Southern Speech

A little while ago, I spent some time at Colonial Williamsburg as a tourist. While my wife was getting dressed for dinner our first evening, I happened to watch a short film on TV entitled Portrait of a Patriot, which, I learned, was piped into all of the area hotels and motels. Briefly, the film is set in and around Williamsburg in the year or so preceding the Declaration of Independence, and attempts to dramatize the gradual evolution of its fictional protagonist, a young planter who succeeds his conservative father in the Virginia House of Burgesses, from Tory to “Patriot.” Historical figures portrayed in the film include Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, William Byrd, and Peyton Randolph, to mention a few. What struck me about the film as a linguist, however, was the fact that every one of the actors portraying these eminent Colonial Virginians had a regional accent typical of the Midwest, so that Washington and Jefferson et al. tended to sound like, say, Adlai Stevenson. As one who is fond of shocking his students by pointing out that George Washington probably sounded more like Pat Robertson than the late Illinois senator, I wondered again if the linguistic implications of Washington’s birthplace ever occur to Southerners who are not academics. Of course one could simply dismiss the matter as another of those amusing little ironies:

Colonial Williamsburg prides itself in authenticity; however, such fastidiousness seldom extends to matters of linguistic verisimilitude. However, as most Southerners are somewhat aware, the failure to attend to such matters as authentic accents in recent historical films and TV productions is really quite selective where the accents in question are Southern. In the film in question, for example, the character of John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia on the eve of the Revolution, who appears just long enough to dissolve the Virginia assembly, is played by an actor with an appropriate British accent, even though he speaks only two lines in the entire film. It is only Washington, Jefferson, Henry, Byrd, etc., whose accents receive no such attention.

There are several possible explanations for the consistent failure to represent the Southern accents of certain important figures in American history. One might be that, lacking sound recordings, we don’t know what the English of Colonial Virginians (or any variety of Colonial American English) sounded like. This argument is unfounded, though it may surprise the layman to hear this. Linguists have long had both adequate methodologies and abundant evidence for fairly reliable reconstructions of the pronunciation features of varieties of both British and American English of earlier periods in the history of the English language, extending back to the Anglo-Saxon era in Great Britain a millennium and a half ago. While such scientific reconstructions cannot offer
cannot offer 100% accuracy, their acceptance among linguists is largely uncontroversial. Therefore, the argument that we don’t know, within reasonable limits of scientific inquiry, how Washington and Jefferson pronounced their English, is patently false.

But, what then did their English sound like?

In considering the history and development of American English, we must remember that those courageous folk who ventured westward into the unknown with Captain John Smith, as well as those who followed them later in the seventeenth century, were speaking and writing the English language as it was currently used in England. Consequently, whatever processes operated to produce those differences in British and American English which existed by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and those that exist today, must have taken place in American English after colonization, or occurred in British English after the emigrants left, or both. Actually, contrary to what most laymen believe, it is the latter which is largely the case: we Americans speak an old-fashioned variety of the mother tongue.

The fact is that the emigres who accompanied Smith learned their native tongue long before 1607. A man of forty on the Jamestown expedition would have begun acquiring his English about the same time Shakespeare did; John Rolfe, for example, the future husband of Pocahontas, probably acquired his English about 1587. In short, the Virginia colonists spoke Elizabethan English, the language of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Bacon, when they came to America, and not the later, measurably different, English of Dryden, Defoe, and Bunyan. Linguists believe that an especially isolated variety still spoken by the inhabitants of Tangier Island, near the Virginia Cape, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, contains survivals of many of these earlier features.

What are the prominent components of the pronunciation we are talking about? It will come as no surprise to many Virginians that the variety of speech which we associate with the Tidewater—Coastal or Lowland Southern, it is usually called —today retains most of the relevant features. There is no greater authority on this subject, incidentally, than the late South Carolina linguist Raven I. McDavid, to whom I am greatly indebted. Without getting too technical about it, these include: (1) the loss of final and preconsonantal /r/, which pronunciation feature most varieties of Southern English share with New England varieties, and with London English since the seventeenth century, but not with Middle Atlantic and subsequent Midwestern varieties, whose linguistic forebears came from other areas of England; (2) the notorious centralization of the first formant of the diphthong in words like house and mouse to sound like (roughly) huh-oose, a pronunciation shared with many Charlestonians, as well as certain natives of Canada; (3) diphthongization and breaking of certain simple vowels, (the so-called “drawl”), and other features which it shares with most other subvarieties of Southern speech. In addition to these, there would have been much more frequent occurrences of/ar/ as revealed in such eighteenth century (mis)spellings as laming (for learning), and sartin (for cer tain), as well as Elizabethan survivals like leetle (little), bile (boil), and stidy (steady) than are heard in “educated” Southern speech today. To put it simply, Washington, Jefferson, etc., would have sounded like the Virginians they were, and certainly much more like today’s Southerners than, say Barry Bostick, who played Washington in the TV miniseries.

