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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 339-342

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Regional Complexities

Misrepresenting the American South

Cynthia Bernstein, University of Memphis


In the video American Tongues (1986), Molly Ivins offers a scathing critique of the portrayal in American movies of the slow-speaking, slow-witted Southerner. This stereotype is perpetuated in film, television, literature, and popular print media by inaccuracies in the representation of Southern dialect. Fictional Southern characters produce regionally marked features more often and in more varied contexts than do their real-life counterparts.

One example is the misrepresentation of yall as occurring in singular contexts.1 Butters and Aycock (1987) quote an example from the 1934 movie Twentieth Century in which characters who portray actors rehearsing a play about the South make frequent use of you-all to refer to only one person. In mimicking a Southerner, one character says, "Good-by, sir; thank you-all for your hospitality, sir. Come down and have a julip [sic] with we-all sometime, sir." Such mimicry creates an inaccurate sense of Southern dialect and reinforces the negative Southern stereotype.2

Combinations of all have been attested to with plural pronouns we and they, in addition to you, and with interrogative pronouns what, who, and why. Extending usage to the first-person singular combines with other exaggerated dialect features to ridicule the speaker in this example quoted in Axley (1929, 348). Freckles, from the comic strip Freckles and His Friends, preents a beloved elephant to the zoo, saying, "I brought him all the way from Africa, and I want him to be treated nice." The zookeeper responds, "Africa? Man! dat's where I all come from too. Yassh.". [End Page 339]

Although some inaccuracies reflect prejudice or ignorance on the part of the writer, it is fair to say that accuracy is constrained by the very nature of the creative process. A writer uses dialect to convey a message about character or setting in the very limited space of the text. As with physical descriptions, a few features necessarily represent the whole. In The Outside Man, for example, Richard North Patterson (1982) evokes the impression of Southern dialect by emphasizing just a few features. The title character and narrator, an outsider to Southern society, makes this observation:

1. I paused, wondering when Mooring had begun to speak so well. He had none of the southerner's studied lapses--the "ain'ts" and "might coulds"--and his diction was clearly acquired. [107]

If the absence of these dialect features gives a character a cultured air, their presence has the opposite effect. The narrator in this example is trying to locate an address:

2. I approached one of the old men, whittling in overalls, wood shavings curled at his feet. "Help me find something?" I asked.
He spat a brown stream of tobacco juice and looked up with a surprising smile that lacked several teeth. "Might could." The words were guttural and half-swallowed. "What you looking for?" [144]

The might could in this man's mouth is as effective as the tobacco juice in indicating his casual demeanor and working-class status.

In using the double modal to stereotype Southern speech, Patterson, himself an outsider to the South, on two occasions misrepresents the contexts in which double modals naturally occur.

3. "Might could be rape." [detective speculating about murder case; 8]
4. Rayfield's cadence eased. "Anniston's not much more than an hour, Mr. Cantwell. Might could be easy for you to check into a motel, drive home, and then back again." He paused and asked coolly, "Is that what happened?" [investigator trying to pry confession out of victim's husband; 32]

In (2)-(4) might could appears without a subject in surface structure. However, unlike (2), in which I is the understood subject, (3) and (4) have existential it as the understood subject. In (2), the author rightly uses the double modal to convey a degree of uncertainty expressed by the character regarding his own intentions.3 In (3), the degree of uncertainty applies to the cause of the murder; in (4), it applies to the...


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pp. 339-342
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Archived 2005
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