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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 342-344

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Regional Complexities

Sound Change in the South

Crawford Feagin, University of Zurich


The gradualness of sound change has been brought home to me personally in my work in phonological change in Alabama White English. In fact, because of the gradualness, it has sometimes been surprising to discover how much the speech in my own hometown of Anniston, Alabama, has changed over time. However, certain elements of stability have also stood out.

The most notable unchanging element in Southern states pronunciation concerns the "long i." James Sledd referred to it as "the Confederate vowel" (1966, 25). On the one hand, the glided vowel in "long i," the vowel of nice, white, rice, serves as a shibboleth for class status in the South. (This is in the environment before voiceless consonants, such as /p/, /t/, /k/, and /s/.) On the other hand, the monophthongal unglided vowel in I and my [End Page 342] symbolizes all Southerners' identification with the South. Otherwise, this vowel has been changing over time from a gliding vowel--as in many other varieties of English--to a less and less glided one, to the point that some speakers have no glide at all in any environment. However, among younger middle- and upper-class speakers in Anniston, this change is reversing itself, heading in the direction of the glided vowel found elsewhere in the United States--with the exception of I and my.

Nonetheless, the rest of the vowels are moving--though gradually--into different positions, or from glided to unglided, or the reverse. For example, Labov, Yaeger, and Steiner (1972) first showed that in the South, among the front vowels, the long and short vowels--those found in beat versus bit and bait versus bet-are exchanging places in vowel space, the vowel triangle we learn in foreign-language classes. This is what he has labeled "the Southern Shift." An earlier change (also first documented in Labov, Yaeger, and Steiner 1972) is the movement of the back vowels to the front, so that school and skill, coke and cake, sound very similar. These changes are certainly found in my data from Alabama (Feagin 1986). Actually, I had never noticed how fronted (and unrounded) my own pronunciation of school was until examining Anniston speech from tape-recorded natural conversations, though I was later amazed at the extreme fronting of cake by some younger relatives from Atlanta.

While the "long i" is in the process of ungliding, the short owels in the front are breaking and frequently becoming two-syllable entities, as in man ['mæi jin] or head ['he jid].

Most speakers--including me--are not conscious of these changes, whether in other people's speech or their own, much less of the new social distinctions developing in these pronunciations.

The consonants are not so unstable as the vowels, though the liquid /r/ has undergone a tremendous change over the last 100 years. Traditional Southern speech has been r-less, though speakers in the mountains and the marginal agricultural areas have always been r-ful. The r-ful variety seems to be the new majority form all over the South, with r-less speech seeming more and more old-fashioned as time goes by. As an r-less speaker, I had not realized this until I looked at it quantitatively in the speech of younger speakers from Anniston (Feagin 1990).

While these matters have been examined by a number of scholars, including myself (Feagin 1996), what is missing from this picture is any description of the phonology of African Americans (aside from consonant deletion) and the phonological change going on in that community. Most of the work on African American speech has been conducted outside the South in the big cities of the North and West---New York City, Detroit, Los Angeles. Little or none of that work has centered on pronunciation, much [End Page 343] less phonological change. It has been assumed that there is little variation across the country in the speech of the African American community, though that is probably not the case...


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pp. 342-344
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