Since we know this much from the studies of the dialectologists, we must look elsewhere for an explanation for the failure to represent the regional accents of important American historical figures. Here we must rely upon the insights of sociolinguistics, the study of the social implications of language variation. This perspective is needed because of another possible explanation for the phenomenon: that it doesn’t matter. As matter of fact, it does seem to matter —in selected cases. This is very evident when one compares the treatment in the arts (TV, movies, etc.) of the speech of “important” figures such as “good ole” Abraham Lincoln.

As a Floridian, I find myself frequently at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center entertaining visiting friends and relatives. Many visitors, especially foreigners, are fond of the exhibits incorporating elements of earlier America, such as “The Hall of Presidents,” whose “animatronics” include all the presidents, some of whom speak over a film strip chronicling the principal events in American history. The most prominent participant in the chronicle is Lincoln, whose voice occupies over half the sound track. In some promotional literature, one is told, vaguely, that the Disney people went to considerable expense and effort to research and reconstruct the voice, speaking style, and regional accent of The Great Emancipator. I, for one, believe it. The result is most convincing: the Ohio Valley components of the re-creation are entirely consistent with everything that linguists and historians have generally held about the speech of the region in the nineteenth century, and Lincoln as an exemplar of it. What ought to strike Southerners as inconsistent, however, are the brief remarks of George Washington: the dialect of the actor speaking his lines is upper Midwestern. The only Southern president permitted a native accent in the presentation is Andrew Jackson, who is heard threatening to hang fellow Southerners from South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis.

Obviously, it is permissible to sound Southern only when expressing views contrary to those of most of one’s churlish regional contemporaries. One can only wonder at the shock that would race through the audience were George Washington’s comments on the Constitution to be intoned in his true native accent.

It is interesting to ask, therefore, whether or not there exists any major Hollywood film, or any TV production, wherein Washington, Jefferson, or Patrick Henry appear as characters and speak with anything remotely resembling authentic Virginia/Southern accents. No well-known examples come to mind, though admittedly, the number of films in which these august personages appear is understandably small. Sociolinguistic studies show that how one speaks is inextricably bound up with one’s identity. Speech is likely to be the most reliable determiner of both regional origin and social class. The situation in England, where there exists a single “Received Pronunciation” (RP), is illustrative. Today, RP is a social class dialect, not a regional one (although historically it developed from the latter). In England, therefore, anyone with education, regardless of regional origin, speaks RP at least some of the time.

Furthermore, all regional dialects in England, from Yorkshire to Cornwall, are considered nonstandard to some degree. The United States, by contrast, because of its size, cultural diversity, and absence of the sharp class divisions of England, has always had several regional standards in speech. One can sound “educated” in any of the regional varieties, whether it be New England, Southern, Midwestern, or Southwestern speech.

It is frequently asked whether there is any particular variety of speech which is “general” or “standard American.” Sociolinguists answer this by pointing to the wide acceptance of Midwestern speech (which stretches to California, incidentally) as the variety which calls the least amount of attention to itself: that is, Americans themselves have greater difficulty “locating” persons whose speech is Midwestern, as opposed to most other varieties. And, of course, it is the one which dominates in the national media. The last few presidents illustrate the point: Americans had little difficulty “placing” Carter, LBJ, or Kennedy; but where are Nixon or Reagan “from”? However, the emergence of Midwestern as something like Standard American is a phenomenon of the post-Appomattox era.

It is also interesting to study the evolution of American “stage” pronunciation in films and the media since the thirties. For many years, eastern New England speech was considered the finest in America, probably because of certain similarities to British RP (similarities, I must add, that quite escape the notice of British laymen). One of the paramount features of both eastern New England and British RP is the loss of /r/ finally and before consonants, a feature which, ironically, they share with most varieties of Southern, as noted earlier. I should like to focus upon this pronunciation feature for a brief space.

Virtually all radio announcers and movie stars of the thirties and forties learned to speak like “upper crust” New Englanders. Even in her earliest films, Joan Crawford, for example, originally from Texas, spoke flawless “New Englandese.” The most “aristocratic” actress in American films, Katherine Hepburn, nowhere (to my knowledge) ever pronounced an /r/ before a consonant, even though she came from that part of Connecticut which regularly pronounces the/r/. Judy Garland’s “stage dialect” in The Wizard of Oz is amusing in this respect: she switches between the Tinman’s heart, pronounced with her native California/r/, and most other contexts where she pronounces the word as if it rhymed with hot. And all this in Kansas.

Another example of this “code switching” is more studied and intentional. In Blackmail, veteran actor Edward G. Robinson controls his character switches by manipulating/r/s. In his respectable pillar-of-the-community guise, he says “impawtant” (important), “stawm” (storm), and “remembah” (remember); but when he is sent to prison, the /r/s suddenly emerge.

