Downtown Dialects

The lady in the painting is my great-great-great grandmother, Caroline Poincignon Trouche, who was born in 1810, and I would love to have heard her and other Charlestonians from that era speak. As a child I had conversations with a great aunt who was born about the time Caroline died, so I can say with some authority as to what Charlestonians like her sounded like long ago, and it was not like those phony Southern stereotypes in movies or on TV, or in the case of a New Jersey-born tour guide in Savannah, who puts on a fake accent that’s a cross between Gone With The Wind and the Beverley Hillbillies. My great aunt did not “drawl”, nor did Caroline, but spoke much the same as I do now, and anyone living in Charleston today who drawls obviously learned that way of speech from somewhere outside the old city. And by drawl I mean pronunciations like “pay-ohnds” for “pounds”….which you can hear as much in Indiana as anywhere else. The British influence on Charleston speech was very much the standard in what was a well-educated society like Caroline’s French immigrant parents, and this explains what many visitors think is a Canadian accent when we say “house” almost like “hoose” and soften consonant endings in words like “car” very much as English people do today, and many of us still add a “y” sound to certain words such as “cyar” for an automobile and “gyarden” for the place you grow flowers.
Beginning in the 1730’s there were large numbers of Scots and Irish moving to Charleston for more than a century, adding a brogue sound to the mix that is very similar to what I heard in Northern Ireland. They gave some words a double-syllable sound , as well as compressing the vowels in others. Thus “gate” sounded like “gehyet”, “boat” like “bowat” and “door” like “dowah”, while compressing “line” to sound like “loyn”, “fish” like “fush” and “to” like “toe”. What these combinations did would eventually lead to exclusively pronunciations – “Cooper” is pronounced like “look” or “cook”, “Gourdin” is pronounced “goodine”, “Gaillard” is “gilyard”, and “Horry” is “ORE-ee”. And of course “y’all” became the standard for any group of others and shows how badly Charleston speech traditions have been eroded by recent transplants who have largely replaced it with the awful “you guys” that sometimes sounds like “you gice”. Women are not “guys” and “y’all” or “you all” is much more correct and pleasant sounding. <img.src=”Charleston Culture” alt=”Local Accents”


SYMBOLIC SEALS – Our state and city seals are overloaded with Latin and Greek terms and symbols that were so popular in the late 1700’s when they were created. The state seal has the motto “Dum Spiro Spero”, meaning “while I breathe, I hope” and “Animis Opibusque Parati”, “prepared in mind and resources”. The original version featured the Roman goddess of Hope, Spes, holding a scepter of authority topped by the Phrygian cap symbolizing the French revolution and fight for liberty, while holding a laurel wreath symbolic of triumph. Beside her is a Revolutionary soldier, and above them Epheme, Greek goddess of proclamation. A later version has Spes holding a flower, symbolic of the birth of a nation, with a new dawn rising. Instead of the soldier, there is the palmetto tree standing on oak logs, symbolic of the victory on Sullivan’s Island over the British fleet when palmetto logs proved to be the difference, and the dates March 26th, the day we declared independence from England, and July 4th, the birth of our nation. The Latin “Quis Separabit” means “who separates” and “Meliorem Lapsa Locavit” means “better let free”. The state seal we have today incorporates both versions. The Charleston seal, according to the city website, features “a female figure” overlooking the town, to which I say, come on city, grab a mitt and get in the game! If mythical figures were used in the state seal, certainly the same would apply to the city. I strongly believe the woman is Athena, Greek goddess and protector of wisdom, culture, architecture, civilization, and law, and who is depicted historically holding an authoritative scepter as she does in the seal, with the Latin “Aedes Mores Juraque Curat”, meaning “she guards buildings, customs and laws”. The first city seal showed “Corpus Politicum”, meaning “body politic”, and there were several versions of the city seal over the years, evolving in what we have today with the Latin term “Civitatis Regimine Donata”, meaning “given to the rule of the citizens”, and “Carolopolis”, a combination of the Latin “Carolus”, meaning Charles and the Greek “Polis”, meaning town, above Condita A.D. 1670, which is “established year of our Lord 1670”, as well as the symbols of the lamp, books, quill and parchment, indicating culture and civilization, as well as the palm fronds, and ancient symbol of triumph, peace, and eternal life. Great irony, considering all the symbols of freedom, is that when we declared independence from England and were initially a sovereign state, all power was briefly given to John Rutledge, who was nicknamed “dictator” of South Carolina. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Government Seals”


One of the great treats that those taking my walking tour get to enjoy, is a visit to the historic High Battery overlooking scenic Charleston Harbor. This is certainly the most photographed location in the city, with a breathtaking view in every location, whether it’s the harbor and Fort Sumter, or the grand houses known as Battery Row. There is a curios look to the old Ravenel House that many visitors ask about, wondering why it protrudes at the bottom. The answer is that the 1840’s mansion was built with an enormous two-story portico of Corinthian columns, all of which came crashing down in the earthquake that struck Charleston in 1886, and has never been replaced. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Ravenel House”


