We talk about “Southern” accents, but dialectologists distinguish at least two major dialect groups: South and South Midland, sometimes known as “Upper South” and “Lower South.” The different histories of the Coastal and Mountain South are presented in Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer’s accessible history of early British migration to North America.
Fischer shows us that there were two distinct migrations: the Anglican and Catholic planters and their indentured servants crossed from the south of England to Virginia ports like Arlington and Jamestown between 1642 and 1675, spreading out down the coast and importing slaves from Africa. It wasn’t until 1717 to 1775 that Presbyterians from the Scottish Lowlands, Northern Ireland and the English-Scottish borderlands arrived in Philadelphia and after a few years in Pennsylvania began migrating down the Shenendoah Valley and throughout the Appalachian and Ozark mountains.
My grandmother’s family history follows this stream: in the birth, death and marriage records collected by my cousins we see each generation moving down the mountains: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and finally Texas, where my father was born. In Texas the Coastal and Mountain dialects merged to form something different from both.
The Appalachian dialect covers all of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley, including Louisville. I’ve known several people from Louisville, including my first college roommate, and my friend and neighbor Elaine.
Dennis Preston studies American dialects and our attitudes to them. He also has a lovely Louisville accent, having grown up in New Albany, Indiana (“N’Albany”), just across the river. His dialect still maintains different pronunciations for “witch” and “which,” and “horse” and “hoarse,” as he demonstrated to me at a recent meeting of the American Dialect Society. Here’s a great video of him and Robert MacNeil riding a train across the mountains and talking to people about accents:
This is part eleven 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: Tallahassee. Nextly: Memphis.
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