Trying to Write the Southern Accent

Megan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Confession: I used to hate forms that asked for your place of birth, because I had to write Gaffney, South Carolina–a city best known for its stucco outlet malls and peach-shaped water tower that some refer to as “the ass in the sky.” I’ve lived most of my life not far from I-95, the southern portion of the highway saddled with South of the Border billboards and franchised barbecue joints advertised by bug-eyed pigs on roadside signs. When I have to, I speak Southern.

SC_Peach.jpg

Last year, I moved to Vermont after thirty years of Southern living. Behind the Raleigh neighborhood I left was beautiful, historic Oakwood Cemetery, founded in 1869 and home to 1500 Confederate graves. The Old South was all around us there, in the azaleas, the awkward Civil War reenactments, the hundreds of Victorian-era homes of the neighborhood, and the obelisk memorializing the Confederate dead. Yet New England retirees populated the neighborhood with drought-resistant landscaping, rain barrels, and biodiesel vans parked in the driveways of their antebellum houses. On my street, the quintessential Bubba lived next door to a gay couple who drank wine on their porch while he washed his truck and played with his amateur radio station. I loved watching the culture collision unfold.


The urban South, I believe, is wrestling with an identity crisis. It reminds me of the sign on a downtown Raleigh biscuit joint, Biscuit Station: country good and city fast. In the urban and suburban South, many locals live in close proximity to shopping centers and start their mornings with store-bought lattes, but like me, many had grandmothers who picked tobacco and uncles that made moonshine, mothers and fathers that raised them with thick accents. Like me, they remember when the South was more regionally distinctive, but they have since assimilated to a time where a shopping center in New Jersey could be a shopping center in North Carolina. Suburbia feels modular–most people have access to the same ideas, chain food stores, and clothes. The once stark regional identity is quickly becoming more generic.


However, in writing workshops I often see people trying to write Southern accents, as if a character living below the Mason-Dixie line still necessitates a phonetic dialogue guide for readers. It’s tempting, it’s been done well before, and I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done in 2010 and onward. I’m suggesting it should be done sparingly and only if:


A) You know enough about Southerners to write it well–nothing reveals a tin ear like bad Southernese. Think Nicolas Cage in Con Air.
B) The character has earned it–by being an older southerner, living in a marginalized or bottlenecked environment, or consciously choosing Southern mannerisms. (See the NC Language and Life Organization‘s videos on the brogue still used on North Carolina’s Coast).


I believe the number of Southerners with writeable accents is declining. Writing Southernese is as much about the arrangement of words and word choice as it is the sound. You don’t have to underscore a character’s southern-ness by dropping g’s and throwing in a bunch of Populist apostrophes after n’s–as in, I’m fixin’ to go ridin’ with Billy Bob. If the character hasn’t earned it, or you aren’t masterful, the phonetic hand-holding tortures readers–the economic use of y’all or original word arrangement (like a double modal) will do in most cases.

Take this example of how word choice, as opposed to a writeable accent, works–a line from a George Singleton interview about an old school southerner seeing llamas for the first time: “What the hell kind of donkeys is them?” Or a line from Barry Hannah’s Yonder Stands Your Orphan: “You’re all wore out from being nice.” We don’t need to see how these lines were phonetically delivered–we know. Sound is important, but if an author makes it too important, the concern tends to mock the character.


When writing Southern characters in 2010, authors must consider the age of the character–older, native Southerners are much more likely to have writeable accents than an average character of Generation Y or younger. Educated Baby Boomers who have lived in other regions or have traveled extensively will likely speak with moderate accents, if any. (All accents, in my opinion, are a risk to write phonetically–particularly moderate ones. What’s the payoff for clunky apostrophes and misspellings if your setting and character development are strong enough?) Generation Z, or the Millineals, are much less likely to have an accent given their connectedness with the world and information, unless, like some of Singleton’s characters, they live down a one-way asphalt mountain street lined with outhouses in Appalachia.


I acknowledge that most people who were born in the South, attended college there, and have never lived above the Mason-Dixon Line still have recognizably Southern ways of speaking. But do they merit written accents? I can look across three generations of my family and see significant variations in accent and word choice (our accents are a mix of non-rhotic Virginia Piedmont and Coastal Southern) and only Grandma would earn a slightly writeable accent. (*Disclaimer – I only make rules for accents I know. Creole or Gullah–another story.)


Southern literature–and in turn, any writeable accent–owes a debt to what is referred to by the editors of Stories of the Modern South as “a strong oral tradition of storytelling in the South.” I think that oral tradition is more pronounced in older, lifelong inhabitants of the South. Both my grandmother and my father could keep dinner tables laughing with their sing-songy tales of drunk uncles on tricycles and pool games gone awry. I can hear my grandmother’s redneck, yet lyrical, meter when I write, as well as the sound of hymns, my Baptist preacher’s voice: Go now and be involved in the world. I think of my grandfather’s vocation as an auctioneer, half-shouting, half-singing tobacco prices over piles of golden leaves, voice like a jaw harp.


