A Southern accent carries many associations, from “Gone With the Wind” Southern charm to country bumpkin. Language can also be political, as Yankee politicians quickly find out when they try to pepper speeches with Southernisms like “y’all.” We explore the dialects of a changing South — including North Carolina — where transplants are influencing the language.


  • Walt Wolfram Professor of English, North Carolina State University, Director, North Carolina Language and Life Project.

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  • 13:33:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHow we talk says a lot about who we are and where we're from. A southern accent is particularly distinctive, carries a lot of associations from Gone With the Wind's southern charm to pure country. It can also be political as politicians quickly find out when they try to pepper speeches with southernism's like y'all. Here in Charlotte, N.C. and around the South, a lot of the original dialects and accents are disappearing as transplants from around the country move in. But you can still go places where you just might not be able to understand the locals.

  • 13:33:49

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about all of this is Walt Wolfram. He is a professor of English at North Carolina State University where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. he's the author of more than 20 books and coauthor with Jeffrey Reaser of the fourth coming book "Talking Tar Heel: Voices of North Carolina." He joins us from the studios of WUNC in Durham, N.C. Walt Wolfram, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:34:15

    DR. WALT WOLFRAMWell, it's delightful to be here and see the convention taking place in a nice southern context.

  • 13:34:21

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Is there an accent or a dialect where you come from? You can call us and share it 800-433-8850. Walt, of course the Democratic Convention is in town and we're so getting -- we're therefore getting a dose -- a heavy dose of politics this week. And one pitfall for a lot of politicians is trying to sound like a local when they're on the campaign trail. There have been some notable recent examples. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:34:49

    WOLFRAMWell, what happens is that politicians want to come across as authentic. And they also want to relate to sort of everyday people. And so in an effort to accommodate that they have to be sensitive about what is considered part of their persona and what is considered sort of a put on. And so they often get caught in this bind of trying to sound local while also attempting to sort of be an authentic person.

  • 13:35:19

    WOLFRAMAnd we see that, you know, in Joe Biden using y'all and Bill Clinton using y'all. So for example, Biden gets in trouble because he happens to be from Delaware, which is not considered southern and that is considered to be pretentious and in some way patronizing. Whereas Bill Clinton last night very effectively used y'all. As he was coming up to one of his main points he said something like, y'all gotta listen carefully to this. This is really important, you know. And no one said, he just used y'all. They were all attentive to what he was about to say.

  • 13:35:59

    NNAMDIYes, the South has a very distinctive accent and as you pointed out, Bill Clinton doesn't get criticized for using it because it's always been a part of his famous charisma, has it not?

  • 13:36:09

    WOLFRAMYes, and he uses it extremely effectively. I mean, I watched that speech last night as a linguist. And while it was extremely effective, at key points he would stylistically adjust his speech to relate to his audience, you know. So he would drop his g's or he would use a colloquialism or in one case he used a total southernism. So for example, when he was about to -- at one point he used a form that we refer to as "fixin to" and he was talking about Obama's platform. He said, why do I believe this? I'm fixin to tell you.

  • 13:36:50

    WOLFRAMOf course, I jumped up from my chair when I heard that because it seemed so appropriate. I wonder what others thought about that, but I haven't seen in the papers anyone complained about it yet.

  • 13:37:04

    NNAMDIThe South has a very distinctive accent. Where did it come from?

  • 13:37:09

    WOLFRAMWell, that's a four-hour lecture in its own right but one of the interesting aspects of southern speech is although the roots were there from various groups that settled there, a lot of southern accent developed after the Civil War. Because of the autonomy and because of the regionalism things that we think are thoroughly southern today were just kind of incipient forms at that point but became ingrained and grew into a robust southern dialect.

  • 13:37:46

    NNAMDIDo you think -- and I should put the phone number out again, 800-433-8850 -- do you think regional dialects are dying out? Call us, 800-433-8850. What regional accents are you fond of? Are there any you really dislike? 800-433-8850. Around here, people use a kind of grammar that really stumps northerners. Walt Wolfram, can you talk about the double modal?

