Southern American
English in Alabama
Alabama Humanities Foundation
Speakers Bureau
Catherine Evans Davies
Professor of Linguistics
Dept. of English, The University of Alabama
Terminology
 linguistics
= the study of “language”
 a language
– vocabulary (lexicon and semantics)
– accent (phonology)
– grammar (morphology and syntax)
– discourse conventions (patterns of use)
a
dialect or variety
 an idiolect
A Dialect “Continuum”
 Formal
edited English
 Informal
regional standard
 Vernacular
(casual speech, defined
as containing stigmatized features)
A Yankee in the South
 Fascination

with Southern Speech
Outsider as Observer and Analyst
– Research methodology with native
speakers ensures accuracy
Plan for the Lecture
 Historical
context
 Key
dimensions of dialect
(vocabulary, accent, grammar,
discourse patterns)

Language attitudes and dialect
changes in progress
A Bit of Geography
Indigenous Languages
 Moundville:
800-1200
 Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw
 Chief Tuscaloosa encounters De Soto
1540
 1814
 What
influences would we expect to
find, if any, from indigenous
languages?
Examples of Place Names
Alabama
(An Upper Creek tribe, known to the French
in 1702 as “Alibamons”)
Name derived from:
Choctaw alba, “plants,” “weeds,”
plus amo, “to trim,” “to gather”
—that is, “those who clear the land,”
or “thicket clearers”
(Read 1937/1984)
Examples of Place Names
Tuscaloosa
From Choctaw
tashka, “warrior,” and
lusa, “black”
(Read 1937/1984)
Colonial Empires

New Spain
– Gordo (actually named for a famous battle in
the Mexican War of 1846)
– Chula Vista

New France
– Mobile
– Dauphin Island
1763 – Seven Years’ War/French & Indian War
American Settlement in Northern Alabama:
Scots-Irish Small Farmers
 Early
17th century from Scotland
to northern Ireland
 Early
18th century into
Philadelphia and south through
Cumberland Gap
American Settlement in Southern Alabama:
Plantation Culture



“Alabama Fever” after 1814, Federal Road
“Black Belt” area with prosperous settlers
from Virginia who could afford to buy large
tracts of land
Importation of slave labor
from West Africa through the Caribbean
There is an ongoing debate in the
field concerning:
(1) the relative influence on Southern
English of dialects of British English and
the varieties of English spoken by the
slaves and influenced by their native
West African languages, and
(2) the similarities and differences between
the speech of black and white
Southerners
The Status of European American and
African American Vernaculars
There is a restricted subset of features
unique to AAVE (all others are shared)
 Frequency of occurrence of common
features is important in differentiating
varieties
 “The uniqueness of AAVE lies more in the
particular array of structures that
comprise the dialect than it does in the
restricted set of potentially unique
structures.”
 Regional variation within AAVE, but
common core of features shared across
regions = strong ethnic association of this
variety

New data :
 WPA
ex-slave narratives, letters, etc.
(earlier AAVE not as distinct from
Anglo varieties as researchers had
thought)
 Examination
of the sociohistorical
situation and the demographics of
the antebellum South
Early Settlement by Other Groups
 Germans
in Cullman
 Welsh in Cullman and in coalmining
areas near Birmingham: Abernant
 French in Demopolis
 …..
Dimensions of Dialect
Vocabulary
Accent
Grammar
Discourse
Patterns
Vocabulary:
Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States
(LAGS)

Virginia Foscue’s boundary 1974 (for
speech of white Alabamians)
Tiny red insect that burrows into
skin and causes itching:
North
AL: chigger
South AL: red bug
Bread that is baked with yeast:
North
AL: loaf bread
South AL: light bread
The insect with a long straight tail and long
straight double wings that hovers over
water:
North
AL: snake doctor
South AL: mosquito hawk
Words of West African origin:
Tote
 Perhaps
(via Black West African
English) of Bantu origin; akin to
Kongo -tota, to pick up,
 and Swahili -tuta, to pile up, carry
(Merriam Webster)
Okra
 From
a West African language,
prob. Igbo ók ùr ù
Cf. Akan ŋkr umã,
Twi ŋkrakra broth.
In U.S. regional form okry with
ending remodelled
(Oxford English Dictionary)
Banjo
 Akin
to Jamaican English banja,
fiddle; probably akin to
Kimbundu and Tshiluba mbanza, a
plucked stringed instrument.
(American Heritage Dict.)
Accent
 monophthongized
North AL)
 Example:
 Phrase
rice”
[ai] (esp. in
“tide”
taught in school: “nice white
 fronted
[u] (found in contemporary
Scottish, and also now in California)
How are you? I’m so
glad to see you!
 Example:
The Southern Vowel Shift (Labov 1997)
/i/ (beet)
/u/ (boot)
/Ʊ/ (put)
/I/ (bit)
/e/ (bait)
/ɛ/ (bet)
/o/ (boat)
/ʌ/ (but)
/æ/ (bat)
/ɔ/ (bought)
/a/ (father)
The “Southern Shift” (Labov 1997)
i
I
“feel”--“They were on the field in Mobile.”
“fill” – “I asked him to fill it to the top.”
e
Ɛ
“sale” --- “There’s a sale at the mall.”
“sell” ---- “I can sell it to you for less.”


