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Q: I have heard people use the term slickery in West Virginia to describe a slippery surface. What is this about?

A: There is a lot of variation in English in the pronunciation of /t/, /p/, and /k/. When they are not word initial, their acoustic qualities are not always distinguishable. Basically, their differences get covered up when people hear them. This masking of differences is especially true around /s/ or /r/, as in [slIpri] to [slIkri].

Q: I have heard people say “gosphel,” rather than “gospel.” Is there a region that favors this pronunciation? Is the variation happening for geographical or cultural reasons, or just because it is easier to pronounce that way?

A: There are probably a couple of things going on with this example. In general, stay away from the arguments of whether something is easier or not, since those arguments do not actually explain anything.

First, there is a general trend in English to replace some fricatives with [f]. Most often this happens with the th sound in words like three, birthday, and with. This is a worldwide trend and mostly results from the instability of the th sounds. The two th sounds in think and there (which are two different sounds) have been unstable for the entire 1,560 years of English.

Second, there is almost certainly a more local linguistic cause (in the word itself). In the world of sounds, [p] and [f] are related. Both are voiceless. Additionally, they are really close in terms of where they are produced. The [p] is produced with both lips holding the air and then quickly releasing it; the [f] is produced with the upper teeth meeting the lower lip to create turbulence with the air. The key difference is that [f] is a fricative, and the [p] is a stop (the air gets stopped then released). What is happening in this example is that the preceding [s], which is a fricative itself, is transforming the following [p] into a fricative. I suspect that sometimes the pronunciation fluctuates between a bilabial fricative and a labiodental fricative.

This case is an example of assimilation: One sound transforms another sound to be more similar to itself. This happens also when the vowel in bit is nasazlized when before a nasal sound, like in bin.

Q: Is it possible to go away from home, learn "standard" language, and fall back into your dialect when you return?

A: Yes, as far as I know, this shifting between variation patterns is the norm for humans. We package dialect traits as styles that we shift between. The styles are not absolute and do not have firm boundaries between them. They sometimes leak. An at-home style might leak into a more formal style (perhaps the vowels will be in the at-home style but the word choice will be in the more formal style).

However, the term dialect does not work with individuals. It applies to communities. So humans all shift styles, and for those people who have exposure to multiple dialects, some of the dialect traits may become part of their cadre of styles.

Q: What is your experience/interest in Southern English? What made you choose to focus on it and how have your studies evolved?

A: Between the ages of 18 and 20, I moved between Michigan, South Carolina, Paris, and Nice (France). Of all those moves, the one to South Carolina involved the most cultural differences. When I began my linguistic studies, I felt there were many sociolinguistic differences to explore.

Since then, I have actively documented changes in varieties of Southern English on the Outer Banks, the lowlands of North Carolina, and the Appalachian Mountains.

Q: If you had to define Southern English, what would be your explanation? What makes Southern English different from other regional dialects/language?

A: People in the cultural South have seen themselves as different since they were first settled by Europeans. With that sentiment, all Americans have viewed the South as a different place. The language has been a badge of that difference.

Settlement differences also come into play. For example, the loss of /r/ in words like was originally a British innovation. The US South (and the New England region) had more extensive and longer lasting contacts with England than did other regions and adopted this feature. It is in those areas of the US where we still find r-lessness.

The US South today is characterized by a movement of vowels away from the norms of the West. The US North is moving in yet a different direction.

People also make note and celebrate lexical differences between the South and other regions. These differences can be seen in words like fixin’ to and y’all.

Q: In your opinion, why do international students struggle with southern dialects?

A: Most have heard only British and Western varieties, since those are the most prestigious. There is simply not widespread exposure to Southern varieties for most international students. What exposure exists is usually negative, unfortunately. Those include TV shows such as the Beverly Hillbilies and Dukes of Hazzard.

Q: Have you found certain phrases or words that are unique to the South? If so, what are those?

A: The most known lexical dialect difference will be the names for soft-drinks:

Everyone should know that y’all is the second person plural pronoun. Ever since thee fell out of favor after 1600 (e.g. get thee to a nunnery), dialects of English around the world have been trying to repair the broken pronoun paradigm.

As in many English dialects, get substitutes for have : “I got one of them”.

Fixin’ to is used as a verb to indicate the immediate future: “I’m fixin’ to go to the store”.

Carry often means to provide transportation: “Could you carry me to town?”

Q: I have heard people say “sick to” or “sick at” my stomach, but are there usages of “sick on my stomach”?

A: Prepositions are known as “function” words. They perform a grammatical function (namely, hooking up other phrases), and only secondarily do they provide meaning. So in common phrases and idioms, which particular preposition shows up really does not matter much. In the above examples, the meaning is the same, and a preposition is needed to hook up the adjective and the noun phrase. As far as I know, the “sick on” usage is used at least from Roanoke on down through the Outer Banks of NC. I am sure it has much wider usage.