  • 13:38:14

    WOLFRAMOh, the double modal is something that's widely spread throughout North Carolina. I'll give you a for instance. For example, I might could do it. So if someone says, we're having a party Saturday night. Would you like to come? And someone says, I might could come. They're less obligated than saying they will come or they won't come. And you really can't tell if they'll show up. So there's a sort of mitigating effect that's used by this double modal.

  • 13:38:42

    WOLFRAMAnd though people think of it as country southern, I can assure you that the last three governors of the Tar Heel State have, in fact, used that form regularly in speaking to various audiences and giving public speeches around North Carolina.

  • 13:38:59

    NNAMDIYou've been asked before whether dialect is just poor grammar. What do you say?

  • 13:39:05

    WOLFRAMI say, ouch, because the reality -- one of our very fundamental axioms is that all dialects have very patterned kinds of rules. So for example, if you take something that's considered to be bad grammar like in so called African American English someone says, sometimes my ears be itching. They use the form be where other dialects may use is, there are. And they say, well that's just poor grammar not knowing how to conjugate be.

  • 13:39:38

    WOLFRAMBut actually when one looks at it from the standpoint of a linguist and describes the pattern we notice that that be is used primarily to refer to events that happen habitually. So for example, if someone says they be having the Democratic Convention all over the place, you know, that means it's something that happens regularly. But if somebody says I be -- they be having the Democratic Convention right now, that would not be a proper use in the grammar of African American English. So one of the things that we strictly maintain, and this is not a matter of sort of political belief or progressive ideology, it's a matter of fundamental linguistic fact that all language systems, regardless of their social valuation, are in fact highly patterned and systematic.

  • 13:40:32

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet in response to our question about what's your favorite accent? Somebody tweeted "North Carolina. Sounds pretty, but can only understand the first and last word." Walt Wolfram, this southern pronunciation seems to be all about the vowels. Is it?

  • 13:40:49

    WOLFRAMWell, that's -- southern pronunciation is largely identified in the vowels, you know, which range from sort of the ungliding of time for time to the production of vowels like the vowel in boot as boot. So a lot of southern speech is heavily embedded in the vowel system, but, of course, there are lots of other features as well.

  • 13:41:15

    NNAMDIWe're here in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is known as the Tar Heel State. How did it get that name?

  • 13:41:22

    WOLFRAMWell, it got that name, you know, there are a lot of pine trees, and North Carolina is, and has been, a primary turpentine state where they produce a lot of tar, which is black as they process it, and cure it and so forth, and so basically it relates historically to incidents in which people would get tar on their heels and, therefore, sort of be identifiable, and so it became known as the tar heel state. Originally it was kind of a derogatory term where people would, for example, southerners were know -- oh, your tar heels, you were fleeing when the enemy came and we could see the tar from your heels as you fled from the battle.

  • 13:42:06

    WOLFRAMBut over time it got turned around and became a very positive sort of identity. Once a term becomes associated with a major university, as in the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, there are all kinds of positive associations that go along with that term.

  • 13:42:25

    NNAMDIOur guest is Walt Wolfram. He is a professor of English at North Carolina State University where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Walt, regionally in North Carolina there are distinct dialects. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:42:43

    WOLFRAMOh, there are many dialects, and this is one of the stereotypes about southern speech is that there is a homogenous southern speech. In reality, North Carolina itself has mountain speech, you know, which is Appalachian English, which is quite distinct from coastal dialects which are among the most distinctive dialects in the United States, to Piedmont, to Tidewater, so there are at least five or six major dialect areas on North Carolina, to say nothing of some of the ethnic varieties that also exist here.

  • 13:43:17

    NNAMDIThe coastal accent, particularly on the islands like the Outer Banks, is really distinctive, and in that coastal dialect, there are words that don't exist anywhere else. We have a clip. Let's take a listen.

  • 13:44:13

    NNAMDIWhopperjawed. There seemed to be a real focus on outsiders, isn't there?

  • 13:44:19

    WOLFRAMOh, yeah. On the Outer Banks, this is, you know, we're all concerned about identity and distinguishing insiders and outsiders. You know, in a sense, distinguishing Democrats and Republicans is a form of that sort of social reality. But for example in the Outer Banks, here are some terms for outsiders - dingbatter, dit-dot, foreigner, woodser. So for example -- what's really interesting is the etymology. Where did these words come from?

