I have long been a fan of Mark Twain. One of the characteristics of his writing is the use of “eye dialect” – spellings and punctuation intended to phoneticize the speech of his characters. Many years ago I noticed a curious thing about Twain’s eye dialect – that is, he rendered few or no speech differences between Northern and Southern characters. His Northerners all sounded a bit Southern by modern standards, and his Southerners didn’t sound very Southern.
The most obvious possible reason for this could have been that Twain, born and raised in Missouri before the Civil War, projected his own border-state dialect on all his characters. Against this theory I could set the observation that Twain was otherwise a meticulously careful writer with an excellent ear for language, making that an unlikely sort of mistake for him. My verdict was: insufficient data. And I didn’t think the question would ever be resolvable, Twain having died when sound recording was in its infancy.
Then I stumbled over some fascinating recordings of Civil War veterans on YouTube. There’s Confederate “General” Julius Howell Recalls the 1860s from 1947. And 1928-1934: Recollections of the US Civil War. And here’s what jumped out at me…
…those veterans, Northern and Southern, both spoke as if they might be pronouncing Twain’s relatively uniform eye-dialect! Some Northern-Southern split was present, certainly, but it was very subtle compared to the regional differences one would expect today – I can spot it myself, but I think many moderns would find it imperceptible.
Mark Twain’s ear is vindicated. Fascinating…and this came together with a video I’d watched a couple of years ago on the survival of Appalachian English. It may have been this one. I remember thinking then that the eye dialect I’d read in old novels (not particularly Twain’s, though including his) suggested that speech features we would now mark “Appalachian” – or, somewhat disparagingly, “hillbilly talk” – used to be widely distributed not just in the rural South but in the rural North as well.
The second thing I noticed about the recorded speech of Civil War vets, after the absence of really pronounced North-South differences, is that it seemed to me to retain more phonetic features we would now think of as Appalachian than either modern Northern or Southern dialects do. I couldn’t quite pin it down, because I’m only an amateur phonologist, not a really trained one – but there was something about the vowels…
The third thing I noticed was pretty funny. I’m listening to these Civil war vets talk and something tickles my awareness. I think “I’ve heard their accent before. Where have I heard their accent before?” It took me a few minutes, but I finally twigged: it’s the “old-timer” accent from movie Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s! Not the more modern Northern and Southern accents of the audience-identification characters, but the speech of the grizzled old prospectors and mule-skinners and other bit characters supposed to be from a previous generation.
That is, Hollywood actors of that time portraying men who would have been in their fifties through seventies during the cinematic “Old West” era (1865-1895 or so), gave them the speech pattern I was recognizing in Civil War veterans who survived long enough for the actors to use them as models of pre-Civil-War dialect. It’s a nicety that probably would not have been lost on the movies’ first-run audiences.
More and more interesting. Now, if you look up the history of the Southern accent you’ll find that dialectologists know quite well that the Southern accent we know today is a post-Civil-War development. Wikipedia: “Older Southern American English was a set of American English dialects of the Southern United States, primarily spoken by White Southerners up until the American Civil War, moving towards a state of decline by the turn of the nineteenth century, further accelerated after World War II and again, finally, by the Civil Rights Movement. These dialects have since largely given way, on a larger regional level, to a more unified and younger Southern American English, notably recognized today by a unique vowel shift and certain other vocabulary and accent characteristics.”
What doesn’t seem to have made the standard account is that the differences between Old Southern and Old Northern used to be quite a bit less obvious – in fact I think there might be room for doubt that those actually constituted high-level groupings at all before the Civil War. It might be there were just a lot of smaller local dialect clades, mostly much less divergent from the border-state accent of Mark Twain (or, for a more modern example, Johnny Cash) than corresponding regional accents are today.
That’s certainly what the sound recordings are telling me. It’s what I thought I originally saw in Twain’s eye dialect. And in the broad sweep of history it wouldn’t be surprising. Linguistic uniformity over large areas has normally only happened as a result of recent invasion and conquest; settled humans rapidly develop geographically fine-grained and increasingly sharp dialect differences.
Or did, anyway, until cheap travel and modern mass communications. Those exert a counter-tendency for dialect distinctions to flatten. I briefly lived in Great Britain in the late 1960s; I can certify that a typical modern speaker of British English such as The Mighty Jingles sounds a great deal more “American” than his counterpart would have in 1968-1969. Listening to British comedy makes it clear that even today’s Brits consider the 1969 version of British Received Pronunciation stuffy and old-fashioned. There is no doubt in my mind that TV and movies did that.
The New Southern accent seems to have developed in two phases. First, early, post-Civil-War local differentiation from the border-state-like old-timer dialect they had formerly shared with much of the North, up to about World War One. Then, a convergence phase (well documented by linguists) in which speech became less regionally differentiated across the South as a whole. Again, you can get a chronological read on the second process by listening to movies from different decades set in the American South and comparing those to the live speech of Southerners today.
Americans, if they think about such things at all, tend to assume that rural Southern speech is archaic because the South still has an image as a backward-looking part of the country. But these videos I’ve been watching seem like evidence that New Southern has diverged more from “old-timer” pre-Civil-War American English than Northern speech has. Wikipedia hints at this when it speaks of a “unique vowel shift” in New Southern. They’re implying that New Southern isn’t archaic at all, it’s actually innovative relative to Northern dialects.
I have to think that this reflects some sort of reaction to the disaster of Reconstruction, Southerners grasping at a common linguistic identity that would differentiate them from bluebellies, carpetbaggers and scalawags. (For my readers outside the U.S., it is a fact that residual Southern bitterness about the postwar Reconstruction period of military government tends to eclipse resentments about the Civil War itself.)
What probably happened is that Southerners adopted the most archaic and divergent features of the dialects in their region and generalized them in an innovative way. One of the pioneering studies in sociolinguistics documents a similar process on the island of Nantucket as year-round residents sought to differentiate themselves from a rising tide of tourists and summerbirds. Nantucket permanent residents today sound more like crusty Down-Easter fishermen than they used to.
Now here’s where it gets even more interesting. I’m pretty sure I know how the New Southern dialect features got propagated and uniformized: through country music! The documented emergence of New Southern from the early 1900s seems to track the rising commercialization of country & Western music exactly. Badge of regional identity, check. Plausible widely-disseminated speech models, check. I think we have a winner!
I don’t know if the sociolinguists have figured this out yet. I have not seen any evidence that they have.
All of this turns many of the assumptions most Americans would casually make about our dialect history on their heads. And it means that Twain, had he not died in 1910, would have found New Southern as it evolved increasingly alien from the speech of his childhood in 1840s Missouri. But Twain didn’t live to see the country-music drawl and twang take over the South. Just lucky, I guess.
UPDATE: I found the closest thing that exists to a recording of Twain speaking. It was an imitation of Twain done by a gifted mimic who had been an intimate friend of Twain. It has the tempo and something like the cadence of modern Southern, but the vowel shifts we now associate with Southern are absent or at best only very weakly expressed. I think that supports my other observations.