Genealogical Value of the Southern Twang
by Nathan W. Murphy, MA, AG®
Everyone’s heard it, y’awl, awl-rite, but did you know the Southern twang can help you discover your ancestral origins? The Southern accent, which some people love and some people hate, derived from dialects spoken in different regions of the British Isles. Early colonists transported it with them across the Atlantic and even though it has largely disappeared in the Mother Country, the accent survived in its rebellious child. Social historians utilize clues like this to learn more about peoples for whom few written records survive and knowledge of linguistic origins narrows the British regions for genealogists to search for immigrant origins.
Tracing the British roots of Southern colonial ancestors has always posed research obstacles for genealogists. Wars, fires, harsh living conditions, illiteracy, and natural disasters have ruined much of the South’s written legacy. In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer explains that alternative techniques can be implemented to learn more about the origins of Southern colonists. He explores similar architecture, eating habits, vocabulary, accents, and marital rituals between American colonists and regionally separated groups in the British Isles. Synthesizing studies by many authors, he demonstrates that many of these distinguishing customs come from specific areas in the British Isles. Fischer categorizes two of the major groups who settled in the South as the “Borderers” and those who came from the South of England.
The “Borderers” came from Northern England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The “Borderer” or “Scotch-Irish” immigrants clustered together in frontier American settlements. In the backcountry it was common to hear phrases such as “whar for where, thar for there, hard for hired, critter for creature, sartin for certain … he-it for hit, far for fire … nekkid for naked … wrassle for wrestle … winder for window … and young-uns for young ones.” In Southern Scotland and Northern England, Britons use the same pronunciation. Fischer points out that country musicians, Western actors, and presidents (like Bill Clinton) have broadcast this dialect throughout the world. (Albion’s Seed, 652-655.)
Many people from Southern England settled in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and the West Indies. Historians estimate that the majority of Southern Colonists who had British roots fit into this group. Fischer states that people in Southern England became ashamed of their accent as the modern-British English dialect gained prestige. The embarrassment caused eventual linguistic death. Fischer identifies, “vahmint for vermin, mo’ for more, flo’ for floor, do’ for door … dis for this, dat for that, dare for there, ax for ask … foller for follow, yaller for yellow … [and] redundancies … as in you all or y’awl for you” as Southern English dialects brought to the US South. (Albion’s Seed, 256-264.) This transported dialect mushroomed in America and continues today.
Genealogists as well as historians are tenaciously persistent. No matter how difficult the obstacles they confront, they continue forward, devising ever more elaborate methods to solve what seem to be insurmountable research problems. Dialectical origins help narrow the British regions genealogists must search to connect with the Old Country.
Read more about it
- Fischer, David Hackett, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Originally published by GenWeekly. Republished by permission.