One of My Favorite Famous Accents

Charleston, SC

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As per a recent post about non-rhotic American Southern English, I should mention one of my favorite accents of any politician.  That would be the former Senator from Charleston, South Carolina, Fritz Hollings.

An excellent clip of his speech can be found here (the fine folks of Book TV have curiously decided to disable the Embed function).

I don’t know enough about Hollings’ (centrist) politics to form an opinion about them. But linguistically-speaking, I think the man is a national treasure. He is one of the last notable examples of the traditional Charleston Accent, which is rapidly dying out in the face of modernity.

This accent has two important features. First, as you will notice in the clip, the diphthongs in words like FACE and GOAT become monophthongs (IPA [fe:s] and [go:t] or “fehs” and “goht”). In this regard, the accent shares similarities with varieties of Irish, Scottish and Northern English speech.

The accent also features a modified form of Canadian Raising, whereby the diphthong in words like “about” or “house” is raised slightly.  You can hear examples of this at the following points in the clip:

“start out” 1:15
“merged it in about” 1:42
“for example, in the house” 2:27
“they’ll kick you out:  3:20
“Don’t worry about:  4:03
“You’ve got a good house:  4:12
“both in the house and the Senate, and they’re outstanding” 4:27
“don’t worry about it:”  6:17

“CharlE” has been reputed to have British, Caribbean, African, Irish and Scottish influences.  While I can’t vouch for these, Charleston is nonetheless a reminder that American English, no matter the variety, actually came from somewhere.

I am one of those who believes that American English is becoming more diverse rather than less.  But in embracing this diversity, it is important to honor the passing varieties of English that will soon leave us.  Rest in peace, Charleston English.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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29 Responses to One of My Favorite Famous Accents

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    Thanks for the lovely clip!

    You can hear something similar in MOUTH words in parts of Virginia. I think that this, as can the Canadian version, can be traced back to Scots and Scotch-Irish (Ulster Scots) influence. It’s a little confusing to call it Canadian Raising when talking about the US South, though. Should we come up with a new name for it? (Or does one exist already?)

    If my theory is correct, I suspect that the monophthong realizations of FACE and GOAT sets hails from the same source.

    I notice that Hollings also has a clear NORTH/FORCE split. As someone who has total merger in these lexical sets, I find it very difficult one to pin them down and coach them accurately when called for – even with a detailed crib sheet. This level of detail is seldom necessary when coaching (as I usually do) for an audience that for the most part has NORTH/FORCE merger, but I still wish I had a better handle on it.

    • Thomas S says:

      “Should we come up with a new name for it? (Or does one exist already?)”

      Tidewater raising?

    • trawicks says:

      @Amy,

      I know what you mean about NORTH/FORCE. I’ve had similar issues with MARRY-MERRY-MARY. As someone who has been exposed to merged people most of my life, it took me a long time to really notice the difference between the three.

      @Thomas,

      I’ve heard that term as well, although mostly on Rick Aschmann’s site. Not sure if there is a more linguist-approved term for it.

      • Thomas S says:

        @trawicks,

        ha ha Yeah, that’s where I heard the term too. I haven’t actually seen it used anywhere else, come to think of it. But I just liked how it sounded.

  2. Thomas S says:

    As an American, I think American English is becoming less diverse. I used to agree with the linguists who said it was becoming more diverse, but then I read some studies about both the NCVS and the Southern shift going away in some areas. I want them to be right (which is probably why I agreed with them at first), but I just don’t think they are. I think movement is making us sound more and more alike. I’m not sure about the effect TV is having on our speech though. I found one linguist who agrees with me, but he’s probably in the minority. I can’t remember his name now unfortunately.

    • Cclinton says:

      You know, the situation does look bleak sometimes, but ultimatly it does seem that diversity is still the direction we are moving towards. We have examples in California and in Michigan of new dialect features still being able to rise up and establish themselves. And although some dialects being lost, from some areas in the south and in the bigger cities like New York, these examples are because of large amounts emigration to those areas, and over time the new populations that replace the old will develop their own innovations, and the cycle will repeat.

      Furthermore, there are some areas that are not gonna be effected by migration patterns, and will likely be left to evolve without interference. Places like South Dakota, Mississippi, or Wyoming aren’t gonna receive any significant amount of emigration in the near future.

      • Thomas S says:

        We have examples in California and in Michigan of new dialect features still being able to rise up and establish themselves.

