Last post I addressed a question about language complexity, which you can get to here. Today, I’m going straight-up tangent and answering a second, implied question. Here’s the relevant bit:
“people from the south (in america) seem to speak slower than people from the north, even though in theory we all speak the same language.”
So. Do Southerners really speak more slowly than other English speakers?
Because this is a linguistics blog and not a murder mystery, I’ll give away the twist up front: nope. Southerners say about the same number of words per minute as anybody else. In fact, according to Tauberer and Evanini (which I found via Dialect Blog), Southerners say exactly the same number of words per minute as Yankees. 193, if you’re wondering.
That’d make this a short post, but fortunately that lends itself immediately to a new question: where does the idea that the southern accent is slow come from? Well, this is more guesswork than I like, but my research turned up three phonological (sound-based) reasons, things that might lead to this impression just a little.
Before I get any further in, I need to specify – the phonology I’m talking about is that of southern white people. Southern black speech is different, since American black speakers are waaaay less tied to geography than American white speakers are. White speakers tend to clump up regionally, and have apparently decided that these regional varieties* are far too similar, since sound changes have been occurring at breakneck pace recently (Northern Cities Shift, anybody?). Black speakers are more cohesive. Three white speakers, one each from New York, Albuquerque, and Anniston, AL, will speak much more differently from each other than three black speakers from the same cities. Which is clear from the linguistic terms for these varieties: African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE, marked by race, and Southern White Vernacular English, SWVE, marked by race and geography. (Though Walt Wolfram thinks this is an overstatement — hmm time for more research!) Slowness, drawl, and twang are all perceptions of white speakers, so that’s where we’re heading today.
The most widespread feature of SWVE, the one that linguistic rock-star William Labov uses to categorize a speaker as using SWVE in the first place, is monopthongization of /aɪ/. I know that sounds intense, but a monopthong is just a vowel sound. Seriously, like /a/ in “arm.” We call it a monopthong to contrast with a dipthong, which is – wait for it – two vowel sounds together. Basically, words that are pronounced /aɪ/, “ah-ee,” elsewhere in the nation become just /a:/ “ahh” in the South. “Five” is “fahv,” “fly” is “flah,” “nice” is “nahs.” Not every speaker of SWVE uses this every time /aɪ/ shows up – “fly” to “flah” is widespread, but “nice” to “nahs” is only Inland South. The Southiest South, as it were.
So /aɪ/ becomes /a:/. That colon there has a special meaning: that the vowel sound is held longer. Instead of two vowel sounds, we have one double-length sound. Are SWVE speakers going slower? Nope, but if you were used to non-SWVE speech and not paying too much attention, maybe you’d think so.
Something similar happens with another SWVE feature, post-vocalic /r/-lessness. Again, weird term for an easy concept: some SWVE speakers don’t have /r/ after a vowel if it’s at the end of a word.** “For” becomes “fo,” for example. Removing /r/ would actually make the word shorter, but again the vowel is said slightly longer. Total word length is still about the same, but this too might could give the impression of being said slower.
Okay, best for last – the drawl! Yes, there is a specific sound change that makes up the drawl, it’s not just a vague term for general SWVE-ness. And the drawl actually does make words a little longer. Not often enough to affect overall speed, but it’s the closest we’re gonna get. Here’s my man George Dorill:
“In common parlance, the southern drawl is a synonym for southern accent […] and refers to the putative slowness of southern speech […] In contrast, linguists use the term to refer to the lengthening and raising of accented vowels, normally accompanied by a change in voice pitch. It involves the addition of a second or even a third vowel, but does not necessarily entail a lower overall speech tempo.” (Dorill in EitSUS, himself drawing from Montgo 1989)
There are three vowels affected by drawling in most varieties of SWVE: /ɛ/, /ɪ/, and /æ/, as in “pet,” “sit,” and “cat,” respectively. When these vowels are drawled, they double in length, with an extra “y” and schwa sound. “Sit” becomes “see-yut,” or if you prefer, [sɪt] becomes [sɪjǝt]. So this one really does slow speech down a tad… but it affects so few words in such a slight way that it doesn’t make a difference in the end.
So if slowness isn’t really part of SWVE speech, why do we all have that concept lodged in our heads? My gal Rosina Lippi-Green spells it out: “…language is one simple and effective way of distinguishing between self and other” (EWaA 228). Both outsiders and Southerners themselves build up stereotypes of Southerners as people, and both involve slowness. Southerners speak of themselves as being laid-back, having a gentle pace of life, stopping to smell the azaleas and whatnot. Yankees use “slow” more in the mental sense. More Lippi-Green:
“[The image is that] Southerners who do not assimilate to Northern norms are backward but friendly, racist but polite, obsessed with the past and unenamored of the finer points of education. If they are women, they are sweet, pretty, and not very bright.” (EWaA 228 again. As a Southern woman myself, the last one’s a bit of a sticking point with me.***)
Ultimately, the idea of slow Southern speech isn’t based on the speech at all. We’re applying our ideas of the south to its speakers. Remember when we talked about Don Rubin’s language subjectivity experiments like a year ago? They’re great, check it out, but I’ll repeat the takeaway: we hear what we expect to hear. We expect slowness, we’ll hear it.
Also, now you can drop “monopthongization” into casual conversation, that’s gotta be worth something.
The Language Nerd
*Linguists tend to refer to language variations as, well, varieties, since words like “dialect” and “accent” are often used negatively by the general populace, as a way of marking some varieties as “right” and others as “wrong.” The idea that some ways of speaking are fundamentally, grammatically superior to others is probably The Single Most Common Super Wrong Idea About Language In The World.
**This is a feature of lots of English dialects – think JFK, or the Queen of England. AAVE, though, has the much rarer intervocalic /r/-lessness, where /r/ is removed between two vowels in the middle of a word, as in “Ca’olina.”
***Though compared to the kind of outright hatefulness that black people hear in the guise of criticism of AAVE, southerners get off pretty damn easy. But that’s a depressing-as-hell post for another day.
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Lots of references today, including two of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I drew the societal bit of this post from Rosina Lippi-Green’s English With an Accent, an excellent look at how we judge others by their speech, and drew the mention of AAVE from William Labov’s Dialect Diversity in America. That is a stunning book, and very readable even for non-linguists. It’s based on the information collected in his opus Atlas of North American English, which can be yours for the low low price of $770! Or you could pick me up a copy, I’d appreciate that. Beyond that, Dorill quoted from English in the Southern United States, a collection of essays edited by Nagle and Sanders that cover many aspects of WSVE, from history to morphology. Phonology sections drawn from the Dorill and Feagin essays in that book, plus more Labov. Always more Labov. And the Tauberer and Evanini paper is “Intrinsic vowel duration and and the post-vocalic voicing effect.”
Also P.S. Dear Dr. Rubin, have you considered doing a version of your experiment to test perceptions of native English varieties? Because I only just thought of this now and I’m super excited. I fly to Istanbul Thursday, which will make it somewhat more difficult to find SWVE speakers, but y’know, we can work around that. KIT.
On that note: I am returning to Istanbul and will once again be abandoning the site for a bit to get lesson plans and whatnot put together for my real job that actually pays the rent. But fret not, there will be other Nerds about! And if you wish that we updated more than once every few weeks, hey, we’d be glad to – we need more people! Math nerds, science nerds, literature nerds, booze nerds, whatever, hit me up, because we will welcome you.