Part of constant shifting of vowel system of
English, e.g. 1400-1600 “The Great Vowel
Shift”
 pronunciation
of “r” [turned into
vowel except in word-initial position]
–“red”
–“ladder,” “far”
–“farm”
 (influence partly from contact of
plantation elites with London after
American Revolution, as also upper
classes in Boston, NYC, Philadelphia,
Charleston, Savannah)
Strong “r” characteristic of
American English
 Scots-Irish
(North Alabama)
 Other British dialects such as from
the Southwest (e.g. Long John
Silver)
 More authentic for Shakespeare
Grammar
The Pronoun System of English
 Early
Modern English (1500)
– I/me
– thou/thee
– he/him; she/her; it
 Contemporary
we/us
ye/you
they/them
English (2000)
– I/me
– you
– he/him; she/her; it
we/us
you
they/them
The Pronoun System of Southern English
 Contemporary
English (2000)
– I/me
– you
– he/him; she/her; it
 Contemporary
(2000)
we/us
you
they/them
Southern English
– I/me
– you
– he/him; she/her; it
we/us
y’all
they/them
Montgomery suggests origins in Scots-Irish.
Grammar
 “double
it]
modals” [I might could do
“What’s something that you might can
do to take your mind off of eating?”
(10/7/04)
The English Verb
I go there every Friday.
 Only one “modal” verb is allowed (showing
ability, possibility, probability):

I
I
I
I

can go there every Friday
could go there every Friday
may go there every Friday
might go there every Friday
“Double modals” in Southern English:
I may can go there every Friday
I might could go there every Friday

Effect?
Montgomery suggests origins in Scots-Irish
Negation
 Positive
sentence: I saw it
 Negative
sentence:
– Early Modern English: I saw it not
– Modern English:
I did not see it
Negation (continued)

Single negation with polarity item:
– I saw something like them.
– I saw nothing like them./I didn’t see anything like
them.

Double negation:
– I didn’t see nothing like them. (but: I saw
something not unlike them.)

Triple negation:
– I didn’t see nothing like them nowhere.

Pre-posed negation with “ain’t”:
– I ain’t seen nothing like ‘em nowhere.
– Ain’t seen nothin’ like ‘em nowhere.
– Dreamland Barbeque: “Ain’t nothin’ like ‘em
nowhere.”
Multiple negation found in Shakespeare and other authors.
Discourse Patterns
 politeness
 storytelling
traditions
Politeness
 address
 rituals
terms showing respect
of conversation
 indirectness
Storytelling Traditions
 “I’m
a Southern storyteller; we
digress.”
Social Judgments
Associated with Dimensions of Dialect
 Within
 By
Alabama
Non-Alabamians
 “Tailoring”
an accent
Current Trends (1865 – 2008)
Regional Identity
 New
research is suggesting the
postbellum period as highly
significant for the development of a
distinctively Southern way of
speaking
Recent Linguistic Changes
and
Regional Identity
Increase in “R-fulness”
among Younger Speakers
“Country” versus Urban Speech
Shifting Population within the US
 African-Americans
to northern cities,
and then back to the South
 Non-Southerners
into the South
Presence of
Speakers of Other Languages
 German
 Japanese
 Korean
 Spanish
Stay tuned….
 Invitation
to participate
 E-mail
me at [email protected]
if you’d like an annotated handout.
The Origin and Early Development of
AA(V)E
 The
Anglicist Hypothesis
 The Creolist Hypothesis
 The Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis
 The Substrate Hypothesis
The Anglicist Hypothesis
 the
roots of AAVE can be traced to
the same source as Anglo American
dialects: British dialects
The Creolist Hypothesis
 AAVE
developed from a “creole”
language, similar to other Englishbased creoles in African and the
Caribbean, vestige found in “Gullah,”
went through “decreolization”
 Developed during 1970s and 1980s:
“Black on White” in the Story of
English
New data to challenge the Creolist
Hypothesis:
 WPA
ex-slave narratives, letters, etc.
(earlier AAVE not as distinct from
Anglo varieties as the Creolist
Hypothesis would predict)
 Black expatriate insular varieties of
English
 Examination of the sociohistorical
situation and the demographics of
the antebellum South
The Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis
 Earlier
postcolonial African American
speech was directly linked to the
early British dialects brought to
North America, but AAE has since
diverged so that it is now quite
distinct from contemporary European
American vernacular speech
The Substrate Hypothesis
 Even
though earlier AAE may have
incorporated many features from
regional varieties of English in
America, its durable substrate effects
have always distinguished it from
other varieties of American English
(whereas Neo-Anglicist claims that
earlier form was identical)
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An Overview of Dialects in Alabama