Howdy y’all: All about the Southern accent in the US

Howdy y’all: All about the Southern accent in the US

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated May 5, 2022

The Southern accent is one of the most iconic accents of the United States. It’s instantly recognizable and difficult to replicate. From the twang of Texas to the smooth drawl of the Atlantic coast, the Southern accent is expressive and colorful. 

This article will cover the origins of the Southern accent, different types and helpful grammar and pronunciation.

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Why is there a Southern accent?

Sometimes the Southern accent is called a “country accent” to imply its rural or working-class nature. For non-Southerners, the Southern accent can be perceived as uneducated or “bad” English.  Actually, the Southern accent comes directly from British Received Pronunciation and aristocratic society.

The American South extends over a huge area from Maryland in the north to Florida in the south and Texas in the west. The South represents 16 (of 50) US states and has a population of nearly 130 million people. It also includes the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.

The first British colony in America was established in 1607 in Virginia. These Southern colonies quickly grew wealthy from crops such as tobacco and cotton. This wealth created a rich, upper class. They wanted to mimic the posh British accent as a sign of their wealth and status. This meant dropping r’s and elongating vowels. Over time, the Southern accent slowed down and developed its own flavor.

Immigration and the trafficking of enslaved people to the American South also influenced accents. New Orleans, for example, was at different times a French and Spanish colony. Enslaved people from various parts of Africa developed pidgins and creoles in order to communicate across different languages. There is a connection between African American Vernacular English and the Southern accent due to this history of forced labor in Southern plantations.

Types of Southern accents

There are a few unique Southern accents because the American South is so large. You probably know famous superstars from different parts of the South. Here’s an introduction to the major types of Southern accents.

Atlantic

This is what most people think of as the “US southern accent.” It has been mimicked in famous movies such as Gone with the Wind. You’ll hear this southern accent spoken in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and parts of Georgia.

Appalachian Southern

This part of the mountainous region following the Ohio river touches parts of many states like Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Here, they pronounce the r’s rather than drop them. Due to Irish and Scottish immigrants, there is unique pronunciation here like h-dropping.  

Mississippi Delta

Famous people with accents from the Mississippi Delta include Johnny Cash and Britney Spears. It also includes a very unique accent from New Orleans.

Texas

The Texas accent along with the Atlantic region are probably the most recognizable Southern accents. It’s nasal, twangy and personified in the actor Mathew McConaughey.

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How to do a Southern accent

So, how do Southerners speak? Let’s look at four key parts of a Southern accent.

Southern lilt

Southern accents will slow down and elongate the vowel sounds. Short, simple vowels turn into diphthongs.

  • Bill → /bee yill/
  • Pet → /pe yut/
  • Cat → /ca yut/

The tone of the vowel will rise then fall to make a classic Southern accent.

R dropping

Most Southern accents will drop the r’s on most words.

  • Mother → /mu thuh/
  • Father → /fa thuh/
  • Tired → /tay yud/

Southern slang

American Slang is highly regional, but here are some words and phrases that are common across the South.

SlangMeaningExample
HowdyHelloHowdy, y’all.
Y’allYou (plural); you allHow y’all doin’?
Fixin’ toGoing toI’m fixin’ to eat lunch.
Over yonderOver thereThe shop is over yonder.
I reckonI thinkI reckon it’s gon’ rain.
As all get outVery; a lotHe’s funny as all get out.

Non-standard verb forms

The Southern accents also use non-standard verb forms. These are grammatically incorrect but often used in daily speech.

VerbPast (Non-standard Southern) Past (standard American English)
beWe was, they was, you wasWe were, they were, you were
bringbrungbrought
catchcatchedcaught
dodonedid
gogonewent
seeseensaw

Southern accent, fun as all get out

The Southern accents can be traced back to posh English accents. It was once the accent of the aristocracy. Now, it is a regional source of pride for millions of southerners. Listen to some of the biggest stars in the world like Britney Spears and Mathew McConaughey and you’ll be saying “y’all” in no time.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her tech copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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