How do you say ‘pen’ and ‘pin’? What your accent says about you

Tennessee sign

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Southern accents (stock photo)

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The Southern accent is a beautiful thing. Or it can be, depending on the speaker. 

It can be melodious, mellifluous. It can sing and soar and give flight to high oratory like few others. 

It can also be fingernails on a chalkboard, reedy hyena cackle. 

The truth is there’s no such thing as a Southern accent. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them. 

The hill people of Kentucky sound very different from the coastal Carolinas. To anyone with an ear, residents of Savannah sound very different from Atlanta, while people from Atlanta sound completely different than somebody from Jacksonville or Valdosta or Little Rock.

And we’re not even gonna include the Cajuns in this discussion. That’s a different world. 

Part of it, I think, is people from other places don’t appreciate the sheer size of the South. Often, people learn I’m from Tennessee and the want to talk to me about Nashville or Memphis. I live four hours from Nashville and nearly 7 hours from Memphis.

American cities I can drive to in about the same amount of time it takes me to get to Memphis include Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Toledo and Washington D.C.   

Memphis is 437 miles from my hometown. Detroit is 517.

Think about the differences of the people who settled those areas and the mileage and the life experiences that separate them. Why would someone from South Alabama sound like someone from the mountains of East Tennessee? 

Of course, modern society is changing all that. 

The accent of the Appalachian people was one built in isolation.

I used to know some old guys who grew up in what is now the National Park, and they had their own way of speaking, some of which traced back to old Ireland and Scotland. 

A soda was a dope.

A bag was a poke. 

A groundhog was a whistle pig.

Read Also: Thou shalt follow these 6 Southern sweet tea commandments 

How our modern world is changing certain dialect

Now, we no longer live in so much isolation. We hear other cultures and other dialects daily.

A teenager in Hancock County can – if he chooses – learn the dialects of other regions, other ethnicities and incorporate those into a wider accent, a wider manner of speech that would be understood by peers across regional boundaries. 

Still, there are commonalities to the various Southern accents. Most Southern dialects originated with a mix of immigrants who came from the British Isles and settled in the American South in the 17th and 18th centuries. These dialects often include African elements introduced by slaves who were kidnapped and forcibly brought to the region. 

And, it’s getting harder to recognize exactly what counts as the South.

I can tell you the dialect of the people of East Tennessee has a lot more in common with my Southern Indiana relatives than those in South Alabama or Savannah, Ga.  

But anyone outside of the region would be hard-pressed to recognize any place in Indiana as the South. But drive across the Ohio River into Kentucky and everyone is a Southerner, born and bred. 

The ‘pin’ vs ‘pen’ test explains that maybe the best way to identify the linguistic South is the pin-pen test. In what is known as the Linguistic South, pin and pen are pronounced interchangeably.

In the rest of the country – except apparently for a small circle in Southern California, pin and pen are two clearly different pronunciations. 

It turns out that most of Southern English has its roots in Northern England. Far less posh than Southern England, the people of the North settled into agricultural areas.

For me, my Southern accent manifests itself in words with “I” in the middle. Nine becomes nahn. Time is tahm. I think that’s probably a little exaggerated but it’s the closest approximation I’ve got. says you can mimic it by holding the “I” sound longer and dragging it out. I don’t know if that’s what I’m doing, but it makes some sense. 

The Southern accent stereotypes 

The foremost Southern Linguistic expert of our time, Jeff Foxworthy, has made a career off of Southern linguistics and culture. He often addresses the stereotypes we Southerners face. 

He jokes about a brain surgeon with a heavy Southern drawl. And he has a point, to a degree. A heavy mountain accent will be treated differently than a genteel Georgia twang. 

We certainly can be looked down upon. But we’re not the only ones.

Think of a heavy New York accent or a thick Boston accent. I think anyone with a heavy regional accent is apt to be treated like a yokel. 

I don’t have what I consider to be a strong accent, but occasionally will have someone who has a hard time understanding me on the phone. When I go north, people often comment on my accent, but I’ve never really had someone treat me as stupid because of it.

Although, I imagine if I went in, bought a Coke and asked the cashier to put my dope in a poke, I might get a stronger reaction. 

My own attitude about my accent has changed but my perception of the nation’s attitude has changed as well. With the increased exposure to other accents and cultures brought on by mass media, we are not so foreign to each other. We’re more understanding that it’s OK to sound different. 

Hopefully, that trend will continue. We need more bridges across barriers. We need to be more understanding and accepting of each other. 

Maybe accepting how each other uses our common language will be the first step toward that goal. 

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