Tell Yer Mom N’em We Said “Hi”
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How to Talk to Southerners (For Non-Southerners)
By Lena Kerley, 4-H Alumna, English education student at ASU
The South is a unique part of the U.S. The tea must be 80% sugar and the only kind of mayonnaise is Duke’s. Naturally, they would have their own way of speaking. The Southern dialect is a unique subcategory of the American-English Language. “Southern” is spoken mostly by natives of the southern states; Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, The Carolinas, Tennessee, and parts of Virginia. Outlying states might try to claim the southern language in their ways of speaking, but they don’t quite qualify.
The southern accent is defined by its particular phonology. Typical non-southerners describe the accent as slower, especially compared to the North, and lazy because words are often combined in sentences; “let me” becomes “lemme” and “I am going to” becomes “imma.”
Southerners are also known for their ’southern hospitality’ which shines through their speech as well. Female speakers specifically will season their vocal inflection with sugar in order to sound friendly and audibly appealing. Knowing the tendencies in southern language is useful to avoid miscommunication between dialects as well as enable listeners to fully appreciate the richness and personality in the accent.
History of the Southern Dialect
The southern accent is a product of a few hundred years, and many outside influences. Expansion, Immigration, and urban growth are all factors. In terms of our early American/immigration history, the majority of southern immigrants in the U.S came from rural areas in England where citizens pronounced the /r/ sound. Conversely, in the northern U.S., the wealthier British immigrants moved into cities and brought with them their habit of dropping the /r/ sound. So a northerner might pronounce “harbor” as “hah-buh” whereas a southerner would say “har-bur,” with a distinct /r/ sound. Southern American English comes from Northern English. Certain areas like Charleston would be an exception to this, dropping their r’s in that unique “Chah-ruhlston” way due to heavy trade with wealthier parts of England.
Southern speakers often speak with a vowel shift. A diphthong, or combination two vowel sounds to make one syllable, is often found either exaggerated or reduced in southern speaking. For example, a southerner might take a word with a diphthong like “drive” (pronounced combining I and E vowels) and say “drahv”, dropping the ‘E’ part of the diphthong. Southerners will also prolongate front vowels; words like “here” sound like “hee-yur,” where the front vowel is diphthongized. This is referred to as the southern drawl.
Word stress is unique in the Southern states. A word like guitar, where the stress is usually on the “ar” (/ɑː/), would be spoken with the stress on the first syllable to sound like “gee-tar.” Likewise, “poh-leece” translates to police. Southerners also have the habit of de-stressing the consonant endings of words. This trait is associated heavily with old trading ports like Charleston but is heard throughout the whole south as well. An example of this is the word “singing.” In the South, they say “sing-in’.” Some word endings are dropped altogether like the word “tomorrow,” spoken “to-morr-ah.” This is why the southern language is often considered lazy.
You will also find merged vowel sounds in the South. ‘E’ and ‘I’ have the same sounds; “pin” and “pen” are pronounced the same. “O” and “AU” vowels are also merged: “cot” and “caught” are usually spoken the same. Similarly, relaxed and tense vowel sounds are unique. “Fell” and “fail” are said the same as opposed to stressing the “ai” sound in “fail.”
Shortened or added syllables are trademark to the South. A midwesterner might give the word “poem” two syllables, a southern speaker will say it with only one (“pome”). Florida is also spoken as “floor-duh” instead of a three syllable noun. Conversely, words like “crayon” are shortened in northern states whereas southern states add a syllable: “cray-awn” giving It a round sound.
A less technical and more emotional trait of southern speakers is using comparatives to describe a thing or event. In the phrase “I’m as burnt as a biscuit” the subject “I” is compared to a burnt biscuit. These phrases are highly common in southern language.
Common Southern Sayin’s and their Translations
- I used tuh could – At one time I was able to do an action.
- Hope you got good insurance – You messed up.
- Cattywhompus – in disorder (adjective)
- Doohickey – thing (noun), the name for an object when the speaker can’t remember the correct name. Synonyms are: whatchamacallit and thingamajig.
- Slap my momma – Something is pleasing/good enough to warrant slapping one’s mother. Usually used in the context of food.
- Fifty-eleven times – an exaggeration. “I done told you to take the trash out fifty-elleven times!”
- Jeet – used to inquire if someone ate already. The proper phrasing is “did you eat?”
- Commode – Toilet (noun)
- Yonder (over yonder) – synonym for “there”
- Buggy – Shopping cart
Because of religious history and being in the ‘bible belt’, some southern phrases have religious undertones.
- Hot as Hell – extremely hot. This is also often used in conjunction with “I’m sweating like a sinner in church.”
Commonly Misunderstood Phrases
Now as mentioned, the South is all about hospitality, even in the language. However, southerners have a tendency to gossip as well. How does a southerner gossip in a polite manner? By using phrases such as “bless their heart.” This sounds pleasant, but really isn’t. The phrase actually is saying the person in reference is in need of prayer.
Another confusing southern phrase is “I’m fixin’ ta.” This phrase means the speaker is about to perform an action. In the south the word “fixing” means to prepare something as well as repair something. So the above phrase essentially translates to “to prepare to do”
How to Speak to Southerners
The way to begin a conversation with a southerner is by saying: “hey y’all” or “howdy.” This will create a familiar environment for the conversation.
Once the conversation has begun, the speaker should slow down their language ever so slightly to avoid being asked to repeat themselves. Southerners take their time with conversation. Additionally, when describing something, speakers should use comparisons to reference what they are describing. Such as; “She is dumber than a bag of hammers” where the subject is compared to a bag of hammers, or “I’m full as a tick” where the subject “i” is compared to a full tick.
When concluding a conversation with a southerner, ironically, instead of saying: “bye,” add words to your valediction by saying: “holler atcha later” this replaces the typical parting word because the houses are so far spread out, due to farmland, that to talk to your neighbor you had to holler. It also references that you will see them later which is just a nice sentiment and less permanent than bye.
In conclusion, “tell yer mom n’em we said hi, and y’all come back now, y’hear?”
Lena Kerley is a former member of Homegrown Kids 4-H Club and Crazy Quilters 4-H Club. Participating in many summer fun programs, she won the first annual 4-H Summer Fun Teen Cooking Contest with her partner, Audrey Hanna, in 2016. She is currently an education major at Appalachian State University.