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BASIC RULES OF A SOUTHERN ACCENT



This tutorial will cover the basics of a Southern American accent of English. It’s undoubtedly one of the most requested, and therefore most valuable, accents American actors can have in their repertoire. This beginner’s guide is meant to serve as a simple jumping off point in your exploration of the accent. But before we begin, let's first explore the history of the accent.



HISTORY

First, let’s define exactly what we mean by “Southern”. Generally, boundaries of the Southern U.S. include Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. To a lesser extent, speakers with a Southern accent can be found in Florida, West Virginia, Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. 


Historically, many distinct Southern dialects existed in the U.S., which were widely affected by British, Irish, and Scottish immigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as enslaved African-Americans. It should be noted, many Black Americans speak with a version of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), which shares many common features with a Southern accent. Over time, the Southern accent naturally consolidated into a more cohesive sound, though there are still a wide variety of region specific dialects, such as Appalachian English and Cajun English. 


The amount of people who naturally speak with a Southern accent is steadily declining in modern times, however it remains an important accent for performers due to the large number of roles requiring some version of it. It’s also important to acknowledge the difference between a classic “Old South” version of the dialect, which is easily identifiable due to its lack of rhoticity, or pronunciation of final R sounds. 


Regardless of region, there are many distinct sounds that are pervasive throughout the South. Those common sounds will be the focus of this tutorial. As an actor, you can easily use the accent outlined in this guide for general auditioning purposes; but as with any accent, once you learn more about your character’s background, it’s generally a good idea to further investigate the specific sound shifts of their home region.


As we explore the unique sound shifts of a Southern Accent, remember that we are comparing these sounds to the Standard American Accent. If you have a different natural accent, further comparison of these sounds to your natural accent may be required.


VOWELS SHIFTS 

1) [ɛ] as in THEM shifts to [ɪ] as in KIT when preceding the nasal consonants <M> or <N> in spelling.

It ended when twenty of them were sent home.

Tip: This linguistic feature is called the “pin-pen” merger, as in this accent the two words are pronounced the same.


2) [ɪ] as in KIT may have a noticeable drawl, stretching the vowel towards /EE.uh/ [iə̆].

I saw six images of the big ship.

Tip: The vowel may feel slower and like it’s gliding to a weaker position, try it out in slow motion, gradually speeding up: /EE.uh/


3) [æ] as in TRAP may also drawl, almost towards /AA.yuh/ [æɪ̆ə̆].

The fat cat had a bath and danced.

Tip: As with the previous rule, this vowel may feel like a slower glide.


4) The stressed sound [ʌ] as in STRUT may rise towards a stretched [ʊː] as in FOOT.

My brother stumbled into a clump of shrubs above us.

Tip: Careful not to overdo this sound shift, as it can sound a little stereotypical.


5) The two-part vowel [aɪ̆] as in PRICE may lose the offglide, resulting in /ah/ [a].

My fine key lime pie was dry.

Tip: On its own, this vowel may sound like a breathy sigh.


6) The two-part vowel [ɔɪ̆] as in CHOICE may have a more neutral offglide, resulting in /OH.uh/ [ɔə̆].

Any noise annoys a noisy oyster.



CONSONANT SHIFTS

1) All <R> sounds that come after a vowel may feel slightly darker or more pronounced.

George steered his car further than ever before.

Tip: Think about pulling your tongue back slightly on <R> sounds, creating a sort of “darker” feeling in the mouth.


2) If an <L> sound is followed by silence or a consonant sound, it may be pronounced more like a <W>.

The little hill’s old bell sure is swell.

Tip: If the <L> sound is followed in the word or phrase by a vowel sound, it should be pronounced normally.


3) Multi-syllable words ending in <ING> may drop the <G>.

Today I’m camping, fishing, hiking, and eating.



MUSICALITY

As with every accent, the variety of music you hear among speakers will be incredibly varied person-to-person. However, there are perhaps a few generalizations we might make about the Southern speaker.


Overall, Southerners may speak slightly slower than the average American, which can add to the negative stereotype that they are less intelligent. This is of course not true, rather they simply favor lingering in vowels as a means of emphasis. A common adage to keep in mind is that “Southerners may talk a little slower, but they’re thinking just as quickly.”


More-so than many other American accents, there is perhaps a greater difference in pitch play between the sexes than normal. Female speakers are much more likely to feature a higher pitch, especially towards the end of sentences, which can make everything feel like a question. Take the phrase “Bless your heart!” This simple three syllable phrase can experience a dramatic rising inflection towards the end.


Southern men, on the other hand, historically associate a deep register with their masculinity, and may feature much less articulation. This often results in an almost mumbled manner of speaking.


Again, these are sweeping generalizations that should be carefully considered and thrown out when appropriate for the character–but sometimes starting from a place of caricature can provide a nice jumping off point.



UNIQUE WORD PRONUNCIATIONS

As with every accent, Southerners have many unique word pronunciations, which don’t necessarily fit into any sort of logical set of “rules”. While it would be impossible to capture all of the unique pronunciations here, here are some of my personal favorites:

-can’t: /KAYNT/

-thing: /THAYNG/

-you all (y’all): /YAHW/

-guitar: /GEE.tar/

-tomato: /tuh.MAY.duh/


Again, these are just a few unique pronunciations. I always encourage my actors to keep a running list of new ones that you may hear when listening to resources. And of course this doesn’t even account for unique vocabulary or slang that accompanies different dialects of English. Be sure to always do your research when encountering unusual vocabulary in your scripts.



CONCLUSION

The sounds of the American South can hardly be considered uniform, but there are certainly consistent sound changes that are heard in a vast majority of accented Southern speakers. Practice the sound shifts outlined in this starter guide to familiarize yourself with the basics, and when exploring a specific character be sure to further research the local sounds.


Explore the provided links below to hear the accent demonstrated by real world speakers.


EXAMPLE SPEAKERS:

Note, Scott Alan Moffitt, The Actor's Dialect Coach claims no ownership of the material in the following links--they are provided for educational purposes only. Certain links may contain language or content not suitable for children.


Elliot, Sam - SAG Interview - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_8yc5OB6mg

McConaughey, Matthew (secondary)  - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpZ4kY3AJWU

“The Real Texas Accent” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3AuqeI51mY


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