One of the cultural markers that has identified that which we call Southern from the undistinguished mass of American nonculture is language. Obviously pronunciation is involved here, but also words, idiom, usage, style. A few years ago there was a celebrated (and therefore naturally very stupid) series on PBS on the English language. According to this series the only distinctive aspect of English to be found in the South was the black Gullah dialect of the South Carolina coastal islands. Otherwise, it seems, all Americans speak a general English —to illustrate where American English speech originated, they showed a picture of the home of U.S. Grant’s forebears in Ulster. The only mention of Southern speech was by the actual speakers who were interviewed, who kept pointing out speech differences that are common knowledge to every American but apparently not to the excruciatingly boring Canadian newsreader who was responsible for the program.
Let’s look at Southern speech as seen by people who know what they are talking about. It is interesting to note here that the supreme scholarly expert on American dialects was Professor Raven McDavid of the University of Chicago—who was a native of Greenville, South Carolina. What I have to say is supported by his work. But for a less technical source let me call to your attention to a wonderful book called The Language of the American South by Cleanth Brooks.
Brooks was a Vanderbilt Agrarian, just a little too young to be among the writers of I’ll Take My Stand, though he contributed to its sequel Who Owns America? Brooks went on at LSU and then to Yale, to become I would say the greatest American literary scholar and critic of the 20th century. He wrote the definitive works on Faulkner, saving Faulkner from cooption by the New York Marxists, and with Robert Penn Warren produced basic college texts that were in use for half a century. He also directed Richard Weaver’s graduate studies. (Brooks and Warren, already internationally distinguished, were driven out of LSU and out of the South by a carpetbagger college president, but that is another story for another day.)
Fairly late in his distinguished career, Brooks took the occasion of an invitation to a lecture series to produce a commentary on the language of the South. He states clearly why he does so—because the language of the South is the rich heritage that helps to explain the astounding world-class achievements of Southern writers in the 20th century which was his lifetime subject of study. He was much too polite to say this—but Southerners have the only native connection with English language among Americans and are the only Americans capable of creative use of the language to tell real stories about real people. What passes for American English today is a dull speech derived of its roots and all subtlety by the horde of German immigrants who invaded the Midwest in the 19th century. Among all the many dialects in which the rich and wonderful language of English is spoken across the world, standard American is the least attractive.
And where did the South get its language? From the same Southern English counties and at the same time as the earliest South got its ideal of the gentleman and its love of the land. Language is a living thing and changes over time, so we generalize. What we now regard as the cultivated English accent was a creation of 19th century “public” schools and universities and London commerce. Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh and Shakespeare did not talk like recent Oxford graduates. They talked more like a lowcountry Southerner, or at least such a Southerner up until the present rising generation. Shakespeare likely spoke like those who left England during his lifetime to settle Virginia. But if you or I recited Shakespeare in our native tongue, Yankees would think it was funny and a sign of ignorance.
Brooks’s argument is convincing, though we don’t have space to explore all the evidence here. The common assumption that Southern speech results from a black influence is a not true. After all, who taught who to speak English? Black people did not originate a Southern accent but what they did do was exercise a conservative influence over it, help preserve it. For a long time less influenced by book learning and the Yankee Webster dictionary than whites, they preserved oral customs. Brooks presented as evidence on this matter an 1861 English book which rendered the “Song of Solomon” from the Bible into the dialect of the Southern English county of Somerset. The Somerseters sound exactly like Uncle Remus.
Most of the world regards Southern-accented English as a sign of a superior person. Yankees pretend to believe it is a mark of ignorance, but there pretense is in this, as in so many other matters, is a cover-up for jealousy. The poet Robert Lowell, a very Boston Brahmin of the Boston Brahmins, went to Tennessee as a young man and lived in a tent in Allen Tate’s and Caroline Gordon’s yard. For the rest of his life he spoke with a Southern accent. You can hear it in the videos of his anti-Vietnam War speeches.
There has been more than one variety of Southern accent, but they have all been identifiers of our people as natives of Dixie. Is Southern speech disappearing? I do not know. Most of today’s supposed experts on American speech are so Politically Correct that they do not even ask the question.
When I first came to South Carolina 35 years ago, after living in Southern places overrun with Yankees, there was no sweeter sound in the world than the speech of a cultivated South Carolina lady. It conveyed grace, charm, spirit, kindness, and lightly worn education. It was a lovely remnant of the of the Old South, the only real civilization that has existed in the United States. Such speech is hard to find today in anyone under forty, though most people have not completely lost the Southern markers from their speech. However, in younger women there is a definite tendency toward Valley Girl talk. The tendency has not taken over completely, but I have heard intimations even in young male college students. Folks in the country and small towns are less effected.
There is no doubt the mass media are poisoning the young—in speech as well as other ways. You will not hear any Southern accents on the radio or television stations in the capital city of South Carolina. The foreign-owned and staffed media have even thrown out the three-centuries old, tradition-laden term Upcountry. The now refer to the region above the fall line as “the Upstate,” as if it was in New York. Have you noticed that “country music” in the video age has just about lost its soul and can seldom be distinguished now in either style or subject matter from vulgar American pop?
Southern language and Southern music (the two things are related) have been the only sources of creativity in the otherwise flat, dull, and stuffy substance of “American culture.” We can hope that in this respect, as in others, the South will manage to survive and deal with change without losing itself.
This piece appeared on the Abbeville Institute blog on August 13, 2014. It was also previously published in Southern Partisan magazine.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews