Writing The Southern Accent

Attempts to capture the speech patterns of the American South in written dialogue should be approached with extreme caution.

Megan Mayhew Bergman offers a practical guide for people trying to capture the speech patterns of the American South in written dialogue.  Some key takeaways:

I believe the number of Southerners with writeable accents is declining. Writing Southernese is as much about the arrangement of words and word choice as it is the sound. You don’t have to underscore a character’s southern-ness by dropping g’s and throwing in a bunch of Populist apostrophes after n’s–as in, I’m fixin’ to go ridin’ with Billy Bob. If the character hasn’t earned it, or you aren’t masterful, the phonetic hand-holding tortures readers–the economic use of y’all or original word arrangement (like a double modal) will do in most cases.

[…]

When writing Southern characters in 2010, authors must consider the age of the character–older, native Southerners are much more likely to have writeable accents than an average character of Generation Y or younger. Educated Baby Boomers who have lived in other regions or have traveled extensively will likely speak with moderate accents, if any. (All accents, in my opinion, are a risk to write phonetically–particularly moderate ones. What’s the payoff for clunky apostrophes and misspellings if your setting and character development are strong enough?) Generation Z, or the Millineals, are much less likely to have an accent given their connectedness with the world and information, unless, like some of Singleton’s characters, they live down a one-way asphalt mountain street lined with outhouses in Appalachia.

[…]

I think we judge people and characters by the way they speak. Any character with an in-your-face, spelled-out accent in 2010 is going to come under scrutiny for that same reason (aka: Why does this otherwise reasonable school teacher talk like Barney Fife? Why do I need to pay such extreme attention to his accent? Is he of low IQ? Love child of Jesse Helms?); the author has to make sure a reader’s scrutiny pays off. Otherwise the dropped g’s and apostrophe-after-n’s are a heavy-handed move, or worse, the hallmarks of a Southern caricature. If a writer has done the work with setting, character development, and word choice, the reader should “hear” the speech just fine.

Bergman alludes to the fact that Southern accents (or, as some protest, drawls) are rarely done well in movies.  She points to Nicolas Cage’s turn in Con Air.  The late, great Lewis Grizzard was particularly contemptuous of the portrayals in Driving Miss Daisy, snorting, “If Dan Ackroyd’s a Southerner, my butt’s a typewriter.”

Relatedly, there’s the title track to Tom Petty’s 1985 album, “Southern Accents,” which begins,

There’s a southern accent, where I come from
The young’uns call it country
The yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin’
But everything is done, with a southern accent
Where I come from

Here’s the video:

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    It depends on the writer, I guess. Mark Twain was pretty good about capturing southern accents, but then again…he’s Mark Twain. One of my favorite writers, Joe R. Lansdale (from East Texas), does it pretty well with word choice alone and a minimum of dropped g’s. I think most writers who choose the phonetic route are almost always making a mistake.

    Even John Steinbeck almost made The Grapes of Wrath unreadable with his phonetic spellings. It wasn’t until I listened to it on audiobook (read by Dylan Baker) that I was able to make my way through it.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I think that’s all right.  More fundamentally, though, Bergman is right:  The more extreme forms of Southern accents are simply less prevalent than they were half a century ago, much less in Twain’s time.   Education, travel, and pop culture have homogenized the language.

  3. tom p says:

    “Education, travel, and pop culture have homogenized the language.”

    How sadly true, there were places in northern Alabama and Tenessee that I used to go where southern wasn’t an accent, it was a language. The homogenization doesn’t stop at language either, good southern cooking gets harder and harder to find.

    And the same can be said for just about any region of the country.

  4. sam says:

    Probably much the same could be said for New England accents. While traveling once, I was asked by a fellow in a gas station (in California) if my wife was a foreigner. She’d bought something and then went back to the car before I got up to the counter. I said, No. She’s from New Hampshire….

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    Writing any speech patterns is not easy. Try writing Bronx Jim. Even if it is becoming somewhat homogenized Southern speak is probably the most universally recognized regional accent in the US although broad New Yoik/New Joisy probably comes a close second. 

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Jes’ what are ya’ll caterwaulin’ ’bout, theah, Colonel James?  If’n ya’ll don’ cotton to way we Yankees portray all yew bubbas, then ah reckon’ ya’ll bess jes’ stop a-talkin’ all funny like.
     
    Yessah.  Thass what ah reckon.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Oh, and:
     
    Weeee, doggie!

  8. Janis Gore says:

    Wait a damn minute.  That Petty boy is from Gainesville, FL.  When’s the last time anybody said that state was properly Southern?  We ain’t talking geography here.

  9. Brett says:

    Even if it is becoming somewhat homogenized Southern speak is probably the most universally recognized regional accent in the US although broad New Yoik/New Joisy probably comes a close second.

    When are people finally going to give us Mountain State and Southwesterners the recognition we deserve for our strange accents? It’s not “Moun-ten”, it’s “Moun ‘un” for saying “Mountain”!

  10. Rock says:

    Here are examples of good southern writing from books by Bob Bowman, a local writer and guru here in East Texas.

    He’s Wetting on My Leg, But It’s Warm and It Feels Good.

    Plant Watermelons on My Grave and Let the Juice Ooze Down.

    Translate the following:

    If’n I tell you that a hen dips snuff, you can look under hit’s wang.

    Most good old boys here in East Texas know exactly what that means.

    http://www.bob-bowman.com/bobsbooks.htm

  11. clarenancy says:

    @ Janis.
    Go walk through rural Florida and you’ll find Southern. It’s not too difficult. Florida is not all Miami and Tampa.

  12. Janis Gore says:

    Just teasing clarenancy.

  13. Grewgills says:

    Wait a damn minute.  That Petty boy is from Gainesville, FL.  When’s the last time anybody said that state was properly Southern?

    The northern half of Florida is Southern.

    the economic use of y’all or original word arrangement (like a double modal) will do in most cases.

    I rarely hear/heard double modal growing up in Alabama and on regular visits.  Y’all though is one southernism that i have held on to.  It is far superior to the available alternatives.  It differentiates the singular and plural of you and flows of the tongue so much more smoothly than you guys or other regionalisms.
    Fixin to I did hear alot and no one outside the south knows what i mean when i say tump.
     

  14. Janis Gore says:

    Grewgills, is that “tump” as in “Tump that bag of ice into this cooler over here”?

  15. Janis Gore says:

    “Fixing to” has almost as good a use as y’all.  The telephone rings. 

    “What are you doing?”  “I’m fixing to go to the bank.”

    What does that mean?  I’m balancing my checkbook with a reference to the online account, endorsing the deposit checks and preparing a deposit slip, maybe checking makeup, changing out of a workshirt, wondering whether Miss Katherine will be the teller so I can inquire about her mother.  And that’s to go to the drive-in.

    I heard fixing to just today.  “I was just fixing to the say that.”  

  16. tom p says:

    I still miss good southern’ cooking.

  17. Janis Gore says:

    It’s for your health, hon.