“Rod” or “Ride?” Glide Deletion in the American South

The American South

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When my mother was a teenager, she spent a summer in Scotland. Since she was staying as a guest in a family’s home, she shared a telephone with the other residents. In jest, a Scottish friend of hers often answered the phone and, imitating my mother’s accent, saidHah! This is Nancy!

The “hah” in that exclamation is not a laugh, but rather the word “Hi!” rendered in American Southern English. My mother is from Kentucky, you see. Kentucky, like much of American South, is glide deletion country.*

If you’re confused as to what I mean by glide deletion, here are several videos of speakers from the American South. You only need to watch about a minute or so of each. The important thing is to listen to words like time, ride and kite.

An interview with country music star Charlie Daniels (interview begins :22).

This inaugural speech from Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.

A speech from late historian Shelby Foote.

As you can see, time, ride and kite tend to sound like “tahm,” “rahd” and “kaht” (IPA ta:m, ra:d, ka:t). This vowel sound, which is more typically a diphthong in other dialects (a combination of two vowels) is instead a monophthong (one vowel).

In the United States, this feature mostly occurs in the South.  However, it strays a bit further to the north or the west in some cases, and can be heard in pockets of (from West to East) Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Colorado, Southern Kansas, Oklahoma, Southern Missouri, Southern Illinois, and western Maryland.

I recently got into a conversation with commenter ‘enry ‘iggins about where some of the features of American Southern English may have come from. We briefly touched on the topic of glide deletion and what its origins may be. I see there being three possible explanations for how “glide deletion” arose:

1.) It came from Northern England. My history is a bit shaky, but I’ve read that there was a decent amount of immigration to the South from this region of England in the colonial era. Northern England, to this day, features glide deletion as a feature in many dialects (although it’s less pronounced in some areas).

2.) The Scots-Irish. This was probably the most important group to immigrate to the south. They were, generally speaking, Ulster Scots from Northern Ireland. Notably, there is a similar tendency to lengthen the diphthong in words like “ride” in some modern Northern Irish Accents that is slightly reminiscent of the US Southern pronunciation.

3.) The Southern Vowel Shift. It’s also possible that glide deletion is the product of something called the Southern Vowel Shift (You can find details about what this means here). Basically, most of the vowels in Southern English seem to have shifted into different positions than most American accents, and this may have indirectly forced the “ride” diphthong to become a monopthong (I’m not clear on the details of how).

Or it may be a bit of all three explanations. These different factors may have reinforced each other in some way and led to the current pronunciation of ride as “rahd.” Since we don’t have recordings of Scots-Irish farmers from the 17th-Century, however, we’ll never know for sure.

What I wonder is why this feature is so widespread in the American South. Outside of a few areas with a lot of Northern transplants (Florida, Atlanta, the major Texas cities), glide deletion is virtually everywhere South of the Mason-Dixon line. Yet it’s fairly rare elsewhere, outside of pockets of Northern England and in South African Accents. Why does this one accent feature seem to be concentrated so heavily in one large region?

*My mother has lived in New England for nearly thiry years at this point, so she really doesn’t have this feature anymore.

 

 

 

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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23 Responses to “Rod” or “Ride?” Glide Deletion in the American South

  1. Aaron Bauman says:

    Conversely, the Appalachian twang features glide insertion.
    For example “down” might be pronounced “day-own”.

    • trawicks says:

      They sure do! There’s a fancy word for that too: vowel breaking. It’s even more pronounced in words like “trap” (“tray-up”) and “dress” (“drey-uhs”).

  2. 'enry 'iggins says:

    Basically, most of the vowels in Southern English seem to have shifted into different positions than most American accents, and this may have indirectly forced the “ride” diphthong to become a monopthong (I’m not clear on the details of how)

    Well the reason chain shifts like this happen (after the initial shift occurs) is to keep the vowels involved distinct from one another, i.e., to prevent a merger from happening. The shift may have started with FLEECE becoming a more lax diphthong (if it was already a diphthong) and shifting in the direction of FACE. At this point, if FACE wouldn’t have shifted in some other direction, the 2 vowels may have merged. So FACE went in the direction of PRICE (i.e., to something like [æi], although it varies). Maybe what happened at this point is that PRICE became a monophthong in order to prevent a merger from happening with FACE. This is called a push chain. It could have also been a pull chain though, with the glide deletion of PRICE happening before everything else, which would open up a space for FACE. If PRICE is no longer pronounced [aɪ] (but [aː] instead), then FACE can shift in that direction or even all the way there and there won’t be a merger

