Where Does “The South” Begin?

600px-1864_Johnson's_Map_of_Maryland_and_Delaware_-_Geographicus_-_DEMD-j-64Yesterday I crossed the border from Pennsylvania to Maryland, and was greeted by a road sign for “The Mason-Dixon Line,” the historical demarcation between the American North and South. It’s a misleading distinction from a linguistic perspective, because one does not encounter Southern accents upon entering Maryland (at least east of Appalachia). So where does the South truly “begin,” accent-wise?

Dialecticians define the American South by its glide deletion (i.e. Southerners pronounce words like ‘ride’ and ‘bind’ with a monophthong, so they sound somewhat like ‘rod‘ and ‘bond‘). But do you cross an invisible boundary and find yourself immediately greeted by twangs? Or is this a more gradual process?

Living on the Atlantic Seaboard for most of my life, I find it nearly impossible to pinpoint where “Southerness” begins. My very rough impression is that the first hints of glide deletion start as far north as New York City*, but only before liquids like /l/ and /r/. This is pretty weak tea; after all, /r/ and /l/ often impact preceding vowels in unusual ways. And this type of monophthongization occurs in other accents we don’t associate with glide deletion.

Further south, around Southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and some parts of the Philadelphia metro, I’ve noticed the occasional speaker for whom the glide starts to very slightly weaken before nasals like /n/ and /m/. But I still find the feature quite infrequent.

William Labov and team studied glide deletion in the American Midland in their Atlas of North American English. Their observations were similar to mine about the Mid-Atlantic: glide deletion in “Midland” areas of Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio tend to only occur before liquids and nasals. (With the exception of one speaker from Kansas who uses a monophthong in the word “five.”**)

Alas, Labov et al’s findings don’t suggest a clear North-to-South spectrum as far as glide deletion goes. Just look at how all-over-the-map (literally) his findings are: the researchers found lots of glide deletion among Kansans from Wichita and Topeka, but almost no glide deletion among Oklahomans in Oklahoma City and Tulsa; there’s significant glide deletion in a speaker from a relatively northern town in Western PA, yet no glide deletion in the two speakers from the far more southern Evansville, IN.

It’s clear that you can’t simply drive southward and find increasing incidence of “Southernness” as you go. And as many Southern cities are developing markedly “non-Southern” accents, I’m guessing the North-South spectrum will become even more confusing.

*In dialects other than those influenced by African-American English, which is glide deleting throughout the US.

**Phoneticians will probably find that this suggests a connection between the glide deletion and the sonority hierarchy.

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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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24 Responses to Where Does “The South” Begin?

  1. Matt Lane says:

    Of course a lot of what makes a Southern accent sound Southern is the prosody and Labov et al. don’t talk about that at all. Someone could have no glide deletion and still sound really Southern just by their prosody alone.

  2. Nico says:

    I’ve grown up in Northern Virginia most of my life and don’t have any trace of a Southern accent. In fact, I don’t know anyone my age (Millennial generation) who was born and raised here and has a Southern accent of any kind. The people here who have Southern accents are generally people from outside the DC area (Western Maryland, other parts of Virginia) or the Deep South. However, I’m well aware that a number of people over 50 years old still have traces of a Southern accent native to this area.

    Living anywhere around DC, you definitely don’t sense any Southern culture at all. But once you go about 20-30 miles south or west from here, things quickly change. You start to see rebel flags, trucks, and hear some twang in people’s speech. It’s hard to believe sometimes you’re even in the same state!

    • Nico says:

      Truth be told, my normal accent is General American with bits of Southern California/Valspeak. I swear it’s incredibly widespread among people my age and younger. Can we blame it all on Clueless?

      • m.m. says:

        everyone wants to blame media but we all know its because the rest of you want to sound cool and laid back and envy our snowless winters, which we proudly still show off via the rose parade xD

      • Josh McNeill says:

        I find a lot of features of the “Valspeak” in young people in Louisiana, so much so that I at first just assumed that my university had a lot of transplants from Southern California. It’s pretty strange.

        • Nico says:

          Haha, I’m 27 years old, and I swear a lot of people my age (30 and younger) have quite a few elements of Valspeak in their speech whether or not they like to admit it. I’ve never even been to California!

    • Turner says:

      Well, that’s because you’re from DC, which is not Southern linguistically or culturally. I’ve never heard anyone describe DC as Southern.

      • Nico says:

        No one from DC or the South thinks of DC as Southern, but people from the North or outside the East Coast tend to think anywhere south of Pennsylvania is “Southern” enough.

      • Meade says:

        Yes it has been. DC has often been called the “Gateway to the South”. In the 1950′s it was a hot bed for Country Music- and Patsy Cline (from nearby Winchester, Virginia) got her start singing there. DC has many Southern cultural aspects that have been watered down over the years. I believe Baltimore is the end of the Northeast cities, and the DC area is the start of the South. Nobody in DC or Northern Virginia may have a strong Southern accent- and the area is not as friendly as it used to be, but its still remarkably different from anywhere just a little further North.

