“You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” I once advised my husband.
“What?” he said. “I have no idea what you mean!”
Situations like this have happened more than once in our house.
English is my husband’s second language, and he speaks it beautifully. But he learned English years ago in Michigan, a Midwestern state in the U.S.
Meanwhile, I’m from the South.
In different parts of the U.S., American English can change dramatically in both accent and vocabulary. Southern American English in particular has its own set of words and sayings that you won’t hear elsewhere.
It’s so important for learners to be able to understand English no matter where it comes from. That’s why I’ve created this guide to English in the American South.
Keep reading to learn what the South is, hear examples of Southern American English and find out what phrases like “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar” actually mean!
What Is the American South?
Generally, the South is defined as the region that runs from Virginia down to Florida and out to Texas.
Check out this map of the South from Business Insider to see exactly what I’m talking about. You’ll discover that the South is actually a huge part of the U.S.!
The second thing you should know is that because the South is so big, the culture and accent change depending on which part of the South you’re in. For example, people from Texas don’t sound the same as people from Georgia.
There are many names and ways to refer to the South. It can sometimes be called Dixie or Dixieland, which came from the state Louisiana that used to belong to France. Their 10-dollar bills used to have the French word dix (ten) on them, thus the nickname.
Another common phrase you’ll hear is the Bible Belt, used because many of the Southern states have a large Christian population.
You might hear “south of the Mason-Dixon line” as well, a reference to the old boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, which separated opposing sides during the U.S. Civil War.
However, it’s important to know that today’s Southern states aren’t necessarily the states that fought for the Confederacy (the South) during America’s Civil War. For example, West Virginia (considered a Southern state today) was actually part of the Union (the North) during the war.
Lastly, the South is much more than a geographical region.
The South has a unique culture that’s made up of specific music (like bluegrass and country), sports (we’re huge baseball fans), religions (like the Baptist and Methodist Churches) and food (like shrimp gumbo, sweet tea, fried okra, collard greens and grits).
How Do Southern Accents Sound?
As I’ve already mentioned, every Southern state is different, and so there are many different accents in this region.
However, there are a few key characteristics of most Southern accents.
The first is that word stress can change compared to what you’d hear elsewhere in the U.S.
For example, most Americans will stress the second half of the following words:
Hotel: /ho TEL/
Guitar: /gui TAR/
Police: /po LICE/
But, many Southerners stress the first half of these words instead:
Hotel: /HO tel/
Guitar: /GUI tar/
Police: /PO lice/
The second big difference in Southern American English is what’s known as “the Southern drawl.” Essentially, this means slower speech and elongated vowels (also known linguistically as diphthongized vowels).
For the purpose of understanding, I’m going to be using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to show pronunciation. You can learn about the IPA, a system used to represent alphabetic sounds, by referring to this chart.
For example, the word “egg” is normally pronounced [eg], but Southerners pronounce it [ai:g].
The third main identifier of a Southern accent is dropping the final [ŋ] sound of a word that ends in the letters “ing.”
For example, Southerners will shorten the following words:
Getting — gettin’
Swinging — swingin’
Fixing — fixin’
Lastly, Southerners have merged the [I] and [ɛ] vowel sounds so that words such as “get” [gɛt] sound like “git” [gIt].
Where Can You Listen to Southern American English?
If you can’t take a trip to the South, you can still practice listening to Southern accents at home.
These films will help you with the Southern accent and introduce you to Southern culture and landscapes at the same time.
Or, check out the famous series “The Andy Griffith Show” from the 1960s. If you enjoy it, the starring actor and main character, Andy Griffith, also has a fantastic monologue called “What It Was, Was Football” that’s hilarious.
For those looking to listen to Southern English and learn about typical foods from the South, Southern cook Paula Deen’s YouTube channel is perfect.
If you want to be sure that you understand every word of a real English video, be sure to watch on FluentU. FluentU provides authentic English videos, including movie trailers, music videos, funny YouTube clips and more, that have been transformed into personalized language lessons.
The videos cover all types of American, British and other varieties of English, and they all have interactive subtitles. So if you don’t understand the speaker’s accent, you can see the words written in plain English. This is a fantastic way to understand English in all the different ways that native speakers use it. Plus, you can click on any word in the subtitles and FluentU will show you its definition!
Another way to view these FluentU videos is by checking out their channel on YouTube, where there are lots of clips featuring different varieties of English. You’ll also find videos on weird but common sayings in English, such as this one below.
