How Tennesseans talk expresses their regional identity and often draws comment by people from elsewhere. Whether they call it a “Tennessee twang” or an “East Tennessee brogue,” Tennesseans and others often consider it distinctive. It is quite difficult, however, to identify the features and usages that make it so, because the varieties of English spoken in Tennessee vary socially and geographically in complex ways. Nor are these varieties confined to the Volunteer State. Broadly speaking, East Tennessee speech is closer to western North Carolina and north Georgia (and thus classified as “Upper South” or “South Midland”) than to West Tennessee, a region with cultural and linguistic affinities to Mississippi and the Lower South and historically an extension of the cotton belt, therefore showing more influence from African American speech patterns than other parts of the state. As in many other respects, Tennessee does not form a speech region per se, but its sections (especially East and West) represent parts of larger territories that may be identified in terms of terrain, settlement history, material culture, and other factors. The Dictionary of American Regional English labels only a small handful of terms as confined to Tennessee, but these are far from widely known or used (e.g. “fee grabber” for law enforcement officer; “hallway” for passage between two buildings), and these are not useful in characterizing the state’s speech.
For well over a century how Tennesseans use English has drawn popular and scholarly interest. Tennessee politicians from Davy Crockett (shown especially in his autobiography) to Howard Baker have enjoyed a deserved reputation for their apt and colorful use of words and for a style of talking that is folksy and more down home than fancy. Beginning in the 1870s the novels of local colorist Mary Noailles Murfree exposed countless readers to a literary version of Tennessee mountain speech and set a mold for writers of local and regional fiction down to the present. Since 1889 scholars have commented on speech patterns of the state’s citizens in well over two hundred notes and articles. Even so, scholarly interest more often than not has focused on words and unusual and archaic expressions (often labeled “Elizabethan” or “Shakespearean”), especially from the East Tennessee mountains. The cumulative picture, therefore, is skewed and far from complete, suggesting little about the diversity of Tennessee speech–its social and regional differentiation within the state–or its ongoing changes.
Basing divisions on traditional vocabulary, scholars have differed on the number of subregions of Tennessee speech, but they agree these are not nearly so salient as popular notions about the three grand divisions. Over the past three decades two projects, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) and the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (LAGS), systematically interviewed speakers from across the state as parts of larger surveys. The DARE evidence suggests that the basic regional distinction is two-way, with the Cumberland Plateau being a subdivision of East Tennessee and the Nashville Basin part of West Tennessee. The evidence from LAGS partially supports this view (grouping the Cumberlands with the east), but sees the Nashville Basin as a transition area and finds that West Tennessee has some vocabulary not shared with the rest of the state (e.g. “bayou” for backwater; “middlebuster” for lister plow). LAGS finds many traditional terms to be more widespread in the east (“airish” for chilly; “fireboard” for mantelpiece; “poke” for paper bag; “family pie” for deep-dish pie; “snake feeder” for dragonfly), but none of these are unrecorded in West Tennessee. The material collected by DARE and LAGS also highlights the main historical sources of traditional vocabulary; of the five terms just cited, the first two are Scots-Irish, the third is English and Scots-Irish, and the last two are new terms unknown in the British Isles.
Principal features of pronunciation throughout the state (but usually more prevalent in the east) include: 1) pronunciation of vowels in words pen and hem as pin and him; 2) shift of accent to the beginning of words with more than one syllable (thus Tennessee becomes TIN-isee); 3) clipping or reduction of the vowel in words such as ride or right to sound similar to rad or rat; and 4) the southern drawl, the stretching of vowel sounds so that words of one syllable sometimes become two (bed becomes bay-ud). Though by no means exclusive to Tennessee, these features are widely associated with the Volunteer State, and the first three features have become shibboleths of Tennessee speech.
With urban growth, traditional regional vocabulary and pronunciation often become socially differentiated by class, education level, and ethnic background, as well as regional in another sense: urban vs. rural. Though much of it is disappearing along with traditional culture, however, the language of Tennessee is in no danger of homogenization with the rest of the country.
Craig Carver, American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography (1987)