        Which features are you referring to? I think I know, but I just want to know for sure.

    • trawicks says:

      My general impression is that AmE is getting more diverse, but it would take a staggeringly massive study to prove this to be the case. For example, I’ve noticed some much younger people in California (born after 1990) who show features of advanced California Vowel Shifting. I’ve seen similar “advanced” accents in places like Connecticut or Michigan. All this evidence is very circumstantial, of course.

  3. Martin says:

    He also seems to have a palatization of /k/ when it comes before front vowels. Listen to the way he pronounces candidate at about 4:50 in the video, for example. This is also a feature Northern Irish English and some Caribbean varieties too. I’ve read that it is a really old feature.

  4. AL says:

    That’s a really interesting accent!

    Since I pronounce the vowels in north/force the same, what does the split make them?

    • dw says:

      It varies.

      In Hollings’s case, they vary mainly by openness and roundedness.

      Compare “Corzine” (a NORTH word) at ~ 4:54 with “forcing” (a FORCE word) at 5:56.

      “Corzine” is open and weakly rounded. “Forcing” is considerably closer and more rounded.

      Hollings’s NORTH is actually very close to his START vowel (e.g. “parties” at 2:13 and 2:16) although I think it is distinct.

      • trawicks says:

        His FORCE sets can also have more pronounced vowel-breaking, often something like [owə].

        • dw says:

          Yes: I notice that mainly in word-final position.

          I compared one of the few word-final NORTH words, “war”, at 4:02, and that didn’t have a comparable offglide.

  5. dw says:

    Hollings has a distinctive pronunciation of the word “year”. I think he puts it in the SQUARE set rather than the NEAR set. Is this common?

    • trawicks says:

      It is! Well, common among older speakers in the region, anyway (as I mention, this accent is dying out). Here’s the relevant quote from A Handbook of varieties of English:

      “In old fashioned South Carolina/Georgia Low Country speech, NEAR and SQUARE were merged to [eə], but contact with other Southern dialects has reversed this merger.”

  6. Erica says:

    Except for the way he says words like “house” and “out” and “oo” sounds like “do,” I would have said this was someone from Maine. I’m no linguist by any stretch, and I’ve never been south of Washington D.C., but especially his final “r”s, like “everywhere” and “offshore” and “Medicare” and “year” sound just like old-timey Mainer to me and nothing like what I think of as “Southern” (which I know is a big broad swath of geography and has lots of accents, but I still have an idea of what Southerners sound like, and this isn’t it!). Very interesting, as usual!

    • trawicks says:

      Charleston has long been noted for being distinct from the rest of the American South. I read somewhere that even though this particular accent is fading, contemporary Charlestonians are still notably less “Southern”-sounding than speakers from other Southern cities. In fact, for some phonemes, the accent goes in the opposite direction of most Southern speech–the GOAT, FACE, and GOOSE sets, for example, are as conservative in pronunciation as you would find in rural Maine or Minnesota.

      • NV says:

        I’ll have to disagree with some of what you wrote there. According to many things I’ve read, the Charleston accent actually leads North America in the fronting of GOOSE and GOAT now. So it is actually surpassing the rest of the South when it comes to the fronting of those particular vowels. I think of this as a Southern feature, but I don’t know about everyone else. This fronting is being led by the highest-status social group, as this abstract says. The pin-pen merger is also occurring there now. Many people would call that a Southern feature. However, I think you’re right about FACE. It still tends to be closer than it is in the rest of the South, although now it’s an upgliding diphthong rather than the monophthong or even ingliding diphthong that it used to be.

        There are many abstracts and papers on the Internet that might interest you about changes in the Charleston accent. I don’t want to link them all separately, because I’m afraid it’ll screw up somehow. Also I don’t like bombarding people with links. Here’s where some of them can be found. As you may know, you can also read about it in The Atlas of North American English by Labov et al. if you can get your hands on that. It’s pretty blurry and hard to read on the Internet. Not to mention the fact that you can’t read the whole thing AFAIK.

        • trawicks says:

          Sorry, I worded that last comment poorly. My statement, “In fact, for some phonemes, the accent goes in the opposite direction of most Southern speech–the GOAT, FACE, and GOOSE sets …” was referring back to older Charleston accents, not newer ones. Bad transition!