My grandmother said things like, “over yonder,” “rightchere,” (right here), “likeyat,” (like that), and “haint” (spook). Any non-sleeping dog had a “wild hare up its ass,” and if Grandma was angry, she was “some kinda burnt up.” She was prone to redundant modal verbs (“I done told you before”) and a big fan of the circumfix “a-in”–such as an owl “ahootin’ and ahollerin’.” Similar to Barry Hannah and Singleton’s backwoods characters (consider Hannah’s use of “sumbitch” or “You’re all wore out from being nice,” in Yonder Stands Your Orphan), my grandmother would speak the same way in front of her family as she would royalty–period.


Until high school, my own accent was deeply committal–full of y’alls and drawn out “cutes.” In college it migrated to some sort of sorority girl-approved neutrality zone. Now, when I drink, get mad, or talk to old people, my relatives, or the Bubba who used to live across the street, I might use my accent or let a sympathetic drawl slip. I’m aware of the fact that my accent can put someone at ease or, alternatively, cause someone to assume my allegiance to the Southern woman stereotype.


I think we judge people and characters by the way they speak. Any character with an in-your-face, spelled-out accent in 2010 is going to come under scrutiny for that same reason (aka: Why does this otherwise reasonable school teacher talk like Barney Fife? Why do I need to pay such extreme attention to his accent? Is he of low IQ? Love child of Jesse Helms?); the author has to make sure a reader’s scrutiny pays off. Otherwise the dropped g’s and apostrophe-after-n’s are a heavy-handed move, or worse, the hallmarks of a Southern caricature. If a writer has done the work with setting, character development, and word choice, the reader should “hear” the speech just fine.


This is Megan’s fourth post for Get Behind the Plough.

We are always looking for great work. Have you considered submitting to Ploughshares?

About Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman lives on a small farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont with her daughter and veterinarian husband. Scribner will publish her first book, a short story collection titled Birds of a Lesser Paradise, in Spring 2012. Her work has been published in the 2010 New Stories from the South anthology, Ploughshares, Narrative, One Story, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, Shenandoah and elsewhere.
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15 Responses to Trying to Write the Southern Accent

  1. Alcuin says:

    Brilliant – the chasm between excruciatingly writing out a character’s speech phonetically, and simply respecting him with the same accurate orthography that everyone else in a story merits, while respecting word choice and order, never struck me before. One approach suits the lazy hack writer; the other allows a character to be a real person whose language expresses, and doesn’t mask, her identity.
    Thank you!

  2. Lisa says:

    Thanks, Megan!
    You’ve helped me beyond words!
    I’m working hard to write and get published…a life dream.
    My father and family are country North Carolinians and I have the twang inbreed. Everyone in my writing workshop loves my stories but the critiques are difficult because I write just like I speak but to any onlooker, there’s the worry that it doesn’t carry authenticity…hence, questioning the need for the accent.
    All my characters are Southern, as I write what I know.
    I’m also having difficulty with one young character in my novel-in-the-works as he has a significant stutter. As the story goes on his labored speech is not as pronounced, and in adulthood, he loses it completely unless angry or stressed.
    I’m trying my hardest to get it all right…and tell the story deserving of the colorful characters that have influenced my life.
    What a blessing to have stumbled upon your post!

  3. Anonymous says:

    One of the funniest and best touches with Southern speech is Florence King, of Southern Ladies and Gentlemen and Wasp, Where is thy Sting?.

  4. Lisa P. says:

    In her novel, “The Help”, Kathryn Stockett (a white woman) has been criticized for assuming to understand the life and language of black Southern women. But I was more bothered by the fact that I didn’t hear Southern *white* women in the story the way I imagined them to speak. Was I expecting to hear those dropped g’s, and disappointed because they weren’t there, or does Stockett fall short in this story with regard to Southern word choice…?
    Nonetheless, I did like the novel very much. :)

  5. Nate says:

    Brilliant post! I’m a Gen Z recent grad from Georgia, and I can completely identify. Thank you for posting.
    One sad issue in the dynamics of Southern dialects is how I hear various accents (Appalachian, Plantation, Piedmont, etc) getting mashed together through Nashville country music, Hollywood movies, and non-native, ill-advised writers to create an awful amalgamation of an accent that I call ‘Redneck accent.’ This new, surburban, amalgamated accent seems purposefully ignorant (in outlook and in history) and more of a stake in the culture wars than a stake in true regional history. Think rich white kid in a pick up truck in Atlanta as opposed to the lilting Scarlett O’Hara. I wish that Southerners would be quicker to recognize this so that our linguistic heritage would not be so easily stereotyped and exploited, so that we would be freer to use unique expressions of our dialect without fear of being pigeon-holed.

