South Carolina is Home to Several Charming Southern Accents

Sep 27, 2019

In South Carolina, one would naturally expect to hear what could be called a classic Southern accent spoken by its residents.  But not every South Carolinian sounds the same, according to linguist Paul Reed, who earned his PhD in the study at the University of South Carolina. 

Reed identifies roughly four main areas in the state where the Southern dialect differs:  Charleston and its surroundings; the Pee Dee, the Midlands and a good portion of the Upstate, "which you might want to call 'Classically Southern'...and then you've got the upper part of the Upstate...so it's almost like Appalachia and Appalachian English."  Other than region, factors that affect the accent (which is no different than a dialect, Reed said) are the age, race and sex of the speaker, and how strongly he or she identifies with the area. 

A common sound spoken by many Southerners is called the monophongization of the dipthong "I," said Reed, "and that's where 'eye'  becomes like 'ah.'"  Strangely enough, that sound is rarely heard in Charleston. 

What is heard there, according to USC linguist Stan Dubinsky, is r-dropping, or "r-lessness."  "So when you pronounce the name of the city, people from there call it 'Chall-ston,' not 'Charl-ston.'"  He added that dropping the "r" can have different connotations in different places.

"Dropping the 'r' if you're from Charleston sounds very uppity.  Like you think a lot of yourself, and you are possibly proud of the fact that you're from 'Chall-ston.'  When you drop the 'r' in New York - 'New Yoahk', it's a mark of lower class English."  

According to Reed, though some people have feared that exposure to national television and radio would erase regional accents and smooth everything into a general American sound, it hasn't happened "because you learn to speak through interaction with other people - your parents, your neighbors and friends.  You don't interact with televsion or radio, so they don't have as much impact as you might expect." 

Another dialect that is very distinct in South Carolina is the Gullah of the sea islands.  Because it has been isolated there, it has changed very little, but also has not thrived over time.  However, said Dubinsky, "language changes.  Language always changes.  There's nothing that will ever stop language change." 

Both linguists said whether people say "y'all," "Challston," or use Southern phrases such as "I'm fixin' to" or "I used to could," people should respect and enjoy their varietities of speech, because they're part of the richness of Southern culture.