Did CW-Era Southerners Speak With a 'Southern Accent'?

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A. Roy

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When I imagine southerners talking during the Civil War era, I tend to hear them speaking what we call "country" today, at least here in North Carolina. (Unless they're "cultured" ladies and gentlemen, in which case they sound like characters from Gone With the Wind.)

I just read an article from a couple of days ago in Atlas Obscura ( https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/north-carolina-linguistics ), which has some interesting things to say about how people in NC, and the South in general, might have spoken in the mid-19th century. I've met some of the linguists quoted in this article -- they're professors here in Raleigh at NCSU. Here are a couple of intriguing quotations from the article:

"Before the Civil War, white Southeasterners did not seem to have spoken in what would be a recognizably Southern accent by modern standards... There were differences in the way people talked, but it wasn’t split as evenly along North/South lines as one would think.

"Distinctly Southern dialects among the white population of the American South seem only to have taken hold starting around the time of the Civil War. (African-American and other minority dialects have their own histories, which will be addressed later.) 'The things that we think are Southern today were embryonic in the South before the Civil War, but only took off afterwards,' says Wolfram. The period from the end of the Civil War until World War I—which seems like a long time, but is very condensed linguistically, less than three generations—saw an explosion of diversity in what are sometimes referred to as Older Southern American Accents.

"In Southern states bordering the Atlantic Ocean, regional dialects sprung up seemingly overnight, influenced by a combination of factors including the destruction of infrastructure, the panic of Reconstruction, lesser-known stuff like the boll weevil crisis, and the general fact that regional accents tend to be strongest among the poorest people. In the post–Civil War period, Southerners left the South en masse; the ones who stayed were often the ones who couldn’t afford to leave, and often the keepers of the strongest regional accents. A lack of migration into the South, either from the North or internationally, allowed its regional accents to bloom in relative isolation."

Roy B. -- 13 Dec. 2019
 
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When I imagine southerners talking during the Civil War era, I tend to hear them speaking what we call "country" today, at least here in North Carolina. (Unless they're "cultured" ladies and gentlemen, in which case they sound like characters from Gone With the Wind.) ...Did CW-Era Southerners Speak With a 'Southern Accent'?
Yes they did... A good example of this would be to listen to the "Confederados" of the village of Santa Barbara D’Oeste in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil speak English. At the close of the Civil War, thousands of Confederates decided to flee the United States and form Confederate colonies in Mexico, Belize and Brazil instead of live in the South during reconstruction. They took their southern culture with them and even to this day their descendants speak English with the strong southern drawl that their ancestors spoke with, being passed down to each generation that followed, as well as speaking their native tongue of Brazilian Portuguese. They have a grand fiesta every year to honor the Confederacy and their proud Confederate ancestors who they claim never surrendered. During that Fiesta the men are dressed in Confederate Uniforms and the women in hooped dresses, proudly flying the Confederate Battle Flag, cooking southern food and singing songs of the south and recognizing Jefferson Davis as "their" only American President. The colonies in Mexico and Belize only lasted a few years and those Confederates returned to the south, but the Colonies in Brazil flourished and still remain to this day with more than 5 generations of Confederates and their descendants who have resided in those cities and towns.

In 1972 Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia made a visit to Santa Barbara D’Oeste, Brazil to visit the grave of a relative of his wife Rosalynn Carter who was one of the original Confederados to have settled there after the Civil War. While there Jimmy Carter stated that the whole town acted and sounded like they were from Georgia and had a stronger southern accent than he did.

Follow the links below for more information:



 
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nc native

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One reason Southern accents are stronger and more distinct among poorer and more rural Southerners is that they are more isolated from outside influences and their accents are actually very close to how their pioneer forefathers spoke when they settled the areas where they lived. I heard a lingustics expert say in a documentary that the Appalachian dialect is probably the closest thing to Elizabethan English that Americans use today. In many of the urban centers of the New South, Southerners almost have no regional accent compared to their cousins from smaller communities and rural areas. I have lived near Raleigh just about my entire life and it is getting hard to find a Southerner under thirty that speaks with what I would call a strong Southern accent.

My wife is a Wayne County, North Carolna native with a sweet Southern accent that makes her sound like a songbird in my opinion. One of her co-workers who moved down from New England told her one day she was jealous because she wished she could talk like her. The Beach Boys did say Southern girls knocked them out with the way they talked in California Girls.
 
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16thVA

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In my transcription of the Camp Chase prison records of Confederate prisoners, which were mostly from Kentucky and West Virginia I came across one record that said the prisoner was from "Rolla". This puzzled me a lot, as there is a Rolla, MO, but that is too far away for Camp Chase, then I realized that it was written as heard and was "Raleigh" County.
 
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In addition to what I wrote above in post #2, I remember numerous conversations with my Great Grandmother, who lived to be 109 years of age and was a small girl during the Civil War. Her father (my Great Great Grandfather), served and fought with the 36th Regiment Mississippi Infantry during the Civil War, and taught her to speak, and she had a strong Mississippi southern accent. As well, I had another Great Grandfather who was born in 1868 whom I remember very well and also had a strong southern accent and his father served and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War with the 6th Regiment Mississippi Infantry and taught him to speak.
 
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I heard a lingustics expert say in a documentary that the Appalachian dialect is probably the closest thing to Elizabethan English that Americans use today.
My family on my Paternal side migrated from the Scottish Highlands to Carteret County, North Carolina in 1788 and did so because North Carolina had the largest concentration of Scottish immigrants in the United States at that time, which was still very much in her infancy as a new nation. The first three generations of my family spoke Scottish Gaelic in the home and English outside the home. And every one of those first three generations were highly educated and very well read. I have a couple of letters written from my 4th Great Grandfather in 1842 and from those letters the one thing that stood out is how eloquent and well versed the letters were written.

I had always heard that the English spoken in the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains was heavily influenced by the numerous Scottish people who fled here after the "Jocobite" uprisings and the "Highland Clearances", which created the southern accent that most speak with in the south today.
 
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Zella

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My family on my Paternal side migrated from the Scottish Highlands to Carteret County, North Carolina in 1788 and did so because North Carolina had the largest concentration of Scottish Immigrants in the United States at that time, which was still very much in her infancy as a new nation. The first three generations of my Family spoke Scottish Gaelic in the home and English outside the home. And every one of those first three generations were highly educated and very well read. I have a couple of letters written from my 4th Great Grandfather in 1842 and from those letters the one thing that stood out is how eloquent and well versed the letter was written.

I had always heard that the English spoken in the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains was heavily influenced by the numerous Scottish people who fled here during after the "Jocobite" uprisings and the "Highland Clearances", which created the southern accent that most speak with in the south today.
I've read speculation--and I think it makes sense--that upland South accents (Appalachia, Ozarks, etc.) say their Rs because of the influence of their Scotch Irish ancestors, who had rhotic accents (and that's still preserved in Scottish and Irish accents today), whereas areas that had more English settlement (the lowland South) don't say their Rs because again it reflects how their ancestors talked.
 

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Fascinating subject. This article summarizes the ways in which r, r-less, and r-addition speech appears. I encountered the r-addition when I was associated with a person from eastern Washington state. I asked him to try not to pronounce the r, but he could not, even after repeated attempts.
Me: "Washington".
Him: "Warshington".

 
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A. Roy

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Yes they did... A good example of this would be to listen to the "Confederados" of the village of Santa Barbara D’Oeste in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil speak English. At the close of the Civil War, thousands of Confederates decided to flee the United States and form Confederate colonies in Mexico, Belize and Brazil instead of live in the South during reconstruction. They took their southern culture with them and even to this day their descendants speak English with the strong southern drawl that their ancestors spoke with, being passed down to each generation that followed, as well as speaking their native tongue of Brazilian Portuguese.
That's amazing -- I had never heard about this!

Roy B.
 
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A. Roy

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In many of the urban centers of the New South, Southerners almost have no regional accent compared to their cousins from smaller communities and rural areas. I have lived near Raleigh just about my entire life and it is getting hard to find a Southerner under thirty that speaks with what I would call a strong Southern accent.
I was born in Raleigh in 1951 and grew up in the outskirts in the Rhamkatte area (around where Sherman's troops camped at the end, BTW). My mother is from SC and my father from PA. My brother and I tended to speak like my father (NC State professor), and my parents had many friends from other places. Maybe for that reason, my southern accent is pretty mild. I think the growth of the three big universities in the Triangle, plus the establishment of science facilities in the Research Triangle Park, brought in a lot of outsiders also. When I was young, we used to comment on the influence of all the Yankees moving in.

Roy B.
 

A. Roy

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In my transcription of the Camp Chase prison records of Confederate prisoners, which were mostly from Kentucky and West Virginia I came across one record that said the prisoner was from "Rolla". This puzzled me a lot, as there is a Rolla, MO, but that is too far away for Camp Chase, then I realized that it was written as heard and was "Raleigh" County.
That makes me think that a lot could be learned about how southerners spoke by studying those kinds of documents, where the recorder wrote down the respondent's answers phonetically.

Roy B.
 

lupaglupa

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This is all really interesting. I do agree that looking at phonetic spellings give a clue to the original accent of the speaker - but also to the writer's own background. My husband's ancestor lived in an area of upstate New York that was populated by native speakers of English, German, and Dutch. When we see the family name written we can see the influence of the writers background in the way they choose to write the name - for instance an English speaker will end the name with an S where a German speaker will end it with a Z.
 
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Rhea Cole

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Many visitors to the South commented that elite men affected an English accent. Their womenfolk, however, spoke just like the slaves did. It is no surprise, after all they had lived side by side with the slaves all their lives & had little contact with the outside world. It is kinda fun to think of both Scarlett & Mammy using the same accent.
Curiously, the accent found back up deep coves & hollers in early 20th Century Appalachia was Shakespeare's. I had the chance to discuss this with the actor Michael York. He told me that there is a living example of what some might call a hillbilly accent in Britain. What we call a British accent grew out of the affected speech of Victorian aristocrats.
 

zburkett

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Something that needs to be remembered is that there is no one Southern accent. East Texas and West Texas are totally different. When I moved to Virginia in the 80s you heard a very specific accent from some of the older natives and now it is almost gone. Television destroyed most accents, we all talk like Jonny Carson now. In some of my reading of older memoirs there are soldiers making fun of how their officers spoke so there were some definite differences from fairly small regions. We have also had our thought corrupted by bad actors trying to do what they thought was a Southern accent.
 

Rhea Cole

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Something that needs to be remembered is that there is no one Southern accent. East Texas and West Texas are totally different. When I moved to Virginia in the 80s you heard a very specific accent from some of the older natives and now it is almost gone. Television destroyed most accents, we all talk like Jonny Carson now. In some of my reading of older memoirs there are soldiers making fun of how their officers spoke so there were some definite differences from fairly small regions. We have also had our thought corrupted by bad actors trying to do what they thought was a Southern accent.
There is always Gullah to swirl into our polyglot mixture, not to mention French & Spanish along the Gulf Coast.
 
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lelliott19

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There's a really funny, phonetic account of a captured "N'oth Calinian" talking to Grant I posted a while back. Here's a snip:

"How did I get h'yah? Well, when a man has half a dozen o' them thah reckless and des'prit dragoons o' yourn lammin' him along the road on a tight run and wallopin' him with the flats o' thah sabahs, he dont have no trouble gittin h'yah."​

It's really funny and I highly recommend it to everyone interested in southern dialects!!! https://civilwartalk.com/threads/captured-noth-calinian-interviewed-by-grant-at-cold-harbor.143857/#post-1770166
 
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Rusk County Avengers

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I would say without a doubt most if not all the various Southern accents were around during the CW.

One note I'd like to caution people on, is the Scots-Irish connection. Its very small, I would say outside of Appalachia its very rare and that most Southerners are English decent, and that Deep South accents probably have more similarity with English ones.

Some may balk at such a notion, (I know a lot of people that hate me for saying it), but when you think about it makes sense. People tend to immigrate to regions similar to where they came from, you have that in Appalachia for Scots-Irish, and on top of that Scots-Irish were poorer peoples, and tickets to the South were more expensive, the voyage longer distance than say immigration to the North from the British Isles. Then there's the American Revolution to consider, during that conflict there were a lot of people for the King in the South, and as a rule they all tended to come from people of Scottish, and Scots-Irish settled areas that were in direct conflict with Patriot areas that were mostly English decent. A lot of those "Tories" were forced out after that conflict.

Then there's practical application. I speak with a pretty strong Southern, Texas drawl, and I will say with full confidence it has more in common with English accents than Scottish, because if I sit and watch British shows, (I've always like the Napoleonic shows), for an extended period, I've found I can replicate various accents to near perfection while hearing it. I've shocked some folks that way for fun I might add. I can't do that with Scottish, or Irish accents, plus I've seen folks from England who could replicate Southerner accents to near perfection, but I've personally not seen it done out of Scottish or Irish peoples. So while a bit circumstantial, I think that ought to be brought up.

Of course then there's surnames, which tend to either be complete English origin in the majority, surnames that'd become interchangeable with England and Scotland, and then Scottish surnames in dead last outside Appalachia. I'm by no means an expert, these are just things I've noticed. Also Southern newspapers at the time of the CW, and before like the Charleston Mercury, defined Southerners as Anglo-Saxon decent, little food for thought.
 
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