Accents, Writing

Speech Patterns

This post is the result of another blogger’s post. Earlier today, Grammar Girl posted a short item on LinkedIn that included a video on the Appalachian dialect, which you can watch if you click here. I hope you find it as interesting as I did

As a writer, studying the way people talk is important. Not only does it lead your reader to understand more about the character who is speaking, it helps your readers tell the difference between the various characters in a story. It helps to have enough of an understanding of how people speak in the culture you are writing about so that you don’t inadvertently create a stereotypical character who will insult readers from that area.

I have been lucky enough to have traveled a lot and spent a lot of time around people who spoke much differently than I did. But I have also been perpetually curious about the cultures that cause people to have the speech patterns they do.

I’ve always been fascinated by the dialects used by the people I’ve met all across this country. Having moved often as a military wife, as well as frequently traveling on camping trips to the state and national parks nearby (within a day or two drive from our home) with my small family, I had occasion to listen to and pick up many words and phrases I’d never heard while growing up in California.

I was also pretty good at mimicry so that after a few months of living in a certain area, you couldn’t have imagined me as anything but a native. I didn’t do it to make fun of the folks I was living among. It was just a natural effect of being surrounded by people who spoke that way every day.

My husband, Isaiah, was from North Carolina, though his own accent and dialect were very soft. After joining the Air Force in the 1970s, he worked hard to lose his accent as much as possible because he was always cognizant that a southern drawl tended to label one as stupid, or a “hick” or “hillbilly.” He felt that people who spoke that way were not taken seriously by people who lived outside of the South. Very few people in the Western US (where we lived from the 1980s onward) seemed to realize he was from the South at all, unless he got emotional about something or spoke with someone else with a Southern accent. That was when his drawl emerged.

His sister, Jean, on the other hand, embraced her southern heritage and created a drawl that was designed to mark her as “countrified.” Interestingly, Jean’s daughter, Rebecca, who was born and raised in the Carolinas as her mother was, has even less of an accent than her uncle. Jean and I attributed that to the fact that Rebecca watched a lot of TV and few people in the media speak with any accent at all. It makes me wonder if, over time, the amount of media we watch from all over the world will eventually do away with regional dialects all together.

Many of Isaiah’s family (on his father’s side) still live in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. His mother’s people still live in the Piedmont border country of North and South Carolina near Charlotte. After we lived in the latter area for about three years, I was able to find several distinct idiomatic speech patterns used by the people there, including that of the growing non-accented English-speaking population. The Charlotte area has a large number of transplants from all over the eastern seaboard and the rest of the country, so it is hard to pin down just one accent in that region.

My father was also a Southern boy, born and raised in Mississippi. Dad’s family also came from the Piedmont area of South Carolina originally, although they moved to the Mississippi Territory in the early 1800s. His accent was much stronger than Isaiah’s, despite the fact that he’d moved to California in the 1940’s. It eventually faded away quite a bit, but it was still very strong when I was a kid. When I was young, I used to get really tickled by the way Dad said certain words. My favorite pronunciation of his was “skoo” for the word “school.” He, of course, did not appreciate my amusement with this, but to be honest, it was one of the things I loved most about him.

In any event, after I left California to join the Air Force, I discovered the fascinating nuances in speech patterns used throughout the US. In high school, I enjoyed being involved in drama and was (still am) a lover of old movies, especially stories that took place in the UK. I actually learned a variety of accents from Scotland and Ireland, to Liverpudlian, Cockney, and the proper British accent indicative of the educated upper class. So, moving about the US and seeing how Americans spoke in various regions was very enlightening to me.

I found surprising changes in speech everywhere we lived and included them in my subconscious repertoire. They invaded my own speech whether I wanted them to or not, and I’ve been asked by other Californians just where in the South I was raised. Even now I hear myself choosing a word or phrase that’s definitely not used by most Californians. So apparently, I, too, have a bit of a Southern accent after years of living among them and being related to them.

Living among the people whose speech fascinated me so, I was quickly disabused of the notion so many “Yankees” have that Southerners are dull-witted. They are anything but. In fact, they tend to run rings around those of us who were raised elsewhere in terms of intelligence and general common sense. Most possess a sly, dry wit that can be downright dangerous if you aren’t on your toes. If anything, they tend to think of us outsiders as being “a might slow.”

Over the course of my life, I grew to be able to pinpoint where someone was raised simply by listening to them speak. So, I quite enjoyed listening to the Appalachian accent and unique words the people use in this short video. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. If you do, you might enjoy the other videos on the jstor.org site as well. If nothing else, they will help any writer who needs to use those type of dialects in their work.

Ya’ll have a great day now, ya hear?

😁