2010

The secret revealed

I was born and reared in the Deep South, part of an old Southern family. As a result, I have a distinct Southern drawl. Even fellow Georgians think I have somewhat of an accent. In fact, my voice is pretty memorable. Most people recognize my phone voice after hearing it only once. When I call an area business, most of the time the receptionist on the other end responds with something like, “How are you today, Mrs. Abee?” as soon as I utter a couple of syllables. I still haven’t decided if this is a curse or a blessing.

When I was a kid, I often found the drawl to be advantageous. I grew up in a neighborhood near Interstate 75, a main route for Northern tourists on their way to sunny Florida. My best friend, Beth (hubber Randy Godwin’s wife), who also has a terribly wonderful drawl, and I used to collect soft drink bottles for extra money. We’d drag my red wagon around and fill it with the glass treasures. Once we had a sufficient quantity, we’d take the bottles to a gas station at a nearby interstate exit to cash them in.

On more than one occasion, some Yankees who were buying gas heard us conversing with the attendant. I guess they thought we were cute little Southern kids, and they were fascinated by our drawl.

A typical scenario:

“Bob, come listen to these little girls!”

Bob (or James, John, or Peter) would come over to join his wife.

“Okay, talk for us!”

Beth and I would usually just look at each other, perplexed. What does one say when asked to talk? We were usually dumbfounded for a few minutes. The Northerners probably thought they had stumbled upon a Deliverance-like scene – IF the movie had been made earlier. Heck, Mr. Dickey wouldn’t even have written the book yet. This was in the sixties.

The couple would finally start asking us questions to loosen our tongues.

“What kind of church do you attend?”

Beth: “Baptist.”

Me: “Presbyterian.”

Yankee tourist: “Presbyterian?? I thought everyone down here was Baptist! Bob – did you here that? This child is a Presbyterian!”

The questions would continue until the visitors had listened to their fill of Southern-speak. Oftentimes, they’d give us a dollar or buy us a cold drink. Our moms had told us not to take candy from strangers, but they’d never mentioned Coca-Colas or Nehi grapes, so I figured we were safe.

Our Northern visitors usually made a remark about our suntans, too. By March or April, our skin was baked brown by the Georgia sun. We practically lived outdoors. We learned to tell quickly if the Yankees were on their way to Florida, or if they were returning from a Florida vacation. In the first case, they were pasty white, and in the latter, they were red and/or peeling. In either case, they were usually wearing baggy shorts, a tee shirt, and socks with sandals. And they always talked funny.

But what gives us Southerners such a drawl? I’ll let you in on a well guarded secret: it’s the grits. We eat a lot of grits. While Northern babies were slurping cream of wheat or rice cereal in their first attempts at eating solid foods, we were cutting our teeth on grits. A small amount would be taken from the family breakfast pot and thinned with a little milk or formula.

What are grits? For those depraved souls who don’t know what grits are, they’re a form of corn. Corn is dried, soaked in lye, and rinsed to make hominy. The hominy is then dried and ground into grits. The grits are boiled with water, and salt and butter are added. Sometimes cheese is melted into the grits.

How do we eat grits? Of course, they're a big part of a hearty Southern breakfast. Sometimes we mix them with soft-scrambled eggs, and sometimes we stir in crumbled bacon. Grits are also great with shrimp and fried fish. The food also serves as a base for some casserole dishes. Leftover grits are sometimes spooned into a glass, allowed to cool and firm, and then sliced and fried.

How do grits cause the Southern drawl? It's all very scientific. The hydrogen chains in the corn kernels are altered when exposed to lye. They ultimately release a chemical called “drawlarium.” Drawlarium acts as a depressant on the tongue and larynx, making them work more slowly. On some people, it also inhibits making the “r” sound, especially at the end of a word. For example, “watah” instead of water, “peppah” instead of pepper, and “rivah” instead of river. Extra syllables are often added, too, as a direct result of drawlarium: war becomes “wawuh,” well becomes “way-uhl,” and glass becomes “glay-us.”

Interestingly, this phenomenon is not limited to humans. Southern dogs that are habitually fed leftover grits bark differently than their Northern counterparts. Instead of “Ruff!,” such canines utter more of a “Ruh-wuf.” No studies have been done on felines.

I hope you appreciate the fact that I’ve shared this secret information with you. When word gets out, I probably won’t get invited to any fish fries, low country boils, or pig pickin’s for years. See what I’m willing to sacrifice for the sharing of knowledge?

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