A Southern language by any other name…

Southern writer Harper Lee

Somebody who appreciated Southern speech: Nelle Harper Lee in 2007. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I was up in the Shenandoah Valley with my sib and nephew last weekend, attending a German-themed cultural festival. On the way home, we got to discussing “bless your heart”, “up the country” and other expressions that are uniquely Southern. It made for a LOT of comedy.

I’m fascinated by how we Americans use different regional words or expressions for the same thing. A submarine sandwich can be called a “sub” in one region, but the same sandwich may be known as a “hoagie” or a “grinder” someplace else.

I have a running joke with another blogger that there are three expressions that a Southerner always uses. “Hush!” or “Oh, hush!” is what a Southerner usually says when he or she wants you to shut up, quickly.

The other two expressions are “Y’all” (for my readers outside the U.S., that’s “you all”) and “good ol’ boy”. By one classic definition, that’s a Southern male from 16 to 60 who likes hunting, fishing, coon dogs, corn liquor and good-looking women, not necessarily in that order.

“Bless your heart” should be added to the list. That’s a Southerner’s way of patting you on the head (metaphorically speaking), when they don’t agree with you.

It’s interesting to see how novelists work Southern speech into their books. Some get it, some don’t.

The Southern accent also varies depending on where you are. I’ve heard “Worshington” for Washington, DC, “Nawlins” for New Orleans and “chimbley” for chimney. That one comes from my uncle, who still retains his Shenandoah Valley accent.

I definitely notice the Valley twang a lot more whenever I go back there. Valley people use a lot of “R” — a tire fire becomes a “tarr farr”. “I’m going fishing” turns into “I’m going feeshing” with the emphasis on “feesh”.

I don’t know if anybody’s ever studied the Valley accent or the different Southern accents, but wouldn’t it make a fascinating book? Y’all think?

Blog readers, got any quirks of regional language or speech to share?


Filed under Writing

36 responses to “A Southern language by any other name…

  1. My Alabama girlfriend once sent me a handout on sayings heard around her parts as a means of adding color to my To Kill a Mockingbird unit. A couple of favorites:
    “Jeet yet?” = “Did you eat yet?”
    A Coke=all soda drinks

  2. Got a chuckle over all this. (“Bless your heart” is passive-aggressive and condescending here, too – sometimes add a “little” in front of the “heart”. A popular phrases for uncooperative counter help/workers…you just want to stab them in the eye….snort)
    Pronunciation/derivatives of “children” is also fun.
    There’s been lots written about assorted dialects/regionalisms. Hadn’t thought about it much, but you’re right, might be a good idea for writers to check into regionalisms when writing.
    Teachers used to really scold at the “warsh” instead of “wash” pronunciation in schools. (among other dialect quirks) They tried to teach standard English in order to “give you a better chance to advance in life”. (That was the “My Fair Lady” movie era.)

  3. Around here was a heavy German influx in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When I was growing up it was common for adults to get the “v” and “w” mixed up as in winegar. Expressions like “outten the light” were common but we now have a stronger Latino population and with schools, most of the old German expressions are gone. Now you are more likely to hear “Sup?” (meaning what’s up). We used to have a local radio station with two Pennsylvania Dutch guys talking and it was hilarious. I don’t know anyone who can do the talk now.

  4. What a fun post! I, too, relish this kind of regional lingo – especially when it is well done in books. One of my favorites comes from The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant….He uses co-cola for all sodas, which, having heard this all my life, I found him quite astute in his hearing and using this common Virginia phrase.

  5. There is the Canuck, eh! Also there is this persistent rumour that Canadians pronounce about as aboot.
    The V/W swap is common to many Indians as well. In fact, the W is almost entirely absent. There are languages that don’t have some consonant sounds at all. Bengali, for instance, does not use the “s” sound as in “sound” bur replaces it with a “sh” as in “shoe”.

    And there are the class of instances where people have common issues when using a language other than their native language. A lot of Indians routinely mangle their articles “a”, “the”.

    May I add the increasingly modern North American trend of converting nouns to verbs? “Trialling”, for example? Also one of my pet peeves “impact” when they mean “effect”.

    • I tell people that there’s one dead giveaway for a Canadian — that’s when they pronounce “out” as “oot”. Of course, that doesn’t apply to all Canadians, but it’s a useful way to tell when somebody’s Canadian.

      As for the V/W swap, that’s intriguing too. Guess it all depends on one’s language and region. From my experience of German, there is no “th” (as in the word “the”, for example”) in that language. So most German-speaking people substitute another sound in its place, so that “the” sounds like “zuh” or “zee”.

  6. I’ve been happily following Gretchen Archer’s Davis Way capers — just read book 3 and it’s the best one yet. She practically gives lessons in how to insult people Southern-style. And you know, it works. It’s the best back-biting twisted way to tell someone they are wrong-headed and possibly stupid without actually saying that. And it’s almost impossible to answer — unless you were also brought up in Alabama, in which case you know the game 😉

  7. You’ll have to help me out here, because I’m English and I don’t know what a ‘coon dog’ is.

  8. travelrat

    My Grandma always called it a ‘chimbley’ and she lived in Lancashire all her life.

  9. I recently heard a comedian talk about you can say anything mean as long as you follow it up with “bless her heart.” As in, “That is the ugliest baby I have ever seen, bless her heart.” Cracked me up.

  10. I’m from Newfoundland Labrador… Where do I start? 🙂 Here’s a sample:

  11. Washington is the furthest north I have ever lived but I never picked up these expressions. Must be my Yankee parents. Don’t know if I have seen the Arlington video.

  12. Up here in northern New York we have something called a “Michigan.” It’s a hot dog covered in a ground meat sauce (not spicy) with raw onions and mustard. I guess other places call something similar “chili dogs.”

  13. My husband grew up near Green Bay, Wisconsin, where a number of Belgian Walloons settled in the 1840s and 1850s. Some of his phrasing reflects their French grammar, especially in uses of “let” vs. “leave.” You can still see the literal translation of the French verb “laisser” in those cases. And in grad school he used to ask, “Could you borrow me some money for lunch?” I never heard that one in Illinois!


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