  • 13:44:49

    WOLFRAMWell, you'll be happy or sad to know that dingbatter comes originally from the TV show "All in the Family." We can date it to the 1970s when Archie Bunker called his wife a dingbat because she didn't appear to have common sense. They got television at that time -- they watched that show and said, huh, this is a great term for outsiders who don't know what they're doing when they fish here, don't know how to act like islanders, so we'll call them dingbatters. So a lot of these terms have really fascinating origins.

  • 13:45:24

    WOLFRAMOr for example woodsers. People from outside are called woodsers because on the islands, which are basically large sandbars, there aren't lot of trees. And so people who come from the mainland are woodsers. So we have, you know, there's a distinct dialect history. Or for example, in the western part of the state, to give you one more example, people are -- outsiders are often referred to as halfbacks, because you have northerners who go to Florida, and during the summer they go halfway back to their mountain place, and therefore, they're halfbacks.

  • 13:46:01

    NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on southern dialects in general, and North Carolina dialects in particular, with Walt Wolfram. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:47:59

    NNAMDIWe're coming to you from Charlotte, North Carolina. Out guest is Walt Wolfram, a professor of English at North Carolina State University where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. He's the author of more than 20 books and co-author of the forthcoming book "Talkin' Tar Heel: Voices of North Carolina." We got to Larry on the phone in Felton, De. Larry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Larry, are you there? Larry, I sense that you're there, but I can't hear you.

  • 13:48:31


  • 13:48:32

    NNAMDIHi, Larry. You're right -- you're on the air. Go ahead, please, Larry. Okay. I'm going to put Larry on hold. He's not sure where he is at this point. Walt Wolfram, Charlotte, where we are for the Democratic Convention has its own way of speech, but there are very few real Charlotteans left. Did I pronounce that correctly, Charlotteans? No. Charlotteans.

  • 13:48:53

    WOLFRAMWell -- Charlottean, right.

  • 13:48:54


  • 13:48:55

    WOLFRAMYep. Charlottean.

  • 13:48:56

    NNAMDIThere are very few real Charlotteans left. So let's listen to one. We have a clip.

  • 13:49:36

    WOLFRAMYeah. That's a really interesting woman because she was born and raised right in the heart of the convention today, and, of course, few people sound like that today. She was born in 1919, and she is one of the upper middle class people because that's what the aristocratic class of Charlotte once sounded like. Of course, things are radically different now, but it gives you an idea of what the traditional dialects sounded like, and how radically it's changed over the last half century.

  • 13:50:13

    NNAMDIAnd speaking of that change, we have Sally, also from Charlotte, who has another take on what the northern influence means for the city. Here's a clip.

  • 13:50:44

    NNAMDIWalt, Charlotte is a banking center with lots of transplants. Can you talk about how Charlotte is changing?

  • 13:50:49

    WOLFRAMWell, yeah. I mean, right now it's kind of difficult to find a native Charlottean because so many of the people are from other areas, and in a sense, Charlotte is caught in a little bit of an identity crisis itself. It's not quite Atlanta, and it sometimes takes second place, but it would like to be more prominent, and part of that prominence is in a sense sort of leveling some of the local aspects which include dialect.

  • 13:51:21

    WOLFRAMAnd, of course, when you get swamped or inundated by outsiders, it's going to have a radical effect, and so the cities of the south are very different from what they were after World War II, and they're also quite different from rural areas. So one of the biggest differences in the south today is the difference between urban speech and rural speech.

  • 13:51:50

    NNAMDIBoth of those ladies were recorded as part of the North Carolina Language and Life Project that you direct. Tell us a little bit more about that.

  • 13:51:57

    WOLFRAMWell, what we are attempting to do is to capture the resources of North Carolina in its dialects, and our point is this. Dialect is simply another cultural resource that is as rich and varied as any other. How can you understand about the history of a state without knowing about the different groups, where they came from, and the languages and the dialects that they brought with them? So part of our effort here is to help educate the public, and to change some of the attitudes so that they view dialects as one of their great cultural resources, as opposed to a liability, because dialects are kind of mixed bags.

