The chant, “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints,” rang out as students enjoyed their Southern sweet tea. The scene was not a New Orleans football game, but a Pierson College Master’s Tea on Tuesday.
In a talk entitled, “Y’all, Drawl and All Else: American English, Southern Style,” Yale linguistics professors Larry Horn and Raffaella Zanuttini discussed the origins and evolution of the Southern dialects, which are variations on dialects brought over from coastal areas of southern England. The Yale Undergraduate Southern Society co-sponsored the tea, which was attended by about 30 students, as part of Mardi Gras festivities.
“A dialect is just like a language: a complex system governed by principles and rules,” Zanuttini began. “It does not reflect the inability to speak.”
To explain the relationship between languages and dialects, Zanuttini compared languages to bread, saying that all languages have something in common, just like all kinds of bread share certain ingredients. And in the same way that one type of bread such as focaccia can have different flavors — salt, onions or olives for example — a language can also have different dialects.
“Dialects are like slight variations in the recipe,” she said.
She also detailed the characteristics of Appalachian English, especially the habit of “a-prefixing,” in which speakers put an “a-” syllable at the beginning of words. (“He went ahunting,” for example.) Zanuttini then conducted a minor verbal exercise asking the 30 students who were present to say various sentences in Appalachian English.
Afterward, Horn took the floor, focusing on specific phrases within southern dialects such as “y’all,” and “pop.” Phrases commonly used by Northerners such as “snack,” “skillet” and “seesaw,” he said, originated in the South.
“We’ve been colonized by y’all,” he joked to the audience, which consisted of many Southern students. Horn then described a phenomenon within certain professions, especially NASCAR racing and football coaching, in which one has to sound Southern in order to be taken seriously. He conversely noted the habit of some Yale students to use standard English while on campus and revert to a strong Southern accent when they return home.
To conclude, Horn described the origins of the Southern dialect, noting that a large proportion of Southern English represents “innovations”: Though it originates from the accents of English and Scotch-Irish settlers, he said, it is not a direct transmission of the British model. Over the years, it developed into its own unique dialect. It is younger than previously believed, he said, with many of the dialect’s features developing in the late 19th and 20th century.
Although there are no tapes that demonstrate how Southern English sounded in the 1850s, Horn said that studies regarding descendents of a tribe known as the Confederados, who emigrated to Brazil after the American Civil War, have helped linguists understand how the dialect may have sounded in the mid-19th century.
After the talk, about 20 audience members enjoyed dinner with Horn, Zanuttini and Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt while sharing stories about different dialects.
Three students interviewed said although they knew a little about Southern accents, the talk gave them a deeper understanding of the dialect.
“It was interesting to learn about the academic aspects of dialects,” said Will Jordan ’13, who hails from North Carolina.
Will Shikani ’10, who is from Maryland, said he found hearing about the evolution of dialects “fascinating” because of its importance to the Southern cultural identity. At the conclusion of the talk, Pierson College Master Harvey Goldblatt told the audience to take away two lessons from the afternoon.
“Yale professors make excellent Master’s Teas, and the solution to everything is connected with food,” he said.