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June 1, 2020

Hank Williams's Old-Timey Southern Accent

Dialect Dissections are some of my big articles. Dialect Dissections tend to cover a lot of people or a single person who uses multiple language varieties.. But sometimes I just wanna do a mini-Dialect Dissection on a single person. Some people have interesting linguistic quirks, but are pretty one-note in it. I don't want to put it under the same title, so I've been trying to think of a new name for it. Mini-Dialect Dissection? Accent Analysis? A Langue Look (for the Saussureans out there)? Would like to hear y'all's thoughts.

Whatever we're calling it, I want to do one for Hank Williams, a country star out of Alabama. Hank Williams has a lot of features typical to Southern American English, including some that have since been washed away. Because his backing tracks tend to be sparse and he doesn't exactly do a ton of overdubs and harmonies, it's pretty easy to pick his voice out and hear the feature.

Features that haven't changed

Glide-weakening in PRICE words. Hank's glide weakening (which can also be a monophthong) appears both before voiced and voiceless consonants.

  • "The midn[a]t train is wh[a]nin' low" - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry

STRUT-centralization. This is a typical Southern feature that is still used today.

  • "Well I'm in l[ɜ]ve I'm in l[ɜ]ve" - Lovesick Blues

Raised DRESS vowel. This is a typical Southern feature that is still used today.

  • "My h[e]d is startin' to bow" - Moanin the Blues

Rhotic accent.

  • "The silence of a falling sta[ɹ] lights up a p[ɝ]ple night."

Features that are no longer in modern Southern English

WINE-WHINE distinction. Not many young Americans maintain this feature, but Hank uses it rather consistently.

  • "Hear that lonesome [ʍ]ipporwill" - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
  • "Lord I don't know [ʍ]at I'll do" - Lovesick blues

THOUGHT-LOT distinction. Hank uses an [ɒ] sound in THOUGHT words. This is distinct from modern Southerners, who tend to use a diphthong.

  • "Well Lord, I th[ɒ]t I would cry" - Lovesick Blues
  • "I told my p[ɒ] I'm going steppin' out" - Honky Tonk Blues
  • I been lovin' that gal for so d[ɒ]ggone long - Moanin' the Blues

Lax-HAPPY. This feature is almost dead among young Southerners.

  • "Well I'm nobod[ɪ]'s sugar dadd[ɪ] now" - Lovesick Blues
  • "This cit[ɪ] life has really got me down" - Honky Tonk Blues
  • "I'm free and read[ɪ]" - Hey Good Lookin'

As an aside, Hank also does proto HAPPY-breaking. He probably does this for aesthetic reasons. He also doesn't use a diphthong, but rather breaks it into two syllables.

  • "Something up with m[ɪ.i]" - Hey Good Lookin'

FACE and GOAT are more monophthongal than in modern American accents. This is basically dead in modern Southern English.

  • "And I kn[o]w a spot" - Hey Good Lookin'
  • "Oh b[e]by"

CLOTH-LOT distinction? For Hank, some words (especially before -s and -ng) are pronounced with a diphthong. These words fit into what is traditionally called the CLOTH set.

  • "That means he's l[ɑɒ]st the will to live" - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
  • "Come al[ɑɒ]ng with me" - Hey Good Lookin'
  • "Wr[ɑɒ]ng" - I Just Don't Like This Kind of Living

Avoiding of LOT words moving to STRUT category. This used to be more common in Southern English, but Southern English is nowadays following General American in moving these words to the STRUT category.

  • "Wh[ɑ]t you got cookin'?" - Hey Good Lookin'

Back GOOSE vowel. This is very unlike modern Southern accents which front the GOOSE vowel considerably.

  • "Moanin' the bl[u]es" - Moanin' the Blues

No FEEL-FILL merger, unlike modern Southern accents. "Feel" and "still" do not rhyme.

  • "That old time f[i]lling ... I can't help it if I'm st[ɪ]ll in love with you - I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)

Light l sound before vowels. Modern Southerners (and increasingly, speakers of General American) use a dark (velarized) l in all environments.

  • "Moanin' the b[l]ues" - Moanin' the Blues

Other curiosities.

The values Hank uses in r-colored vowels are not always the same as in modern Southern English. For instance, "where" is pronounced as "whurr" and "there" has a low [ɛ] (modern Southern has [e]).

  • "And as I wonder wh[ɝ] you are" - I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
  • "Tell me wh[ɝ] you think you're going" - I Just Don't Like This Kind Of Living
  • "Th[ɛ]re's soda pop" - Hey, Good Lookin'

Hank has a POUR-POOR distinction, though ironically not with the word "poor" itself. He has "rural" with an [ʊ] vowel, and also has no second [r] in it. This is curious considering he does not otherwise have a non-rhotic accent.

  • "I left my home down on the r[ʊ:]l route" - Honky Tonk Blues

There is some s-assimilation before yods. "Miss you" becomes "mish you."

  • "Heaven only knows how much I mi[ʃ] you - I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You

Some lexical items are non-standard. "Picture" becomes "pitcher" and "sit" becomes "set."

