Old Virginia accent

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Tidewater accent)
Jump to: navigation, search

The old Virginia accent is a traditional sociolectal English accent of the American South, once widely spoken by upper-class whites, primarily in the Virginia Piedmont and Tidewater regions. The accent is mostly extinct now and distinct from the very local accents heard elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay area, such as the accents of Smith Island and Tangier, Virginia.[1] The accent was also not a local feature of Appalachian Virginia.

The old Virgina accent was mostly spoken in the central and eastern regions of the state, excluding the Eastern Shore of Virginia on the Delmarva Peninsula.


This dialect of American English evolved over a period of four hundred years from the English that was spoken by those who initially settled the area. Given that language is an entity that is constantly changing,[2] it is accurate to say that the English of the colonists was quite different from any variety of English being spoken today. The colonists who initially settled the Tidewater area spoke a variety of English known as Early Modern English, which itself was very varied.[3]

The earliest English settlers of the colonies of Virginia and Massachusetts were mainly people from Southern England. However, Virginia received more colonists from the English West Country, bringing with them a distinctive dialect and vocabulary.[citation needed]

The Boston, Massachusetts; Norfolk, Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina areas maintained strong commercial and cultural ties to England. Thus, the colonists and their descendants defined "social class" according to England's connotations. As the upper class English dialect changed, the dialects of the upper class Americans in these areas changed. One example, is the "r-dropping" of the late 18th and early 19th century, resulting in the similar "r-dropping" found in Boston and parts of Virginia today.

Given that there are over 2.8 million people in the area,[4] it is difficult to account for all variants of the local accent, which have largely been supplanted by newer Southern features. The area is home to several large military bases such as Naval Station Norfolk, Little Creek Amphibious Base, Oceana Naval Station, and Dam Neck Naval Base. Since a significant portion of the area's inhabitants are actually natives of other areas, there is constant linguistic exposure to other dialects. This exposure could be a reason why the younger generations do not exhibit most of the traditional features. These features can, however, still be found in the youth of the more rural areas of Tidewater as well as many of the adults throughout the Tidewater region.[citation needed]


Lynda Myles & Maury Leo Erickson, as Kate and Petruchio, spoke Tidewater English in VMT's Taming of the Shrew, 1975, set in the American South. Keith Fowler, director.

The following phonological features of the old Virginia accent were shared with other old Southern dialects of the Atlantic Coast:

  • The accent was non-rhotic, dropping the r sound after a vowel (but not before a vowel or between vowels).[5] However, the vowel /ɜr/ (as in bird, nurse, learn, etc.) was weakly rhotic, meaning it had a light r sound to it.[6]
  • For the phoneme //, the tongue was positioned higher in the mouth when before voiceless consonants, therefore, producing a higher vowel in words like lout and price than in words like loud and prize.[7] Thus, words like mouse are sometimes described as sounding like moose and about like a boot.
  • /ʃr/ was pronounced as [sɹ] (e.g. causing shrimp, shrub, for example, to sound like srimp, srub, etc.).[8]
  • Unlike most of the U.S. and modern Southern dialects, which have undergone a phenomenon known as the Mary–marry–merry merger, older Virginia speakers did not merge the three following vowels before /r/: [e~eə] (as in Mary), [æ] (as in marry), and [ɛ] (as in merry).[9]
  • The consonants /k/ (as in key or coo) and /ɡ/ (as in guy or go), when before the sound /ɑr/ (as in car or barn), were pronounced with the tongue fronted towards the hard palate. Thus, for example, garden was something like "gyah-den" [ˈgjɑː(ɹ)dən] and "car" like "kyah" [cʰjɑː(ɹ)].[10]

The following features were unique to older central and eastern Virginia:

  • The vowel // mutated to the sound of /ɛ/ in certain words, for example, making afraid sound like uh Fred.[11]
  • In Tidewater Virginia particularly:
    • Some of the "bath" words (aunt, rather, and, earlier, pasture, etc.) of the trap–bath split were pronounced with [ɒ~ɑ].[6]
    • /ɜr/ was pronounced as [ɜ].[6]
    • "Broad a" (as in palm, father, spa, etc.) merging towards [ɒː], potentially causing, for example, palm and harm to rhyme.[12]

Current projects[edit]

There is currently a linguistic survey and study occurring in the Tidewater region.[when?] A project devised by Old Dominion University Assistant Professor Dr. Bridget Anderson entitled Tidewater Voices: Conversations in Southeastern Virginia was initiated in late 2008.[13] In collecting oral histories from natives of the area, this study offers insight to not only specific history of the region, but also to linguistic phonetic variants native to the area as well. This linguistic survey is the first of its kind in nearly forty years.[14] The two variants being analyzed the most closely in this study are the /aʊ/ diphthong as in house or brown and post-vocalic r-lessness as in /ˈfɑːðə/ for /ˈfɑːðər/.


  1. ^ Shores, David L. (2000). Tangier Island: place, people, and talk. Cranbury, New Jersey. Associated University Presses.
  2. ^ Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent. New York, New York: Routledge.
  3. ^ Wolfram, W, & Schilling-Estes, N. (2006). American English. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
  4. ^ [1][dead link]
  5. ^ Thomas (2006:3)
  6. ^ a b c Thomas (2006:8)
  7. ^ Thomas (2006:3)
  8. ^ Thomas (2006:18)
  9. ^ Thomas (2006:15)
  10. ^ Thomas (2006:17)
  11. ^ Thomas (2006:3)
  12. ^ Thomas (2006:9)
  13. ^ Batts, Denise (January 22, 2009). "ODU team records area's accent - English with 'deep roots'". hamptonroads.com. The Virginian Pilot. Retrieved November 15, 2014. 
  14. ^ Watson, Denise (2009-01-22). "ODU team records area's accent - English with 'deep roots' | HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com". HamptonRoads.com. Retrieved 2012-08-06. 
  • Thomas, Erik R. (2006), "Rural White Southern Accents" (PDF), Atlas of North American English (online) (Walter de Gruyter) 
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. (1997). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. New York: Routedge.
  • Shores, David L. (2000). Tangier Island: place, people, and talk. Cranbury, New Jersey. Associated University Presses.
  • Wolfram, W, & Schilling-Estes, N. (2006). American English. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

External links[edit]