The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday August 18th

In defense of the Southern drawl, y’all

They’re the words you didn’t learn in English class. Honeyfuggle. Pinkwink. Schnickelfritz.

They might sound like gibberish, but you can find them all in the Dictionary of American Regional English, a comprehensive guide to America’s regional and folk speech.

The dictionary’s long-awaited fifth and final volume is set for release next month, 27 years after the first one was published. At last, the list of nearly 60,000 colloquialisms will be complete, from “aa” — a Hawaiian term for rough, cindery lava — to “zydeco” — a type of Louisiana roots music.

Apart from all the colorful vocabulary, you’ll also discover the history behind the quirky pronunciations and syntaxes that distinguish one English dialect from another.

You’ll learn that sentences with double modals, like “I might could go to the park,” have been produced in North Carolina for more than 150 years.

And how that distinctive Dixie drawl — where “my” is pronounced like “mah,” and “pen” like “pin” and “sit” like “see it” — is part of a much larger phenomenon known as the Southern Vowel Shift.

In documenting these features, the writers are giving some much-deserved legitimacy to regional dialect — a legitimacy that’s worth fighting for, especially in the case of Southern English.

Across the United States, people associate Southern accents with a lack of sophistication and education.

According to a 1999 study by dialectologist Dennis Preston, respondents from all over the country routinely rated Southern English the most incorrect variety of American English.

Even Southerners themselves said they consider their speech substandard, Preston found.

The findings are problematic, because there’s nothing inherently wrong about Southern English, or any other stigmatized dialect, for that matter.

Sociolinguist Walt Wolfram addresses the misconception in his 1991 book “Dialects and American English.”

When people judge certain dialects as “bad English,” they’re assuming that the speakers are trying to speak “correct” English, but failing, Wolfram writes.

In reality, speakers of any non-standard variety — from Southern English to New York English to African-American Vernacular English — are simply operating under different parameters than speakers of so-called Standard English.

These parameters affect the way speakers pronounce their words and construct their sentences. The acceptability of a certain utterance varies between every dialect.

Wolfram, a linguistics professor at N.C. State University, is founder of the North Carolina Language and Life Project, which documents the unique forms of English spoken from Ocracoke to Appalachia and everywhere in between.

The project’s researchers hope to gain new insight into the connection between Southern language and culture and have turned their findings into a dialect awareness curriculum for middle schools.

The curriculum teaches students that, for one thing, there’s nothing wrong with the way they speak — no matter where they’re from.

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