The Southern Edge

It has been my belief for awhile that Southerners have the edge when it comes to sound and rhythm, and that this edge spills over into our writing.  Why?  Simply because of the way we speak–the way our mouths move, the way our tongues roll, the way we use inflection, the way in which we are accustomed to both speaking and hearing sound.  Stressed or elongated vowels are predominant in our enunciation and are natural — as natural as drinking sweet tea, as natural as our sayings, such as hang a dead snake over the fence and it’ll rain (I need to try this, as we sure do need some rain).  Our sounds and our speech originate from place, and the writing southerner has an edge when writing because of place and the rich accents that prevail.

I’ve moved often in my life, but always within the state of Georgia, which is inarguably in the South (with a total of 159 counties).  The first half of my life was spent moving from one county to another every 2 to 4 years, either in northwest or northeast Georgia.  The accents I heard varied, yet the commonality existed of drawn-out vowels, added syllables, and a song-like cadence to anything being uttered.  In fact, cadence may be one of our most distinct features, as music is present in our syntax.  Think of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bill Clinton, the poetry of Maya Angelou, or the prose of Faulkner.  Each is unique in sound, but each is definitely identifiable as southern. A fellow Southern-born poet told me she was once accused of being a “voice cheat” because when she read her poetry in her native Kentucky accent, it leapt off the page due to the musicality of her enunciation.

Even though born and raised in Georgia, my summers always included a chunk of time in NY, about an hour north of the city.  My mother was born there, so I visited grandparents on a regular basis.  They often asked me to repeat myself, as my accent was so deep and pronounced they didn’t grasp what their own blood was saying.  What I observed in their speaking was a nasal tone, clipped syllables, and sharpness not only to sound, but also in speaking one’s mind and not mincing words (or feelings—no, Bless your heart up there…).  Yet while my relatives in NY couldn’t always make out my lilting words, my father’s family in Oklahoma had no problems whatsoever.

I’ve spent the last twenty years in Southern Appalachia.  Even though that is about half of my life, I still find my ear adapting to sounds that were not my own as a youngster.  To be technical, I moved from areas of Georgia where the Virginia Piedmont and African American Vernacular dialect were prevalent, to one where the Southern Appalachia dialect (which has multiple versions) is the norm.  So while I may have grown up pronouncing “tire” as “tie-her,” some of my neighbors pronounce it “tarr.”  The stress is different and the inflection varies, but there’s no mistake that we are southern, and each dialect, regardless of its differences, has music.

Some of the features of southern accents (also known as Southern American English) include the following (rather delightful) terms:  the Southern vowel shift, the post-coronal glide, and the central diphthong (I find these terms terribly intriguing).  Inherently, we have song.  It is inevitable that the music comes out as we choose our words for written work.  If we hone this gift of cadence, we can produce written works with a lyricism that those from other regions may have to work a little harder at.  Our southern edge is solely a gift of place.  I’m thankful for my place and I carry it with me wherever I go, as it always announces itself when I open my mouth.  My words, out-loud and on the page, are shaped by mountains, red clay, lakes, and the dark garden soil.

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5 thoughts on “The Southern Edge

  1. I got a great big belly laugh on “bless your heart”. I notice when I worship in a church that is all southern, local folk, and a church that is filled with folks from up north that there is a great deal difference is sound and speed executing the liturgy. The Yankees march through the liturgy while the Southerns dance through the liturgy. One is not better than the other, they are just different. Great blog.

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    • I appreciate your bias. You must understand that we have the confluence of three dialects in our family. I come from the southwest where most of the prominent news casters have come (Tom Brokaw, Johnny Carson, Dan Rather) just to name a few. I courted and married a Yankee and we chose to live in the South, hence your acquisition of your unique dialect. I love to hear southernese. Bruce Bardford uses the phrase “onliest” time I saw a cow milked that way. It cracks me up.

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  2. Your post hearkens me back to our discussions of place at MHLF just a few week ago. My favorite lines, “Our southern edge is solely a gift of place. I’m thankful for my place and I carry it with me wherever I go, as it always announces itself when I open my mouth,” are a wonderful reminder of the “landscape as identity” theme we explored. I too announce my SC roots wherever I go, and I am happy to answer all those “are you from the South?” questions.

    Thank you so much for such a proud description of what too many Southerners regard as something of a negative quality in our speech. Just because we love the sounds of language doesn’t mean our use of it is any less educated. In fact, it proves that we are students and lovers of the language, wanting to hold onto each syllable, each idea, as long as possible.

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