Feel free to subscribe to the FluentU YouTube channel to stay up to date with all the latest language learning videos.
Finally, listening to bluegrass and country music is an excellent way to learn Southern American English. I recommend the following classics to get you started:
- John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”
- Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Carry Me Back to Virginia”
- Flatt & Scruggs’ “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”
- Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”
- Jimmy Martin’s “Tennessee”
- Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”
Heavens to Betsy! 50 Common Southern American English Sayings
Y’all is an abbreviation for “you all” and is a trademark (distinct common feature) of Southern speech.
The way Americans say “you” in the plural is a big indication of where they come from, with Northerners typically saying “you guys” and Southerners sticking with y’all.
Are y’all coming to dinner Friday night?
Fit as a fiddle
It may seem silly to compare someone who’s fit (in good physical shape) to a fiddle (an instrument), but this is a common saying.
He can run a mile in four minutes. He’s fit as a fiddle!
This is essentially a nice way to say, “Oh, darn!”
I lost my homework! Oh, rats!
Cut the lights on/off
For grammar nerds, this is a huge pet peeve (annoyance), since standard English would be “Turn the lights on/of.”
After all, you can’t physically take scissors and cut a light switch on or off. Still, this phrase is used by a number of people in the South.
Can you please cut the lights off? I’m trying to sleep.
Bless your heart
Bless your heart is one of the most frequently used Southern phrases. It’s essentially the equivalent of “Oh, you poor thing.” It’s used to show pity.
You had to walk all the way home by yourself? Bless your heart.
You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar
This is a metaphor meaning that you can win people over by being sweet and flattering them, rather than by being confrontational (hostile or aggressive).
If the politician really wants to win, she should remember that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
You probably understand that ma’am (short for madam) and sir are polite ways to address other adults. It’s not used so much in the rest of the U.S. nowadays, but Southerners still use it a lot.
Yes, ma’am, I will do my chores.
Mama, Daddy, Pappy, Grandpappy
Mama is another word for mom, and daddy and pappy are both used in place of “dad.” Grandpappy is another way to say “grandfather.”
Mama, Pappy and Grandpappy are typically only used in the South. All American kids typically use the word daddy, but most drop it when they get older. As for us Southerners, we continue to call our parents mama and daddy no matter how old we are!
Mama, will Daddy be coming with us to Grandpappy’s house?
That’s the pits!
This is a phrase that simply means “That stinks!” Use it when something unpleasant happens.
You failed your math test? That’s the pits!
I’m fixin’ to…
Southerners use this phrase instead of the standard “I’m going to” when they’re about to do something.
I’m fixin’ to take a shower.
It’s blowing up a storm
This means that the wind is getting very strong and a storm is on its way.
Look outside. It’s blowing up a storm!
Over yonder is used in place of “over there.”
The coffee beans are on the shelf over yonder.
The spittin’ image of
The spittin’ (spitting) image of means that someone looks exactly like someone else.
You are the spittin’ image of my sister!
Pretty as a (Georgia) peach
This is a frequently used simile (comparison) to give someone a nice compliment by telling them that they’re very pretty.
You can either include “Georgia” (a state famous for its delicious peaches) or simply say “pretty as a peach.”
Your daughter is as pretty as a peach.
This is slang for children.
Do you know if the chillins went to sleep?
God/Lord willin’ and the Creek don’t rise
This phrase is used to mean that you’ve done all you can, and the rest isn’t up to you.
My whole life, I assumed that creek was being used in the standard way, to mean “a small stream of water.” In this context, the creek don’t rise would be a slang way of saying “the creek doesn’t flood.”
However, my grandma recently explained to me that creek is capitalized, and the saying refers to the Creek Indian tribe.
After doing some research, it turns out that people debate which answer is correct! Either way, the meaning is the same.
Are you coming to the party on Saturday?
Lord willin’ and the Creek don’t rise.
Somethin’ (something) awful is used to emphasize what you’re saying.
He wants those new shoes somethin’ awful. (In this example, he really wants the shoes.)
This is a way to say “I think.”
I reckon it’s going to rain tonight.
Once in a blue moon
Here’s a phrase that’s used to show that something doesn’t happen very often.
A chance to be on TV only comes once in a blue moon.
Heavens to Betsy
This is a very Southern way to say “Oh my gosh!” You use it when you’re shocked by something.