The attempt to represent authentic Southern speech in films of this era is more complex. Formula Westerns (“oaters” or “horse operas,” if you will) employing “stage” (pun intended) Southwestern is certainly a Southern variety, and, interestingly, almost thoroughly stereotyped in this genre, with all the “yuh bettuh smile when yuh say that, podnuh” dialect cliches. The Eastern “tenderfoot” with his New England accent is generally a figure of ridicule in the Western. Similarly stereotyped in the thirties and forties is the speech of blacks, whose dialect, a variety of nonstandard Southern, is well known from Amos and Andy and the Kingfish, to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. To round out this picture of stereotypes, we need only Shirley Temple’s grandpa (Lionel Barrymore) in The Little Colonel, and Fred Allen’s Senator Claghom. In general, as any Southerner has realized, the varieties of Southern speech used in films of this period are for purposes of depicting the uneducated cowhand or black, or at the other end of the social spectrum, archetypes of a decadent civilization or remnants of a faded elegance.

The great exception, of course, as every Southerner also knows, is the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind (GWTW). There are many accounts of British actress Vivian Leigh’s studied effort and spectacular success in affecting Southern speech (which, she attributed, in part, to the similarities between Southern and British RP!). Her repeat success a dozen years later in her portrayal of Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire convinced an entire generation of moviegoers that she was American-born. The achievement is all the more remarkable when measured against the pale efforts of the male stars, including veteran actor and fellow Britisher Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, and “matinee idol” Clark Gable as the roguish Rhett Butler. Only Olivia DeHaviland’s Melanie seems to come close to the mark. Clark Gable’s effort shows some of the same confusion and “code switching” that afflicted Judy Garland’s Dorothy. As a Charlestonian, his accent should have many of the features discussed earlier; however, he affects something resembling Southern speech only in addressing black characters in moments of friendly banter. As such his language becomes what it is: the aristocrat’s patronizing descent to the linguistic register of an inferior.

Of course, the film’s linguistic fullness is provided mostly by the minor characters, especially the blacks. Hattie McDaniel’s Mammie and Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy are now legendary. The only additional authenticity that could have been achieved in that sphere would have been to have had some of the field hands speak the plantation Creole Gullah (like Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus), in which case no one would have understood them without subtitles.

Starting in the 1950s, however, there began to be a noticeable change in the accent used by radio and, later, TV announcers, and by many screen stars as well. With respect to the /r/ pronunciation rules especially, New Englandese was no longer the prestige dialect favored in broadcasting and acting schools. By the 1960s, the likes of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite had established an /r/-full (pun intended) Midwestern speech as the “standard” for the national media.

The treatment of Southern speech in the arts since the fifties is a study in social decline. The social perceptions of varieties of Southern speech from Colonial times to the present are illustrative of an important sociolinguistic principle: that the prestige value of any dialect at any point in its history is attributable entirely to extralinguistic factors rather than to any intrinsic features of language itself. Any dialect will share the fate of the community that speaks it. In value of Southern varieties of English, used as it was by “founding fathers” such as Washington, Jefferson, and Henry, must have been uniformly high—indeed on the same level as that of eastern New England both in the Colonial period and in the Roosevelt era. Since four of the first five U. S. presidents were Virginians, as every schoolchild used to know, and nine of the first fifteen were Southerners, it is fair to say that Southern speech maintained its lofty status until 1865 or thereabouts. Beginning with Grant, seven of the next dozen presidents were Midwesterners (actually, all seven were from Ohio), marking the beginning of the shift toward Midwestern as Standard American English.

Because of the performing arts and the media, dominated as they are by centers outside the South, it is difficult for any contemporary American, including Southerners, to hear in the tones of any variety of Southern speech anything resembling the prestige it once commanded. Today, outside the South itself, it is nonstandard — its educated use suggesting a decadent culture, its other registers evoking images of ignorance and provincialism. In fact, its use in film, beginning about the time of Brown v. Board, has been to reinforce precisely such images. Everyone may have his own candidate, but one that sticks out in my mind is The Heat of the Night with Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. Steiger affects the Southern accent appropriate for the Hollywood stereotype of a benighted rural Mississippi sheriff, while Poitier’s visual blackness is counter-pointed by his educated Philadelphia speech, so that all questions of real inferiority are resolved. Other examples abound.

Pronunciation, of course, is only one component of language. There are also the grammatical structures, vocabulary, and certain other features, notably what Andrew Lytle has called “speech rhythms.” Cleanth Brooks has argued, moreover, that the characteristic figurative expressions and sayings, idioms and locutions, are the elements of Southern speech which make it so rich a resource for its literary artists. But pronunciation is in the vanguard, for it is the component most immediately experienced by the senses. The deracination of Southerners like Washington and Jefferson through the “standardization” of their native idiom when they are portrayed in the popular arts and media is simply another aspect — however little appreciated of the broader historical revisionism, based upon liberal ideology, which would deny the role of anything distinctively Southern in the origin and development of America. The soul of a people is embodied in the language peculiar to them, especially those who have suffered the gall of defeat and the extraction of tribute. Southerners know this, perhaps, in the same way that the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots do. More than the Confederate Flag or any other symbol, our native language is the badge of our identity. Its distinctiveness —and ours—is amply demonstrated in the greatest literature this century has produced. We should assert with an equally stubborn pride its glories in the everyday vernacular.

This article was originally published in the 1991 Third Quarter issue of Southern Partisan magazine.

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