  6. Reuben Hood says:

    For several years in the 1970s, while sitting around our English Departmental offices at the University of Maryland, a teaching colleague and I played a running game of “Who’s more Southern?” (He grew up in affluent Nashville and I hailed from Tidewater, Virginia.)
    I declared him the all-time hands-down winner of our competition one day when he told about going home to the family farm outside Nashville for Thanksgiving dinner with the elderly aunts and uncles. After devouring a sumptuous turkey feast with all the trimmings, everyone retired to the porch to watch dusk approach. (It was a warm Thanksgiving Day.) My friend was touched when the old folks, unprovoked, commenced to singing — mostly religious selections, but a few folk songs and 1930s pop songs mixed in for good measure. After one particularly poignant selection, a long silence floated out across the porch in the dimming daylight. Conversation ceased for a few minutes until my friend’s Aunt Tilda, as if coming out of a daydream, piped up and said, “I ain’t been able to sing a lick since I had my ovaries tuck out …”

  7. A great deal of what has been said here applies to the writing of Scots accents. This is an area where people have a tendendency to lard the speech with wee’s and ye’s and och’s. The reality of accents in Scotland is of course far more complicated and the only way you can hope to capture it is by the choice of words and the word order.
    I had the pleasure of meeting some long lost Texan cousins of my husband’s – they were academics from Austin, but their speech was very distinctive and to my mind absolutely riveting. The pace is of course different, which is different to get across in written form, and quite seductive, almost, but what impressed me was the very considered and elegant use of language, as if language is something to be relished and celebrated. One example was “She has a whole wardrobe full of children,” which I cherish to this day. It was more like poetry than ordinary speech. Presumably this is what is feeding the southern literary tradition. But I agree that it is difficult to capture.
    I recently tried to re-read ‘Gone with the Wind’ and failed because I could not deal with the elaborate attempts to convey the different forms of accent. It really made the whole thing seem false.

  8. I love the conversation here; thanks, everyone, for your engaging and witty comments.
    Reuben – love Tilda’s comment. It’s beautiful and exactly right! Perfect Southernese.

  9. Karen says:

    Beautiful! I especially like this point: “Sound is important, but if an author makes it too important, the concern tends to mock the character.”

  10. Natalie says:

    I was completely fascinated by this whole post. I loved it!
    Just my two cents…
    My Dad’s side of the family is all from Northeastern Tennessee, and I can remember going to college and trying to write him an email about something my Granny would say. It dawned on me that I had never noticed that “y’uns” is not a word, and I couldn’t even begin to spell it. The whole side of the family says “y’uns” instead of “y’all” (as in, “What are y’uns doing in there?”) and it had never dawned on me that there was anything strange about it until I hadn’t heard it for a few months!
    My Dad was born and raised in Ohio, but the child of two Tennesseans, he still says things like y’uns, and has a noticeable accent. He got a big laugh when I marveled at how I never noticed it wasn’t a real word.

  11. Verna Wilder says:

    I run into this same problem when I write about a bunch of characters in rural Indiana, and I notice that when I really pay attention to a character and just write – I don’t have to drop a g or force understanding on the reader. I like how you put it, “Writing Southernese is as much about the arrangement of words and word choice as it is the sound.” My brother, who works in a large plant in rural Indiana, once told me the story of how he learned what a “witcha ditcha” is: One of his co-workers commented on my brother’s personal toolbox: “Brung your tools withca, didja?” We heard this story as we sat around a firepit on my father’s property, enjoying the old-time oral tradition of telling family stories. Sometimes I think I will publish my stories by podcast and completely skip the print version.
    Thanks for an interesting, entertaining, and educational piece. It made me laugh, and that’s even better.

  12. James Smith says:

    I have lived in Indiana. Ohio, Virginia, and Alabama before I graduated high school. That exposed me to different regional accents at an early age. I agree that writing accents is difficult for the writer and tedious for the reader. It is better to do it lightly ant the start then cover it with something like, “Yes, he really did talk that way, but it’s too much trouble to type.” Then reinforce it occasionally by word choice.
    If you’re writing a screenplay, the rules are changed, of course. You have to use word choice in all dialog and hope the actor can do the accent. Brad Pitt did it well in “Inglorious Basterds” but not all actors can do it and voice coaches may not help.

  13. Alicia says:

    Megan,

    Great post, you will be happy to know that it is part of my daughter’s bibliography in her paper on southern writers, so you have been included with the likes of Faulkner and O’Conner. We are former Oakwood residents too, implants from WDC, kids are graduates of Broughton and at good NC schools for college, Tarheels and Wolfpack divide my boys and Duke is never to be mentioned. Biscuit Station is closed, so you have to go to Bojangles for a biscuit now. Most of our old lady friends in Oakwood have died or moved to old folks homes, a lot of the gay couples have been replaced by desperate housewives, and we moved further up the road. For the longest time we were one of the few black families in Oakwood, we lived right next to the Oakwood Inn, it was lonely among northeners, but the true southerners loved us and we miss them and the stories on their porches. Good luck to you – you have agreat writing style.

  14. Alicia – I happened to stumble upon your comment today and was thrilled not only to be a part of your daughter’s essay, but to hear an update about the neighborhood. Bummer about the Biscuit Station!! Thank you for all of your kind words – much, much appreciated. Warmly, Megan

  15. victoria king says:

    Thank you! Your post helped me a lot with writing my book. I’ll finally finish chapter ten in my story! :)

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