    In other accents that have this shift, i.e., Brummie, Cockney, Australian, etc., PRICE shifts backwards to avoid merger with FACE instead of becoming a monophthong. I’ve also heard a (perhaps milder) version of this backward shift in the South in environments where glide deletion doesn’t take place for some speakers, i.e., before voiceless consonants. Sorry for my overuse of “i.e.”. That can be really annoying.

    What maybe happened is that settlers from England brought the very first part of the shift (either the laxing of FLEECE or glide deletion in PRICE) with them across the Atlantic and the rest of the shift took place in America. That may also be what happened in Australia, except they don’t have glide deletion as I mentioned (at least not to the same extent as Southerners). I don’t know though.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks ‘enry! I actually know little about vowel shifts outside of the various directions they go in. What’s interesting about what you say about a “push chain” is that many accents have similar shifts to the Southern one — Cockney, Australia, New Zealand — yet with these the PRICE vowel usually moves toward the CHOICE diphthong. American Southern accents seem unique in this respect.

      • 'enry 'iggins says:

        trawicks said…
        What’s interesting about what you say about a “push chain” is that many accents have similar shifts to the Southern one — Cockney, Australia, New Zealand — yet with these the PRICE vowel usually moves toward the CHOICE diphthong.

        Precisely. That’s what I meant when I said “PRICE shifts backwards” in those accents. If it didn’t, there may well have been a FACE-PRICE merger in those places. But of course there isn’t one. PRICE shifts backwards towards CHOICE to prevent this from happening. But there isn’t a PRICE-CHOICE merger either because those accents have an additional shift that people often fail to mention, which is an upward shift of CHOICE to something like [oɪ]. Vowels like to stay as far apart as possible from each other. Like many people, they like their space :) That’s why you’ll find that with many (and probably most) languages that have only 3 vowels, those 3 vowels are going to be [i], [ä] and [u]. I’m pretty sure those vowels are as far apart from one another as 3 vowels could possibly be and they also form a lovely triangle if you look at the vowel chart. I’m glad you’re comfortable with using the names of lexical sets btw :) Some people have no idea what I’m talking about when I say “GOOSE”, etc.

        Interestingly though, I have heard some glide deletion of PRICE (or sometimes a weakening of the second element of the diphthong to something like [ə] rather than [i] or [ɪ]) in Cockney and Australian accents. It’s not quite the same as the Southern American glide deletion though. I think it’s more of an optional variant in London and Australia. Also it sounds pretty different. I’ve heard something like [ɑː] in Cockney and [ɒː] in Australian, as opposed to the Southern American [aː]. If you listen to this recording of an Australian man speaking (and look at the accompanying phonetic transcription), you will hear/see what I’m talking about. In particular, listen/look at the way he says finds (no one everit).

  3. 'enry 'iggins says:

    I can’t believe I forgot a period at the end of the first paragraph. I hope you’ll forgive me :)

  4. I have three things to say:

    1) Usually, the phonetics of the monophthongized vowel are different from how most dialects pronounce “rod.” It’s more of a low-central vowel, meaning that even in monophthongizing dialects, “rod” and “ride,” and “far” and “fire” are not homophonous.

    2) Maybe the “source” of monophthongization of /ay/ in the South is nowhere! Saying that it came from Northern England or Scots merely begs the question. Where did it come from in those dialects? The same kind of sound change can occur many times in the same, or different language, but that merely means that sound changes tend to be “natural.” Think analogous evolution vs. homologous evolution.

    3) Under most accounts I know of, people think that glide deletion of /ay/ was the trigger for the rest of the Southern Shift, not the other way around. But, that’s definitely a point that’s up for more debate.

    • 'enry 'iggins says:

      A lot of times, what triggers a shift is debated by linguists. With the Northern Cities Vowel Shift for example, some linguists think the fronting of the LOT vowel triggered it and others think the raising of the TRAP vowel triggered it.