Did you know Tammy broke up with Fred?
Heavens to Betsy!
Till the cows come home
Till the cows come home means that something is indefinite (will never end).
You can cry till the cows come home, but we’re not going to get ice cream.
Darlin‘ (darling) is a term of endearment like honey or sweetie.
Can you pass me the water pitcher, darlin’?
There has always been a sort of harmless war between soda (said in the South and the Northeast) and pop (said in the Midwest). They’re two different ways of referring to a carbonated drink like Sprite or Pepsi.
In the South, it’s even more common to simply ask for a Coke, even if you don’t want a Coca-Cola (the brand drink). We simply use Coke to refer to all types of sodas. If you’re interested in reading more about this, check out this Huffington Post article.
I’ll have a Coke with my dinner.
Britches refers to pants and comes from the more proper term “breeches.”
Pull up your britches!
Goin’ to hell in a handbasket
This is a very colorful saying used when something is headed for disaster.
We don’t have decorations, food or invitations for the party, and it’s next week. The whole thing is goin’ to hell in a handbasket.
Hush your mouth
This is another way to tell someone to be quiet.
You better hush your mouth!
Full as a tick
Here’s a great simile to express when you’re really stuffed (had enough food) after a meal.
I don’t want anymore. I’m full as a tick.
Hold your horses
Hold your horses is a way to tell someone to be patient or wait.
Hold your horses. It will be your turn next.
It doesn’t matter a hill of beans
This just means that it really doesn’t matter, although I’m not sure where the funny “hill of beans” part comes from!
Your opinion doesn’t matter a hill of beans.
Just fine and dandy
This phrase means that everything is good.
I’m just fine and dandy.
If you’re raisin’ (raising) Cain, you’re getting into trouble. Cain refers to the world’s first murderer referenced in the Bible.
Your son is out there raisin’ Cain again.
Three sheets to the wind
This is a rather funny saying that’s used when someone is drunk.
He’s already three sheets to the wind and it’s only 6 p.m.!
This is another way to say “darn.”
Dagnabit! I lost my wallet again!
This stands for “young ones” and is used to refer to kids.
There are so many young’uns here.
This is a Southern way to say hello.
Howdy! How are you today?
A mind to
Southerners use “a mind to” when they’re considering (or sometimes threatening) something.
I have a mind to take away your cell phone for a week.
Varmint is a Southern way of saying vermin (small wild animals or insects that carry disease and are a problem for farms). Varmint includes rats, cockroaches, flies, etc.
We have to do something about the varmint in the barn.
This is slang for “is not,” “am not” and “are not.”
There ain’t any milk in the fridge.
Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out
This phrase is used to show that you either don’t care if someone leaves or you want them to leave right away. It’s a negative phrase to use if you’re annoyed or angry at your guest.
You’re awful. I’m leaving!
Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out!
This is slang for “himself.”
He really hurt hisself.
This is slang for “let me.”
Lemme tell you what happened last week!
She was madder than a wet hen
Here’s another very colorful saying to show that someone was extremely mad.
After I beat her at chess, she was madder than a wet hen.
Ain’t worth a lick
Ain’t worth a lick means that someone or something isn’t worth anything. In other words, they have no value.
Your opinion ain’t worth a lick.
Worn slap out
This phrase means that you’re really tired.
After a long day of work, I’m worn slap out.
This just means “very good.”
Make sure you wash the car real good.
Hotcakes/flapjacks on the griddle
Hotcakes or flapjacks on the griddle refers to pancakes. A griddle is a flat cooking surface.
I’ve made flapjacks on the griddle for breakfast.
Beauty is only skin deep
This saying means that one’s outward appearance has nothing to do with their personality. In other words, you can be pretty on the outside, but you still might be a mean person.
Keep in mind that beauty is only skin deep.
Lost your marbles
If someone has lost their marbles, they’re out of their mind (going crazy).
Have you lost your marbles? You know we can’t afford that new car!
I don’t know what all
This is a phrase you can put at the end of just about any sentence, and it just means “I don’t know what else.”
They had hotdogs, hamburgers, ice cream and I don’t know what all.
Everyone uses ugly to mean, “the opposite of pretty/beautiful.” But Southerners also use this word in place of mean (not nice).
You are acting so ugly right now!
Though I could write about the South till the cows come home, these new words and phrases should be enough to get y’all ready for listening to some good ol’ (old) Southern American English!
Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.
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