What's the deal with southern English?

Brandon Paykamian • Mar 25, 2018 at 4:05 PM

If you’re from around here and you’ve traveled across the country, you might find the often elitist attitude toward the way we speak to be nauseating.

But does anybody in the United States — or any former British colony for that matter — really speak “correct” Queen’s English? Furthermore, is Queen’s English spoken all throughout the British Isles themselves?

The simple answer is no.

In some former colonies, such as Jamaica, the linguistic evolution of English was often viewed almost as a conscious butchering of a colonial language imposed on them. If you’ve ever read the poem “Listen, Mr. Oxford Man” by John Agard, using their particular vernacular of English was basically viewed as a final act of cultural resistance to colonialism.

But why do we here in East Tennessee speak the way we do? And what are the origins of Southern American English?

My research shows that, like most English dialects, our vernacular is simply a mix of old and new features of the English language and originated in large part from a mix of various immigrants from the British Isles. Over time, this mix produced what we know as the “Southern drawl” characterized by drawn-out vowel sounds. This is probably one of the most noticeable features of the way we speak and a feature that is often portrayed in media and literature as backward and slow.

But when listening to the way in which a South Bostonian accent or a New York accent differs from “correct” Queen’s English, one has to wonder why it is that our vernacular is the one singled out as crude and dimwitted.

This probably has its origins in the British Isles, where accents were a part of how people were categorized in terms of social strata. For instance, in Britain, a Cockney accent is viewed much the same as a southern accent is often viewed elsewhere in the United States. Similarly, in the United States, this bias often overlaps with racist attitudes, as African-American vernacular English is constantly “corrected” and scoffed at.

Many of us have sadly internalized these elitist attitudes toward how we and others speak, and multiple surveys over the years have shown that even southerners attach more positive attributes to northern accents than we do our own.

While in college, I met many other classmates who often tried to “correct” their accents, ashamed that their vernacular presented themselves as uneducated. This was particularly prevalent in many of the classes I took as an English minor.

Despite many of us understanding that language has never been static, we still often found ourselves a bit ashamed of the way we speak.

But given that English sounds different throughout the British Isles and former British colonies, maybe it’s just best to appreciate that we all speak English differently and realize that’s OK.

Perhaps y’all can be proud of the way we speak and dismiss arbitrary prejudices that say otherwise.

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer at Johnson City Press. Reach him at bpaykamian@johnsoncitypress.com.

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