Why do Southerners have a drawl?

The other day, my son asked why there are such a variety of accents in the country. Why does a fellow from Mississippi have a twang that’s different from a fellow in Texas?

Long ago, I asked my father a similar question. He pointed out that it isn’t just in America – a wide range of dialects and accents are common for French, Arabic, whatever.

In recent days, some interesting pieces have appeared online. One in Slate has a list of the top slang terms from every state. Here’s what was included for the Mid-South:

  • Arkansas: “tump” -- to tip over or dump out.
  • Louisiana: “banquette” – sidewalk.
  • Mississippi: “nabs” -- peanut butter crackers.
  • Tennessee: “whirlygust” -- a strong wind.

The words from Arkansas and Mississippi are familiar. Not so those from Louisiana and Tennessee.

Humans are so inventive, language doesn’t have to be spoken words. Slate has posted a video shot in a mountainous region of Turkey where residents whistle long range conversations when their shouts won’t carry. Some 10,000 people still use this method of communication.

And if you want to get into some truly odd language characteristics, head down to northwest Brazil. There, the Piraha people speak a language unrelated to any other. Christian missionaries have spent agonizing decades trying to learn the intricacies of the Piraha’s tongue and culture.

A 2007 profile in the New Yorker says Piraha is “based on just eight consonants and three vowels, (and is) one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.”

Further, the Piraha, “have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for ‘all,’ ‘each,’ ‘every,’ ‘most,’ or ‘few.’”

Why has this group been able to resist modernity? Largely because they “consider all forms of human discourse other than their own to be laughably inferior, and they are unique among Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual.”

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