Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


Virginia’s Many Voices


Do you say “ote” (for “out”) or “abote” (for “about”)? Does “four dogs” becomes “fo-uh dah-awgs?” Chances are you are speaking in what some linguists call the Virginia Piedmont dialect. (See the Dialect Map of American English.)


You probably hail from somewhere south of Charlottesville, west of Richmond and east of the Blue Ridge, according to Clifton Potter, a Lynchburg College history professor who is interested in the many nuances of the Virginia accent. “Because if you go to Roanoke, it’s entirely different,” Potter told the Lynchburg News and Advance in a January 28, 2005 article by Margaret Goerig.


Roanoke and parts farther west are at the northern edge of the Southern Appalachian dialect. If you come from western Virginia, you might drop your “g” with any word ending in “ing,” a remnant of the Scotch-Irish lilt of the area’s early inhabitants.


The famous Tidewater accent, on the other hand, is a part of the Southern Coastal dialect, quite similar to the Virginia Piedmont. It roughly stretches along the James River from Virginia Beach/Norfolk (“Nawfuk”) to a little past Richmond. Tidewater Virginians tend to call their mothers’ sisters “ahnts” and the “ow” sound becomes a long “o,” so that “house” becomes “hoose.” They also pronounce “car” as “kyar."


It’s no coincidence that Virginia’s three major southern dialects and their many regional variations are geographically based. (Northern Virginia, of course, is a melting pot of accents.) Dialects, which include idiosyncratic words and phrases, as well as accents, arise in part because of geographic isolation. The southern accent in general developed because the South was more agricultural and people tended to move around less than up North.


The unique Virginia accents, a bit softer than other southern neighbors, are sometimes attributed to the regional English accents of early settlers, writes Kirsten Bowen, reviewing a play based on early Virginia settlers in the November 2004 American Repertory Theater. The “distressed cavaliers,” who had fought for Charles I in the English Civil War in the mid-17th century and then had to flee Oliver Cromwell’s persecution, came to Virginia mostly from southern and western England. They brought such terms as favor (resemble), moonshine, skillet, and traipse, that are no longer used in Great Britain, but still crop up here 350 years later. Also, the Piedmont “ote” and “abote” pronunciations are considered quite similar to the British dialect still spoken in England’s western counties today.


Many linguists fear that distinct regional dialects and accents are fast disappearing, due to such factors as immigration, a transient population and the media. PBS journalist Robert McNeil addressed the issue in a three-hour TV documentary last year, “Do You Speak American?” He traveled through the major speech regions in the U.S., including the South, but concluded that Americans still value local identity too much to adopt a homogenized American dialect.


William Labov, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. He is one of the authors of the 1998 Telsur Project, in which 768 people across the U.S. were interviewed and their speech patterns analyzed. He believes that while some small, local dialects are disappearing, differences in larger areas are now stronger. Thus, as one contributor to the blog “Virginia Rising” noted, the once diverse cadences of the Appalachians have become “generic NASCAR Southern."


Another linguist, Walt Wolfram, a professor at the University of North Carolina, has found that people have a much stronger connection with their dialects then they did in years past. In the past, a heavy regional accent was often considered a liability. Recently, researchers were surprised to discover that young residents of Smith Island, just over the Virginia border in the Chesapeake Bay, have stronger accents than their parents. They surmise that as other aspects of the Bay culture decline, a new generation is trying to hold onto its heritage.


Biographer James L. West III, author of William Styron: A Life, found his Tidewater accent an asset when he was interviewing people in Newport News for his book. “It probably opened more doors (and memories) than might have been the case if I had come to the state with a different way of speaking,” West said in an interview with Virginia Libraries in 2000. (See An Interview With James L. West III.)


In fact, it is not only linguists who are intrigued with Virginia accents. Actors, voice coaches and other dramatic types can access the International Dialects of English Archive to hear four audio clips of Virginians – two men and two women – reading the same text. (See IDEA -- Virginia Dialects.)


Author West found his accent in demand on the silver screen, as well. When a film was made of a Styron story, “Shradrach,” in 1998, the producers brought West to New York for a day to work with star Harvey Keitel, a native of Brooklyn, and Keitel’s voice coach. Keitel learned the diphthongs – those Virginia gliding vowels quickly, the biographer said.


“The film is now out on video, so if you see it, remember that Harvey Keitel has my accent,” West says.


NEXT TIME: Virginia’s Clear Skies and Stormy Weather


-- May 9, 2005












About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.