  • 13:52:44

    WOLFRAMThey can have very positive connotations because they sound nice, or they're appealing, or they project authenticity, sincerity, and honesty, but they also have an association of sort of sounding uneducated. And so people are sort of caught between these sort of associations that they have with dialect, and so what we're trying to through everything from exhibits on dialect in North Carolina at the state fair, to documentaries that we show on television to a classroom curriculum in the history program of school children in North Carolina to help them understand how language differences are as much a part of their heritage as any of the other physical or cultural artifacts.

  • 13:53:32

    NNAMDIOnto Makendrie in Annapolis, Md. Makendrie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:38

    MAKENDRIEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I grew up in the Chesapeake region of Maryland, and it led me to become an anthologist because I was so fascinated with the culture there. I wanted you speaker to touch on the island culture effect. We have two islands, Smith Island and Tangier Island, where the dialect is very remnant of Elizabethan English. They still use thine and thou and it's very closely tied to the roots of John Smith when he first came here.

  • 13:54:07

    MAKENDRIEAnd unfortunately, because of the crabbing industry, and the younger generation, they're all moving to places like Baltimore and Washington, and they're losing touch with that, and I was wondering if there were any preservation efforts, or maybe speaking generally on islands' cultures that you could kind of give insight to.

  • 13:54:26

    NNAMDIWalt Wolfram.

  • 13:54:26

    WOLFRAMYeah. There are in fact preservation efforts there. And -- one of my colleagues for example at Georgetown, Natalie Schilling, has helped preserve the dialect of Smith Island, one of the two islands that I presume you're talking about there.

  • 13:54:41


  • 13:54:41

    WOLFRAMAnd Tangier. There's an interesting -- there is an interesting aspect here. Earlier in the show, we played an example of Outer Banks speech. What we find is that there is a much greater connection between the islands of North Carolina and the Chesapeake than there is between the mainland and the islands. You know, in part because of historical migration, so the people went down into the Outer Banks from those areas and so there's a great dialect affinity between Tangier and Smith Island and Okracoke and Harkers Island, and other islands in North Carolina and in Virginia and Maryland. Good observation.

  • 13:55:24


  • 13:55:25

    NNAMDIMakendrie, thank you very much for your call. Walt, you have researched some interesting ethnic interactions. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:55:32

    WOLFRAMWell, we've done all kinds of -- ethnicity of course is one of the variables that comes into play. So for example, we've done research on rural and urban African-American English. What's happening to the English of Latinos as they come and adopt southern speech and how they create a new sort of ethnic variety. We've also looked at some Native American English varieties. So for example, the largest American Indian group east of the Mississippi River is the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina.

  • 13:56:06

    WOLFRAMFew people know about them because they're not officially recognized by the federal government. But we're talking about 55,000 people who lost their ancestral language, but in its place have developed a unique dialect of English which distinguishes them from black, white, Hispanic and other ethnic groups in North Carolina. So to us, it's indicative of the fact that people take what language resources they have and mold them into their presentation of their culture and ethnic identity.

  • 13:56:47

    NNAMDIWalt Wolfram. He is a professor of English at North Carolina State University where he directs the North Carolina Language and Life Project. He's the author of more than 20 books, and co-author with Jeffrey Reaser of the forthcoming book "Talking Tar Heel: Voices of North Carolina." Walt Wolfram, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:06

    LARRYOh, it's been fun.

  • 13:57:07

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burney with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Special thanks to all our engineers in Washington and Charlotte making this week of broadcasts happen, including Timmy Olmstead, and Jonathan Charry, and today, Tobey Schreiner at WAMU.

  • 13:57:34

    NNAMDIHere in Charlotte with us is our own WAMU engineer, Andrew Chadwick. Our engineering and support team at the GROUNDCREW Studios in Charlotte includes John Cosby, Josh Sacco, Ross Wissbaum and Katherine Goforth. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs, and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. We encourage you to share questions or comments with us by emailing kojo@wamu.org, by joining us on Facebook or by tweeting @kojoshow, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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