Charleston Dialects

I often have guests from other parts of the country who are surprised that I don’t speak like Forrest Gump, and tell me, “Southerners speak with a drawl”. To that I respond that the South is comprised of 11 states covering more than 1 million square miles, and that people from west Texas, for example, have no more common lingual traits with Charlestonians than they do with folks from Wisconsin. As for the drawl, that kind of speaking is more common to southern Indiana than Charleston, so it really isn’t so much Southern as it is country (take Larry Bird for instance). And by the way, Tom Hanks’ accent in Forrest Gump was a far-fetched rendition – Hanks is a Californian who obviously hasn’t been around many Southerners. I’ve also thought it interesting that people talk about Southern accents as unusual, but not “Northern accents”. To my ear, there are very pronounced accents from other regions as well.
Charlestonians do not drawl, but we do have distinguishable dialects that set us apart. We have a very diverse mix of language backgrounds with various European and African influences, and many areas that were so isolated for so long that certain dialects became even more unique. To my ear, there are three basic dialects that are spoken by old Charleston families. There is the “Tidewater accent” of those like me whose English was spoken among the more aristocratic families (not mine, we were a family of French artists and teachers who learned to speak this way from associating with the “blue bloods” when we emigrated here). This dialect sounds to many people like the English spoken in Canada, with pronounced emphasis on words such as “house” and “about”, and earlier generations still added a “y” sound to certain words such as “cyar” for an automobile and “gyarden” for the place you grow flowers.
Another common dialect was a brogue that came from the large Scottish, Irish and north country English who settled here. Their way of speaking sounds very much like what you might here in Donegal or Edinborough, as they give many words a double-syllable or compress the vowel sounds. The word “gate” sounds more like “gehyet”, “boat” like “bowat” and “door” like “dowah”. Vowels are compressed as “line” sounds like “loyn”, “fish” like “fush” and “to” like “toe”.
The most unusual Charleston-area dialect is Gullah, a name that has a questionable origin but most likely comes from the Gola tribe of West Africa. Large numbers of West Africans were brought to coastal islands as slaves, where they learned English by mimicking overseers. Over the years in these remote places with little English-speaking influence, Gullah transformed into what many consider a language of its own.
It is distinguished by metaphorical phrases such as “ee foot in ee han’”, meaning “his foot is in his hand” referring to the image of a rabbit running so fast that his back foot seems to rest in his front paw. This term simply means “he’s fast”. Gullah words include African terms such as “yam” and “gumbo”, but most of it is a pigeon-English as words were corrupted by sound, and terms such as “you are” became “onna”, “there” became “de-dey”, “yent” became “are not” and certain “th” and “r” sounds were dropped altogether.
Perhaps the best way to explain how Gullah sounds is the great story told by the late Dick Reeves, who made his life’s work the preservation of Gullah. He told the tale of a man from up North who came South looking for a place to hunt deer and came across a Gullah-speaking man, and asked him if deer were in the vicinity to hunt. The Gullah-speaker shook his head knowing well how deer were never around when you wanted them to be, and only showed when you didn’t want them, so he replied by saying, “No suh, wen onna de-dey, de deh de no deh deh, but onna yent deh, de deh, den dey deh.”
Simply translated, this means, “no sir, when you’re there, the deer are not there, but when you’re not there, the deer, then they’re there.”

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