UA professor links accents to Civil War

He stretches the vowels in certain words he pronounces like a child pulls taffy until it breaks. Unlike taffy, his words don’t break. They flow from one to the other.

Cody Hall, a UA student majoring in history, speaks with an accent that may be vanishing from the American vernacular. Southern dialects are disappearing as areas of Alabama become more urban, especially in the college community. To lose the accent is to lose part of Southern culture, but it could also draw an end to the stereotype of unsophisticated Southerners.

Hall said he feels pressured to keep his accent in check, with more and more students coming to Alabama from across the United States.

“Subconsciously, all humans do that,” he said. “They want to be a part of the environment they’re in.”

Hall allows his accent to thicken while hunting with his buddies from home, but it wanes while speaking to fellow students. He said the stereotype of Southern stupidity prompts him to act differently in certain social groups. The stereotype for Southerners is an effect of the American Civil War, said Professor David Durham, curator of archival collections in The University of Alabama’s department of history.

After the Civil War entrenched the South in poverty, Northerners began to look upon Southerners as stupid and ignorant. Before the war, the South was vibrant and productive. It had money, which supplied a better education and the opportunity to experience different cultures through travel, thus influencing a more sophisticated way of speaking, Durham said.

“If you say you’re from the South, or you say you’re from Alabama, the assumption is that you’re less educated and less sophisticated, because you are immediately identified by your speech,” he said.

Durham said speech in the South resonates from ancestry. Hall, from Ralph, Ala., descends from the Scotch-Irish. Natives from North England, Scotland and Ireland dispersed into the South during the four major migrations from Great Britain to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. People from East Anglia migrated primarily to Massachusetts. Durham said the conflicts between these two cultures transferred in the migration and may be one of the causes of the Civil War.

Durham supports the theory provided in “Albion’s Seed” by David Hackett Fischer. According to “Seed,” Southern and Northern accents stem from the cultures of Great Britain. Durham also supports Clarence Cason’s theory in “Ninety Degrees in the Shade.” Cason said the climate and sweltering heat caused speech to slow. Charles Joiner’s “creolization” theory was the idea of mixing the black and white cultures of the South to produce one culture of music, food, religion and language.

The mix of races and classes at the University offers new social circles where students pick up other dialects. Hall housed two roommates from the North his freshman year. He said after living with them for a year, his drawl diminished.

When accents intermingle for an extended period of time, one can affect the other. Rick Bragg, the Clarence Cason professor of writing in the University’s department of journalism, said it’s all cultural, social and economic.

“Accents are created in the same way the landscape is,” Bragg said. “They’re kind of worn into us.”

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