  5. Richard says:

    Have you ever seen the Australian sitcom “Kath & Kim”? There are two characters (Pru and Trude) who seem to affect a comic glide deletion as a parody on the accent of well-to-do Melbourne.

  6. trawicks says:

    @Josef,

    The answer to many questions of where a particular pronunciation came from may very well be “nowhere.” We tend to assign very intimate, personal psychological attributes to speakers of particular accents, when of course, that’s not really how it works. Who know what THE reason for the Great Vowel Shift was or THE reason for Grimm’s law was. It’s not like people sat down at a committee and decided these things. Still, there is something kind of fun, if futile, about speculating.

    @Richard,

    This reminds me of something a bit off-topic: I’ve been curious about Melbourne accents of late. I’ve chanced to hear one or two Melbournians recently, and I’ve found their accents to be notably different than those of other Australians. I think what Pru and Trude are referring to is a tendency for the KITE vowels to be more conservative, a bit closer to RP or General American.

    • @trawicks I understand the fun of speculation, but it matters to me what the fact of the matter is regarding any given sound change. From the research aspect of things, I have to assume that there is a knowable truth of the matter, and it’s important to me to try to be as accurate as possible. I guess that means being a bit of a killjoy :)

      But, even in the vein of fun speculation, why does the chain of “where did it come from” questions end with “Northern England”? Don’t you want to know about its origins there too?

      • trawicks says:

        I entirely agree. I’d like to draw a distinction, however, between what a vowel shift does and WHY it does that. We know what these shifts do, and even in some cases can deduce where they initiate (since they are often incomplete from sub-region to sub-region). But most of these predate recorded sound, so it’s hard to find empirical evidence besides looking for accents with similar pronunciations or analyzing misspellings.

        Regarding Northern England’s glide deletion, that one is a puzzle. Of course, glide deletion doesn’t necessarily involve vowel shifts: some very strong South African accents have glide deletion for KITE, MOUTH and GOAT words, suggesting a phonological process separate from any shift. What’s curious about Northern England is that this feature makes for phonemes that are LESS distinct, not more. In Leeds, for example, “pike” and “park” are near-merged in some speakers, which makes me wonder what kind of “purpose” glide-deletion serves in that accent.

  7. John Cowan says:

    I’d guess that glide deletion in PRICE is borrowed from AAVE, and that AAVE lacks this glide as part of the general tendency to delete glides in language varieties descended from pidgins and creoles.

  8. Lu says:

    I did project on this very phenomenon in graduate school, but the article I based my project on called it monophthongization and it was specifically in reference to AAVE in Appalachia. Since I’m in graduate school for Spanish, I had to call it monoptongización ;) I found your link via Maud Newton and I’m quite excited to have been sent your way. I’ve finished all my course work, so any formal linguistics work is done for me (for now). I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me in the past to find linguistics blogs!

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  12. Glacier says:

    I think you should have pointed out that “kite” remains a diphthong in the coastal varieties.

  13. Nathan Brown says:

    From listening to recordings of Southerners born in the 1800s, I don’t think glide deletion is something brought over from the U.K., because most of them don’t really have it. I think Labov’s theory of a chain shift, starting around 1900 or so, is right.

    One aspect of it that I find interesting is that losing the glide before voiceless consonants is, or at least used to be, a lower-class feature, so everyone would say /ta:m/ and /ma:/ for time and my, but /na:s wa:t ra:s/ for nice white rice makes you a hick. Losing the glide before voiceless consonants, from my observation, is entirely a white thing, and more common in the Appalachian area than on the coast; I have never heard a black person do it. Think this might be a holdover from the days when Canadian Raising was the norm in the coastal Tidewater dialect?

  14. Nathan Brown says:

    Search on YouTube for recordings of Confederate veterans.

    • Pat says:

      Yeah I did. I never knew there were any such recordings until I read y0ur comment! I just never thought of looking that up.

  15. Martin says:

    The problem with the first explanation is that if the majority of immigrants to the South came from northern England, then how come Southern accents don’t have other northern English features like having the same vowel in foot and strut? I think I have heard occasional monophthongization of the unraised /ai/ in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I’m talking about words like my. I’ve seen this spelled mah by Scottish people (see here for instance).

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