America’s Loveliest Accents: Charleston

In my post about the Memphis accent, I discussed how the Mountain and Coastal (white) Southern dialects have very distinct origins. So why do they sound “the same” to many people? In part it’s because they’ve become more similar over the years.

At first it was the Mountain South imitating the Coast. Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia all controlled large mountain areas from their coastal port capitols in Williamsburg, New Bern, Charleston and Savannah, and later from their Piedmont capitals in Richmond, Raleigh, Columbia and Atlanta. It was fashionable among certain people to imitate the elites, and those elites spoke mostly with Coastal accents.

In the late twentieth century with the rise of the “New South” centered around Appalachian and Piedmont centers of cheaper labor, cultural and political power shifted to cities like Nashville, Charlotte and Louisville. With wider access to radio and television, and better roads connecting them to regional capitals, Southerners have had more exposure to regional accent role models.

African Americans in the South have also tended to shift from local accents to a regional or national model of “sounding Black.” Walt Wolfram and his colleagues have documented this divergence between black and white accents in Hyde County, in coastal North Carolina, in a fascinating series of studies.


Charleston used to be known for its conservative, genteel coastal Southern accent, which you can hear in the speech of former Senator Fritz Hollings.

I’ll admit I had to look this one up. Darius Rucker, lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, is from Charleston. I’ve heard Hootie dismissed by some music snobs, but is there anyone who thinks Rucker doesn’t have a lovely voice?

What I find most interesting is that to my ear he sounds almost nothing like Hollings. Is that because he’s black, or because he’s younger, or both?

This is part fourteen of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Atlanta. Nextly: New Orleans, and finally Baltimore.

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