          I might direct you to a slightly younger speaker, Charleston mayor Joe Riley. He still has some older Charleston features (like MOUTH-raising and occasional non-rhoticity), but his accent is obviously much miler. And I’d say his vowels, while not as extreme as Hollings, are a bit more conservative than you would find in other Southern accents.

          The fronting of GOOSE and GOAT in younger generations makes sense (although on the East Coast this is not only a Southern feature, but one that stretches all the way up to Central New Jersey). However, as the abstract you link to points out, contemporary Charlestonians don’t have the Southern Shift, which is why I’d still classify it as a bit divorced from other contemporary variants of Southern English.

        • NV says:

          “I might direct you to a slightly younger speaker, Charleston mayor Joe Riley. He still has some older Charleston features (like MOUTH-raising and occasional non-rhoticity), but his accent is obviously much miler. And I’d say his vowels, while not as extreme as Hollings, are a bit more conservative than you would find in other Southern accents.”

          He still sounds pretty Southern to me. The way he says proud near the beginning and now at 0:25 both sound Southern to me. His PRICE vowel sounds pretty Southern. It’s either a monophthong or it has a lengthened first element and/or reduced glide. Plus it sounds more fronted than mine. Listen to the way he says South Carolina, behind,fine and by, for example. He fronts GOOSE more than I do in moving at 1:38 and I’m way younger than he is. His START vowel also sounds pretty Southern to me. It’s further back and maybe more rounded than mine. The word important also has a typical Southern pronunciation. He uses an alveolar tap for the first /t/.

          Here is a video of a man from Charleston who owns a business there. It’s on a channel called “yellowpages” where people talk about their businesses. I think he sounds quite Southern as well. It seems like there’s some variation there.

          “…although on the East Coast this is not only a Southern feature, but one that stretches all the way up to Central New Jersey…”

          I’ve heard linguists say that, but I haven’t heard that feature too much in that area. I associate it much more with the South. I think it tends to be more extreme there. I also think a higher percentage of people have it in the South.

        • trawicks says:

          “I’ve heard linguists say that, but I haven’t heard that feature too much in that area. I associate it much more with the South.”

          It probably is more extreme there. Whereas, say, GOOSE and GOAT in Philadelphia are usually transcribed as something like [ʉ] and [ɜʊ], I have seen Southern accents transcribed with far more extreme variants, like [y] for GOOSE and [æʏ] for GOAT.

    • Thomas S says:

      Actually, I think some people from Maine do the same he does with the vowel in house and out, i.e., they raise it too! One of the things (among others) that distinguishes his accent from a Maine accent to my ears is the vowel he uses in parties. It sounds quite back and even close to his NORTH vowel, as dw mentioned. From Mainers, I’ve heard something approaching [a] in START words.

  7. Salamander says:

    I used to live in Charleston. I loved the sound of the “S.O.B” accents (that would be “South of Broad,” as in Broad Street — that was sort of the dividing line between downtown peninsular Charleston and the rest of the city).

    Charleston has a lot of different accents in a relatively small area. They seemed to be more influenced by socioeconomic class than by geographic location. Fritz Hollings has an upper-class S.O.B. Charlestonian accent. Middle-class accents tended to be flatter and more conventionally Southern sounding. Working-class whites often had a really thick, almost indecipherable accent — I was always told it was called “Geechee” and was sort of the white equivalent of Gullah.

  8. Hello!!

    Years later :) Thanks for this write up. I’m a Charleston, SC native and the “geechie” accent is alive and well ;) There are different variations of accents among the locals which Salamader described some above. You tend to here the “geechie” accent demonstrated in the video more among my african american locals however when you find a caucasian from the islands : Johns Island, James Island, Wadmalaw etc. you will here it. His accent is present but it can be thicker sounding more like :

    When compared to other accents people normally say that I can sound like I’m from New Orleans or slightly jamaican. Cheers to all!!!!!!

  9. Ck on Louis Vuitton Outlet USA Bob

  10. Spencer says:

    I know this post is pretty old now, but if anyone reading this would like more examples of the Charleston accent, I have a few. I lived in Charleston for a while, so I’m pretty familiar with the city. Here is a video of an interview of Arthur Ravenel, Jr., a politician from a prominent Charleston family (and the namesake of this bridge). Here is an interview of a Charleston lawyer.

    • Spencer says:

      It says my comment is awaiting moderation. Is it the links? I promise they’re legit links and I only put them in my comment for educational purposes.

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