  3. Charles Sullivan says:

    Growing up in Pittsburgh, we thought the South began in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

    • Justin says:

      I’ve traveled through much of the “border area” and the Greene county PA comment is pretty accurate. I found that Uniontown, PA does not have a southern accent but Morgantown, WV does even though the 2 towns are less than 30 miles apart. When you go south of US-50 in WV, it becomes much more noticeable.

  4. Josh McNeill says:

    My anecdotal experience agrees with the idea that there’s no clear division. For instance, my grandmother, born and raised in Cape May County NJ, sounded just like my grandfather, born and raised in Alabama. My grandmother’s brother also sounded very southern and her sister a bit but not as much. I’ve never encountered anyone from Delaware that sounded southern to me at all, though, and I’ve talked to plenty of people from there as the ferry connecting the two states is a mile from my home.

    I wish I could say exactly what features I heard in their speech but she died some 18 years ago. And I don’t find anything like her speech in people of my generation from the same area.

  5. Norm says:

    Having driven up and down the east coast a bunch of times over the years, I didn’t notice a marked change in accent until around the southern edges of the DC metro area, similar to what Nico mentioned.

    How long ago was it common for DC metro residents to retain Southern characteristics in speech? Or has Northern inflections been predominant for more than a generation?

    Also, from speaking to friends around the South, it seems that the metro areas across the South have stronger Northern influences due to large scale in-migration. But have the newcomers acquired any Southern twinges themselves?

    • Nico says:

      It’s hard to pin-point exactly where you start to hear more Southern outside the DC metro area. Some think places like Manassas, Woodbridge, Fauquier, or Fredericksburg (all in Virginia) mark the borderline of transitional accents. But then again, a lot of young people born and raised in those places don’t Southern at all because their parents are transplants. Virginia, DC, and Maryland went through a big population boom starting in the mid ’80s. Most of my friends growing up either moved to the area very young or their parents moved here just before they were born.

      • Nico says:

        To answer your other question, Norm, many older people in the DC area have some Southern features in their speech. And these are people born, raised here and with generations of family here. Their accent is native to this area. But these are people generally 50 or older.

      • Meade says:

        Im from NOVA, and I’m definitely Southern. When I go up North people think I have quite a drawl. In the Deep South, they don’t think I sound like a Yankee. So I get a pass! But I am in the minority. Most people refer to Virginia as “diet coke” Southern, lol.

    • acrobin109 says:

      My mother came to Georgia from Detroit when she married in the late 70s.

      People who knew her in the north will mention a southern accent now, although I’m not sure how much of this is their perception, how much is word choice (she’s adopted ya’ll and fixing, but will battle unto death against pin/pen), and how much is actual pronunciation.

      My grandmother spent about 10 years in Georgia before marrying a fellow Michigander and began splitting her time between the two states. We have since noticed a MARKED resurgence of her northern accent.

  6. Mark says:

    Norm mentions a point I was going to make about big cities in the South having relatively large populations of people from outside the South who have brought their own pronunciations with them. On-air personalities in cities like Atlanta have essentially no Southern accent, no matter where they come from. And, of course, there is virtually no authentic Southern accent to be heard anywhere on national TV channels.

    • Josie says:

      Paula Deen and Emeril Lagasse are authentically southern. You don’t hear southern accents on TV much because of the prejudice against them. My parents are from North Carolina and Texas and we lived in Georgia briefly before moving to Virginia where we’ve lived for the past 40 years. The first few years in VA we were told that I had a speech defect! all because I had a different type of southern accent.

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  9. Nathan Brown says:

    Interesting you mention New Jersey, Josh. I’ve got some family in Salem County, and I’ve met people down there who sound like they could be from Alabama, they have the Southern vowel shift pretty strongly.

    I’ve spent a good deal of time in south-central Pennsylvania, and I’ve never heard much of a “Southern” accent there, though, just traces of the Philly/Baltimore Mid-Atlantic way of talking. It’s an interesting question, where the Southern accent begins. I imagine settlement patterns have a lot to do with it, but someone would need to do some more research.

  10. Meade says:

    I grew up in Northern Virginia and definitely consider myself a Southerner. But Northern Virginia today is questionable. My family is mostly from Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia – and I have lived in Richmond since Iwas a young adult. When I travel through the Deeper Southern states, I usually get a “pass” when I tell people I’m from Richmond- but most Southerners think the South stops there. Or some may even say North Carolina. Richmond hasn’t felt quite the cultural shift from Southern to more “Mid Atlantic” as Northern Virginia has.

    Years ago, it was Washington DC that was the cultural cut off point. I believe Richmond is more Southern than Charlotte or Nashville, and it even has a sort of Charleston/Savannah vibe to it- especially in the people. Many people say Virginia isn’t “the real South” because we are closer to the middle part of the East Coast- .But historically, culturally, and economically- we have always been a Southern state. In fact the first recipe for “Sweet Tea” was found in an old Virginia cook book.

  11. david says:

    I always thought of maryland and dc pa etc like yankees but idk maybe bc yalls northeast yall think your southbut as for me i live as far north you can be in Arkansas on the mo boothill Statline and when i go to floridanorth caralina or kty they always ask me where im from saying damb you got a cute accient but when im southeast all i see are yankees living there i think we should start the new south and drop geargia as it is more like florida then we add oklahoma plus take out them states north like the virginas fyi kty seems more south then them

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