Skip to main content
Skip to main menu Skip to spotlight region Skip to secondary region Skip to UGA region Skip to Tertiary region Skip to Quaternary region Skip to unit footer


ABSTRACT: A Complex Dynamic Systems perspective on the evolution of Southern English: controversies, sources, data

We have a number of respected histories of American English, but no authoritative history of Southern English, the variety's most distinctive dialect, has been written as yet. Possible reasons for this gap include the fact that attempts at accounting for the growth of Southern English in black and white have been hampered by a long series of controversies, by the dearth of reliable evidence for the emergence of a vernacular (Labov's "bad data problem"), and by an innate human desire to cope with complexity by reducing it to simple dichotomies and categories. 

Having set the scene with these considerations, I first provide a brief survey of the controversies that have dominated our thoughts on the variety's history. When did Southern English begin? Do its roots lie in Britain? How uniform is it? Is it vanishing? How similar or different are African American English (AAE) and white Southern English? Is AAE African or British in origin? Are black and white dialects become increasingly similar or diverging? These debates have been around for decades, and some scholars have suggested or approximated compromise positions, but in no case has a consensus been reached.

Part of the difficulty lies in the "bad data problem": We are interested in early vernacular speech forms, but such evidence has come down to us only indirectly and with severe limitations: In earlier centuries those who spoke dialect normally could not or did not write, and those who could and did may not have been representative of an average vernacular speaker. I briefly survey the sources that have informed our knowledge of the emergence of Southern English and assess them for their diachronic value, including literary attestations (e.g. Brooks 1935), Linguistic Atlas data (LAMSAS and LAGS), speech islands (Americana in Brazil and Samaná in the Dominican Republic), letter collections produced by semi-literate writers, and modern sociolinguistic work. Particular attention is paid to three text collections in whose compilation at my home university I have been involved and which I will be using as my primary evidence: SPOC, the Southern Plantation Overseers Corpus; BLUR, Blues Lyrics compiled at the University of Regensburg, and COAAL, a Corpus of Older African American Letters.

Following the lead of Kretzschmar (2015), I suggest that rather than backing clear-cut positions in the above controversies viewing Southern English as a major component (or a set of fractions) of an overarching Complex Dynamic System (CDS) of Englishes (or language, for that matter) may contribute substantially to our understanding of the growth and character of the variety. I briefly characterize the background and core properties of CDS (including perpetual dynamism, multiple local agency, an interplay of ordered and chaotic sub-domains, auto-emergence, the possible impact of "attractors", or bifurcations), and I point out how the usage-based paradigm (Schmid 2020) is able to explain how the abstract principles of CDS manifest themselves on the ground, as it were, and can be "translated" into real-life performance and language evolution. I then showcase how these various properties manifest themselves in structural properties of Southern English and their evolution, using data mainly from SPOC, BLUR and COAAL, and from a corpus of entertaining booklets portraying the dialect. Sample structures discussed and documented include some sound changes, the plural pronoun y'all, double modals, the emergence of semi-auxiliaries denoting immediate future, and verb morphology. In line with CDS theory we witness a continuous waxing and waning of forms, sometimes in systemic orderly relations, and the emergence of innovative properties through continuous interactions, leading from a vanishing "good ole boy" Traditional Southern to a fresh and modern New Southern.



Brooks, Cleanth. 1935. The Language of the American South. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Kretzschmar, William. 2015. Language and Complex Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmid, Hans-Jörg. 2020. The Dynamics of the Linguistic System. Usage, Conventionalization, and Entrenchment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Support Linguistics at UGA

Your donations to the Department of Linguistics will support research and travel opportunities for students and faculty and other initiatives to enhance students' education in linguistics. Please consider joining other friends and alumni who have shown their support by making a gift to our fund. We greatly appreciate your contributions to the success of our programs!