Sociolinguistics, Southerners and Social Status


I am the first of my family to graduate from college, and one of a handful of my generation of cousins to finish college at all. I am also the first ever to hold a MA, though my sister is quickly finishing hers, and my daughters are planning to. To say the least, I was intimidated to go first. My father graduated from high school, but his mother didn’t, and my mother only finished 8th grade, because she had to drop out in order to help my grandparents support their large family, ten kids in rural Arkansas during the 1950s-60s. As a result, she was only qualified to work in the fields or in dangerous industrial plants. In Springdale, Arkansas during this time period, her choices were limited.

Reflecting on my own story, I began thinking about issues regarding the cleansing of Southern identity of female students in college as a whole, but as a writer and composition teacher, I decided to focus on how southern women work and are perceived in the composition classroom. Many feminist ideas regarding “othering/alienation” the enforcement of linguistic boundaries, and silencing can be extended to southern women within the composition classroom.

When I began exploring the scholarship regarding southern dialect’s perception in the classroom, I found that until the 1970s, the study of southern speak was not even considered relevant enough to be written about. Scholars such as Currie and Wolfram really opened up the study of dialects and their perception in a general way.

Currie, referred to as the “father of sociolinguistics” examines what he views as the neglect of the study of the “social significance of varying features of spoken English” (Currie 40). The author discusses Malinowski’s work with “phatic communion” whereby he separates the “stranger” and the “savage tribesmen” metaphor which attempts to explain the disconnect between those who understand the local dialect and those who do not. This explains, in a most basic way, how Southerners are distanced from the rest of the country as the “Other.”

He also examines McDavid’s idea regarding the phenomena within the Southern states that certain speech peculiarities lend to a “linguistically peripheral feature of a culturally peripheral group” which he asserts further ties this correlation to social status among those who share it. In other words, the Southerner, especially the rural Southerner, is not only regarded as distanced but at a lower social status than those who speak with a Northern or Western accent.

McDavid also focuses on some of the more “linguistically peripheral features of marginal cultured groups” (McDavid 41). In his article, he stresses for the “implications of dialectology for the more rational teaching of English” because language differences “create major obstacles to the educational, economic and social advancement of those whose true integration in to the framework of society is necessary if that society is to be healthy” and that “social dialects…both reflect and perpetuate differences in the social order” (49).

The author discusses the benefits of speaking without an accent” and how theoretically this is to be avoided by an “educated person” (51). However, McDavid argues that the study of dialects is important because it is unrealistic to expect that vernaculars will not likely dissipate.

He discusses an “amusing” example form Language Programs for the Disadvantages: Report of the NCTE Task Force,” from 1965 that perpetrates the idea of “disadvantaged” children speaking with a “non-standard English dialect” (51). McDavid does not support this idea, and in fact calls the study “distressing.”

In fact, he favors the idea that a “sophisticated” writer must accept and embrace dialects as an American way of life. McDavid’s work would be examined and reevaluated by many different scholars, but his work with dialects of the South proved groundbreaking in that before this time period the Southern accent was so disliked and mocked that most people did not consider it a topic of serious study. Why should Southern accents (or those who speak them) be taken seriously when the Southerner is the last politically correct American stereotype we can safely mock?

As a Southern woman, I find this idea distressing, especially when our speech is so closely entwined with our identity we cannot separate them.

Kenyon’s work with both “higher level” and “lower level speech” includes “narrowly local dialect” and “ungrammatical speech and writing” which is often seen among uneducated Southerners (Kenyon 31). Kenyon’s essay discusses the idea of the hierarchy of word choice, indicating that some words hold a loftier position socially than others, creating a “comparative degree of excellence or inferiority in language” (31). This assumption works against the Southern student hoping to elevate her degree of education. Coupled with the tired typecast Southern Bell who, bless her heart, can’t be expected to be pretty and smart, the Southern woman already has two strikes against her in the world of academia.

As a larger part of class study, Kenyon dissects this particular “false” judgment within the writing genre. Exploring cultural levels, the author touches on what is often labeled as the two classifications of speech, standard and substandard (31). Among these classifications, Kenyon includes “lower level speech” specifically: “Illiterate speech, narrowly local dialect, ungrammatical speech and writing, excessive an unskillful slang, slovenly and careless vocabulary and construction, exceptional pronunciation, and, on the higher level, language used generally by the cultivated, clear, grammatical writing, and pronunciation used by the cultivated over wide areas” (31). We understand that to be educated requires us to adapt a scholarly demeanor and style, but at what point does this encroach on who we are on a basic level? How much sanitizing is too much? When Southern women start out at a disadvantage, already striving to break free of socioeconomic norms and preconceived ideas regarding intelligence and identity, it’s no wonder that many struggle in the college classroom.

By explaining the categories of lower level and higher-level language, Kenyon goes on to define the principle of “culture and function” in word usage. He explains that the “functional variety formal writing or speaking may occur on a lower or on a higher cultural level according to the social status of [the] writer or speaker” (32). This article defends and explains the proper usage of colloquialisms and local dialect.

Kenyon’s work defends and explains the proper usage of colloquialisms and local dialect, which was unheard of before his time. At last, someone came forward to defend the legitimacy of Southern accents.

Works Cited

Currie, Haver C. “A Projection of Sociolinguistics: The Relationship of Speech to

Social Status. A Various Language: Perspectives on American Dialects. New

York: Holt, 1971. 39-47. Print.

Kenyon, John S. “Cultural Levels and Functional Varieties of English.” A Various

         Language: Perspectives on American Dialects. New York: Holt, 1971. 30-38.


McDavid, Raven I. “Sense and Nonsense About American Dialects.” A Various

            Language: Perspectives on American Dialects. New York: Holt, 1971. 48-65. Print.

Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation.

Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. Print.




3 thoughts on “Sociolinguistics, Southerners and Social Status

  1. I very much appreciate this article! Thank you for writing it! Any chance you would share your works cited? I’m particularly interested in the McDavid work you reference.
    Thank you!


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