  • "A pitcher(picture)" - I Can't Help It IfI'm Still In Love With You
  • "S[ɛ]t (sit) and yearn" - I Just Don't Like This Kind of Living


One of the things I find interesting about Hank's accent is how it is recognizably Southern, but lacks a number of features we associate with Southern English - no drawling, fronted GOOSE vowels, and fronted GOAT vowels. The two features that definitively place it in the South are the glide-weakening in PRICE words and the centralized STRUT vowel. Otherwise, Hank Williams has little in common linguistically with a modern country singer like Luke Bryan.

Hank Williams was born in the year 1923 in Butler County, Alabama. This means he grew up in what Erik Thomas calls a "plantation area" (a term not defined but which probably serves to distinguish between heavily slave-holding areas like South Carolina versus areas with fewer slaves like Texas and Oklahoma) and in the "pre-World War II era." Both of these things are important for pinning down Williams's accent. The pre-World War II distinction is especially important, because it accounts for the FACE and GOAT monophthongs, features which no Southerner has today. If you'll look at the chart in Thomas's book, you'll see both "older" and "younger" features. Most of Hank's features can be comfortably placed in the "older" column.

Distinct from Thomas's observation that CLOTH words are always grouped with THOUGHT words, Hank seems to have different realizations for THOUGHT words and CLOTH words. It's possible that this distinction is a result of the environment (-s and -ng words), not a separate CLOTH phoneme to contrast with the THOUGHT phoneme.

One set I couldn't compare was NORTH and FORCE. This set has been merged in most varieties of English since the 20th century. Southern varieties of English were among the few in the United States to preserve the distinction, though they eventually gave out and merged. I couldn't find tokens to compare NORTH and FORCE words for Hank, so he may have the distinction! But he also may not. This would show that as far back as the 30s and 40s, the NORTH-FORCE distinction was weakening in Southern English.

I would like to compare Hank to other country singers from different time periods and different parts of the South. While it's useful to think of Southern English as one big thing - especially when comparing it with other varieties of English - this hides the real diversity within Southern accents. Country music can be a great place to pull examples of Southern accents from.


  1. David MarjanovićJune 2, 2020 at 9:36 AM

    "Hear that lonesome [ʍ]ipporwill"

    I listened 5 times or so and can't hear anything but a fully voiced [w] there. The voice never stops between the s and the pp.

    Steven Moffat's [ʍ] is different.

    "Lord I don't know [ʍ]at I'll do"

    Here, on the other hand, Williams takes the [hʷ] I've heard from other American WHINE-distinguishers (Elizabeth Warren is one) and opens it up to some kind of [hʋ]. (The whole passage is sung with a wide-open mouth.)

    1. After the [m] in lonesome, I hear a breath, and then a [w]. It would be more accurate to call it [hw] or [hʷ]; I seem to have gotten too excited in using the [ʍ] symbol for it.

      The sound in "whipporwill" sounds distinct from "whining" later on in the song. "whining" seems unambiguously voiced to me. Curiously, Hank doesn't seem to have all the historical WHINE words.

      He also sometimes puts "what" in the WHINE set and sometimes in the WINE set, so an individual word can vary.

      I'll listen to some clips of Moffat. Him being Scottish, he may have an actual [ʍ] versus [hw] or [hʷ] which seems more accurate in Americans.

  2. One thing I would like to add while you are right about a majority of this, alot of these things aren't said anymore. I couldn't help but notice that I (I'm from Alabama btw) do pronounce some of these things the same way hank does. Specifically the word "Rural" being pronounced in a non rhotic fashion. I can't think of a time I ever heard it and it didn't sound like ruh-ol (think of how we say oil for the ol part. Like wool with out the w.)

    1. I don't believe this is particularly a rhotic/nonrhotic issue. Instead, it's likely an instance of dissimilation. In various English dialects, when two /r/s appear in close proximity, one of them often disappears (think of "surprise" so commonly being "suprise"). In the vein of Ace Linguist's delightful pop-culture sound bites, 30 Rock plays on this kind of misinterpretation:

  3. Sorry for using up two spaces but an accent that I would be interested to see you dissect is an 1800s southern accent. There is an interview on YouTube of a Confederate Veteran recorded in 1947 I believe. I think his name was General Todd Julius Howard.

    1. That's Julius Howell. He has what's referred to as a(n old) Tidewater accent, which notably includes "Canadian raising": the raising of MOUTH and PRICE vowels before voiceless consonants. It's also non-rhotic, which was typical of coastal Southern accents of the mid-1800s.

  4. Actually, some features of the Virginia Tidewater accent survive among some younger people, like non-rhoticity to an extent and the "Canadian raising". These days however, you're most likely to find southern non-rhoticity in south Louisiana, particularly the greater New Orleans area and the Cajun zones.

  5. Have you tried looking through Alan Lomax's recordings or contemporaries of his? They were likely one of the first to record rural musicians in the South and Appalachia in the early decades of the 20th century. You might have to go off Youtube for that (as I have found to be more successful at times).

  6. Good article. Having said that, my understand is that fill-feel is only subregional and there are still plenty of Southern accents that lack it?