Touring historic Charleston offers a wide variety of impressive architectural sights, as the city is blessed with some of the grandest buildings in America. One of the most noticeable was the longest in construction – the U.S. Custom House on East Bay Street. The building was begun in 1852 in a location that had once been a wharf slip and was mostly landfill. Seven hundred pilings were driven by steam power into the marl to support the mammoth structure of granite, marble brick and masonry. Designed by New Hampshire native Ammi Young, the design was in the popular Greek Revival style of the period, and was meant to look somewhat similar to the Acropolis with Corinthian columned porticoes intended for all four sides. Work was halted with he coming of Secession and Civil War, and it wasn’t until the 1870’s that Congress was willing to devote money to its completion, and the design was scaled back with only from and back porticoes. The Construction was finally completed in 1879. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Custom House”


Those who visit scenic Charleston and enjoy activities such as my Charleston Footprints Walking Tour are typically taken by our pronunciation of certain historic names. One such is a location we pass on the tour each day, Vanderhorst Row. The 1800 Federal style tenement is striking in itself, but most are more curious as to why we say “vandross” rather than making it 3 syllables. In fact, that is the true Dutch pronunciation of the name, and the person who had it built and for which is named played a major role in city and state history, so we want it to be correct. Arnoldus Vanderhorst was born near the city in 1748, and became a successful planter and politician, adding to the voices for liberty during the Revolution, and serving in the American forces. After the war, he dedicated himself to civic deeds, twice becoming city mayor as well as Governor of the state in 1794. He was essential in reforming the court systems, that were made into the districts we have today as well as emphasizing education, and it was during his tenure as mayor that the College of Charleston was chartered, and is the oldest municipal college in America today. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Vanderhorst Row”


People who join my walking tours of Charleston are typically very surprised and interested to hear aspects of our unique history that they were not aware of. One such anecdote goes back to before World War II, and the planning of an aerodrome for international seaplane connections. In 1937, it was less than 10 years since Charles Lindbergh and flown across the Atlantic, and long-range travel in the air was not feasible. But seaplanes that could land on water offered a possibility, and that same year the city of Charleston entered a tentative agreement with a very surprising client. The German Air Command, then under the direction of Herman Goering and Adolf Hitler, proposed to finance a sea plane aerodrome in Charleston on the Ashley River next to the old West Point Rice Mill. This was during the depression, so Charleston needed the money, and it was before Hitler invaded other countries, and few in America understood how evil he was at that time. But Hitler couldn’t control himself and invaded Czechoslovakia in 1937, and with war looming, the plans were scrapped. <img.src=”Charleston Curiosities” alt=”Wes Point Mill”


Very few of those who join my Charleston Footprints walking tours are aware of the signifiant bombardment Charleston experienced during the Civil War. Federal troops besieging the city fired explosive shells into Charleston for nearly two years, one cannon alone firing 6600 shells in a two-month period. Much of the older historic areas were abandoned, as families under attacks moved to safer distances, but many scenic buildings took hits. At the time, the most prominent building in the city was old St. Michael’s Church, whose 186-foot steeple provided Union gunners with an inviting target. So to make it harder to hit and see, the city defenders painted the white steeple a slate gray to make it blend in with the clouds and sky. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”St. Michael’s Church”


Many visitors to Charleston who join my Charleston Footprints walking tour ask about the iron horse head figures protruding from many sidewalks in the historic city. These are tethering posts from the horse and buggy era, to which drivers would tie horses while attending to other business. Electric trolleys came in the 1890’s, and automobiles by the early 20th century, but for most of Charleston’s past, the street traffic was horse-drawn. There were no traffic signals or stop signs until the 1920’s, and before that it was generally understood that at certain intersections, North-South bound horses and wagons had right of way over East-West. There are still horse-drawn wagons taking tourists on rides through scenic Charleston today, but a small reminder of the hoof traffic that once existed. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”Tethering Posts”


I tell visitors to Charleston who join my walking tours that many of the historic buildings they see in their travels around the city once had much different uses, and many for which they were not intended originally. Along scenic Ashley Avenue is a pre-Civil War chapel. The building was actually built in the 1820’s as a munitions storage shed for the United States Arsenal, which was located on this spot. After the Civil War, local clergyman Anthony Toomer Porter convinced Federal authorities to give him the property for use as a school for young men, which became Porter Military Academy. Porter changed the shed into St. Luke’s Chapel, which in recent times has been renamed St. Timothy’s Chapel, but no sign of ammunition inside these days. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”St. Lukes Chapel”


One of the grandest of the many picturesque houses in scenic, historic Charleston is the South Battery structure known as the Villa Margherita. It was built in the 1890’s by Charleston banker Andrew Simonds, who made a fortune after the Civil War in finance and the timber industry. The Victorian-style Villa was a wedding present for Andrew’s bride, who lived through several husbands so that by the time she died, she had acquired an incredible name – Margaret Rose Anthony Julia Josephine Catherine Cornelia Breaux Simonds Gummere Calhoun. She was known as “Daisy”, and after Andrew died, she turned the house into a hotel called the Villa Margherita, the latter name meaning “Daisy” in Italian. The house today is a private residence.