Rachel E. Shuttlesworth

University of Alabama

Audio | Handout

Southern American English in Literature and Films:
Dialect Distortion and Some Foundations of Negative Stereotypes

While many scholars have studied Southern American English (SAE) (McMillan and Montgomery 1998) varieties and others have examined the oft-negative reputations of SAE varieties (Lippi-Green 1997, Niedzielski and Preston 2000, Preston 1996), more research is needed regarding how SAE is depicted in literature and films. Previous studies that relate to this topic include Bernstein (2000) and Schneider (2001b) which address stereotypical uses of SAE, the former in some literary and film works and the latter in (supposedly) humorous booklets about SAE.

This study examines depictions of certain features of Southern American English (SAE) in literary and film works from 1900 to 2000 to determine how they deviate from or adhere to actual SAE usage as established in scholarly works (Feagin 1979, Fennell and Butters 1996, Mishoe 1998, Montgomery 1998). The features chosen include two that are “uniquely Southern” (Schneider 2001a:25), y’all and multiple modal verbs, as well as ain’t, which is used by many speakers of vernacular English varieties, although some scholars (Schneider 2001a, Atwood 1953) claim it to be more common in SAE than in other dialects of American English. In order to determine the accuracy of the depictions of these features in SAE character dialogue, I utilize linguistic descriptions of the features to establish a baseline of their usage by SAE speakers. When SAE is depicted differently than SAE speakers use it, I analyze the deviation using my adaptation of the semiotic distortion framework outlined by Irvine and Gal (2000). This analysis involves identifying three processes: iconization, fractal recursivity, and erasure. Iconization occurs when a certain feature or one of its uses comes to be inherently connected to a group of speakers. Fractal recursivity involves extended the systematic usage of a dialectal feature to other uses, altering the rule-based dialectal structure. Erasure occurs when a feature or one of its uses is deleted from a depiction. Utilizing this framework allows us to view the discrepancies between how authors and screenwriters depict SAE and how native speakers use it. To supplement my analysis of SAE feature depiction, I will also present opinions of SAE speakers regarding the accuracy of pertinent literary and film excerpts. The study’s findings could demonstrate how certain SAE features have evolved to indicate Southernness and, when compared to contemporary folk linguistic depictions of SAE, may reveal some of the historical origins of SAE’s negative reputation. The presentation of these data will include literary excerpts and film clips, allowing those present to offer feedback regarding the accuracy and validity of my analysis.

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