contributed by Ellen Johnson, Ph.D.
Athens, Georgia

An R-Ful Change in Southern English

            'Suh-prise, suh-prise, suh-prise!’ Who can forget Gomer’s enthusiastic rendition of the Southern English accent? We all have heard the exaggerated imitations of the missing ‘r’ in the Southern drawl. Not in words like Rhett or Tara, where the ‘r’ comes before a vowel, but only where ‘r’ comes before a consonant or at the end of a word. As in putting the ‘caht’ before the ‘hoss’ or in the much maligned ‘y’all come back now, heah?’

Despite the unsophisticated qualities of the characters on television who talk this way, Southerners know the truth about the missing ‘r’: that it is a mark of aristocracy, if a bit old-fashioned. Paradoxically, it can also help identify a speaker as African American, and it is a feature that was exported to Northern cities along with the Great Migration of Southern blacks. This is the story of a sound that first went missing from the speech of both the poorest and the wealthiest Southerners, that at one time was in danger of being lost entirely in the South, but that is making a rapid comeback, with ‘r-lessness’ beating a hasty retreat.

Why was the ‘r’ lost, then found again? Linguists agree that at the time the American colonies were settled, most speakers of British English pronounced the ‘r,’ quite strongly in fact. (Of course, it could be argued that there was no such thing as ‘British English’ until 1776, that it was just English before then.) Dialects in the eastern and southeastern part of England began to lose the ‘r,’ and this would have included the speech of London. Quite a lot of commerce linked the Eastern Seaboard with Britain, and the fashions of London in dress, music, and yes, language, spread across the Atlantic. Not only did traders come from England bringing the latest trends, but the wealthier colonists long followed a tradition of sending their sons to England for an education. As today, those who went away to college came back with their speech patterns altered, for better or worse. ‘R’s’ disappeared in Charleston and Savannah, which were great port cities, and also in the speech of New York City and Boston (‘pahk the cah in the yahd’).

Alert readers will notice that in this tale of colonists from England, commerce, fashions, and higher education, someone has been left out: the involuntary immigrants who began to populate the South in large numbers, African slaves. Like anyone else who learns a foreign language, Africans would have substituted sound patterns from their native language for unfamiliar sound patterns in the new language. The quest to trace any African American language feature back to a specific African language is complicated by the fact that West Africa is one of the most polyglot (from Greek ‘many’ + ‘tongues’) areas of the world. Those who live there routinely speak four or more languages just in the course of their everyday lives. We know, however, that a majority of these West African languages end each syllable with a vowel. English syllables like ‘cart,’ ending in two consonants would be hard for speakers of languages like this to pronounce, whether the language is West African or Japanese. So the slaves who were learning English would have had tendency to drop ‘r’s’ that occurred at the end of a word or before a consonant, exactly the context where Londoners were dropping them.

This language change from two sources caused the r-lessness of Southern speech to spread inland much further than in New York or New England, throughout the whole of the plantation country. Up until World War Two, Southerners who still pronounced their ‘r’s’ gave away their origin in the poor whites who worked the small farms and cotton mills of the sand hills and the upcountry areas that couldn’t support plantation agriculture. Poorer settlers, many of them of Scottish ancestry (Scots-Irish) arrived in the South in the eighteenth century from Ireland. The choice lands of the coastal plain were already occupied, so they moved on to the back country, the higher, hillier land, where they met with other Scots-Irish who had travelled from Pennsylvania down into the Southern Appalachians. While the planters and their slaves, and the descendents of these groups as well, did not pronounce the postvocalic ‘r,’ the descendents of the Scots-Irish did pronounce it.

The ‘r’ became a marker of poverty among white Southerners. Dialectologist Raven McDavid, himself a South Carolinian who did not pronounce the ‘r,’ went so far as to suggest that the presence of ‘r’ might indicate a person who was more likely to be racist and hence unfit for certain roles, police work, for example. He based this idea on the long-standing reality of economic competition between blacks and poor whites and the hostility it engendered. Nevertheless, McDavid foresaw a time when the more widespread American habit of pronouncing the ‘r’ might come to prevail, noting that ‘the presence in local military posts of many Northern and Western servicemen, with strong. . . ‘r’ as well as with a different and more sophisticated line of conversation, has led many Southern girls to the conclusion that a person with ‘r’ can be acceptable as a date for the daughter of generations of plantation owners.’

In the end, again there are at least two sources of language change that have converged to introduce the ‘r’ back into the speech of Southerners of the higher social classes. The first is this influence of the national norm, intensifying with the current migration of Northerners to the ‘Sun Belt.’ The second is the rise of Piedmont cities—Birmingham, Atlanta, Greenville/Spartanburg, Charlotte, and Raleigh/Durham—to dominate Southern urban culture. No longer are cities like Charleston and Savannah fashionable centers of culture that set the trends for outlying areas. Economic changes have isolated them in the way geographical barriers isolated islanders and mountaineers in days gone by, so that their dialect has become a ‘quaint’ one rather than a model to imitate. Although the upper classes throughout the South had become accustomed to dropping the ‘r,’ r-lessness was never as strong in the Piedmont region, the region that is now asserting its linguistic as well as economic superiority in the South. Atlanta and its upcountry sisters, where more ‘r’s’ were pronounced, have taken on the status of role models.

Unfortunately, yet another force may be playing a role in the resurgence of ‘r,’ racism.* In many parts of the country, the speech patterns of African Americans and whites seem to be moving apart in some ways. White Southerners could be using more ‘r’s’ as a way of distinguishing themselves from African Americans, in a backlash against integration and other changes brought by the Civil Rights Movement. R-lessness is alive and well in the black community, though it is rapidly disappearing elsewhere.

Indeed, the loss of ‘r’ that once prevailed across the South, and that is still parodied by those who would mimic Southern speech, only exists today among African Americans, Southerners over the age of sixty, and in the most rural areas, especially among males there. It is no longer a feature of the speech of most white Southerners. Researchers have shown us that when language varieties are dying out (for example, the use of German in Michigan or certain Native American languages), the last speakers are usually men. There are reasons for maintaining features of speech that run contrary to mainstream standards, reasons that go to the very heart of our identity. So it is that ‘r’ has not found its way back into the speech of all Southerners just yet.

Forrest Gump says, ‘You got to put the pas’ behin’ you befo’ you can move on.’ Language change proceeds slowly. ‘R’ is now respectable, and the language seems to be moving on, but the past is never completely behind us.

Ellen Johnson teaches linguistics at the University of Georgia, and has published a book about the changing vocabulary of Southern English.

* [Editor’s Note: The League of the South respectfully disagrees with the use of the word ‘racism’ in this context. We fail to see how changing one’s speech to distinguish it from another’s qualifies as ‘racism.’ Even if it did qualify, the ‘moving apart’ of the speech patterns of the races might more readily and convincingly be attributed to ‘racism’ on the part of blacks trying to distinguish themselves from whites–or else attributed to the ‘racism’ of radio and television media people, whose speech is decidedly ‘r-ful’ and apparently sets the ‘standard’ for blacks & whites alike.]