The classification of dialects is an inexact science, as it is often difficult to track the minute differences in grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, and intonation that distinguish one from the next, and more importantly, track how those changes occurred. Migratory routes provide a basic framework for identifying dialects across the country. Informed by this framework, linguists identify two umbrella dialects in the state of Arkansas: Midland, sometimes called South Midland or Mountain Speech, and Southern, which refers to east-coastal Southern speech.

Geography also plays a decisive role in the distribution of dialects. The Ouachita Mountains, for example, form a natural barrier for language and culture. John Gould Fletcher observed as much in his historical study, Arkansas (1947): “One may say that there are roughly two regions in Arkansas: the highlands, occupying the northwestern half, and the lowlands, occupying the southeastern half of the area. These two are distinct in types of population, in scenery, and in culture.” Indeed, the Midland dialect is concentrated in hilly northwestern Arkansas, while the Southern dialect is predominant in the southeastern lowlands. But non-geographical factors also affect dialect distribution. Conversely, many Arkansans attribute a distinct lexicon to the entire state. In his Arkansas Times column, Bob Lancaster often waxed lyrical on the myriad “Arkiana,” including the following euphemisms for death: “Passed,” “Gone to glory,” and the charmingly verbose, “Done crossed over into Campground” (November 9, 2011). Whether this gloss is indeed unique to the state seems to be of little consequence to its claimants.

Midland and Southern Dialects
Hans Kurath first identified the Midland dialect in Pennsylvania and the Appalachian Mountains, later amending his definition to include North Midland and South Midland. Midland speech is rhotic, meaning that the “r” sound is always pronounced in such words as “hard” and “butter.” Southern speech, in contrast, is described as “r-less,” or non-rhotic. The Southern dialect is also marked by its unique diphthongization, whereby vowels are drawn out into two sounds (“hay-nd” for “hand”), and monophthongization, whereby the “ay” sound receives an “ah” treatment (“sahn” for “sign”). C. George Boeree attributes a similar handling of vowels to South Midland.

To compare the two dialects (Midland and Southern), Boeree provides the following examples. Both are characterized by a “drawl,” that is, the lengthening, fronting, and raising of vowels, as in:

/ai/ > /æ:/ in find, mind

/oi/ > /o/ in boil, oil

/u:/ > /yu:/ in due, tuesday

au/ > /æu/ in out, doubt

/e/ > /ei/ in bed, head

/e/ > /i/ in pen, ten

greasy > greazy

And differing word choice:

carry > tote

dragged > drug

you > you all, y’all

Southern will occasionally exclude medial consonants:

help, bulb, wolf > /hep/, /bœb/, /wuf/

Southern vs. South Midland:

Dropped r’s vs. strong r’s

wash: /wa:sh/ vs. /wosh/, /worsh/

think: /thingk/ vs. /theingk/

egg: /eg/ vs. /eig/

moon: /mu:n/ vs. /mü:n/

And differing word choice:

snap beans vs. green beans

goobers vs. peanuts

In Arkansas and surrounding states to the north and east, the Ozark Mountains are well known for the South Midland dialect and culture, from which the “hillbilly” stereotype derives. In his seminal ethnography Down in the HollerVance Randolph explores the etymology of many common Ozark words and traces much of the folk speech back to Elizabethan Britain, if not before. Indeed, many seeming hillbilly malapropisms can be found in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. This is likely due to the prevalence of Scotch-Irish ancestors who migrated from Appalachia. Of course, as Thomas Hart Benton insisted to Randolph, “The general effect is not Elizabethan, because their speech is mixed with modern slang and wisecracks.”

Historical Factors
Migratory routes are an apt starting point, as the story of the archetypal Arkansas township is one of vast immigration and emigration. Most studies of dialect in the state begin around the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This was the beginning of in-migration to the area. There were only a few settlements along the Arkansas River at this time, including Arkansas Post, owing to remaining Native American territories and Spanish land grants to French families. In the Military Tract of 1812, the U.S. government granted six million acres to surviving soldiers of the War of 1812, two million of which were in Arkansas. With steady population growth, the territory achieved statehood in 1836. Vast resources of arable land, timber, climate, water and waterways, minerals, and game drew immigrants from England, France, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland via East Coast cities from the 1830s through the 1850s. With them came the Midland dialect, which Gordon Wood, borrowing from Kurath, describes as originating in Pennsylvania and dipping through Appalachian Mountain valleys in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and finally northwestern Arkansas. Coastal Southerners were longer in reaching Arkansas, as there were comparatively few safe passages through the mountains in Georgia and the Carolinas. The dawn of railroad networks in the 1850s allowed for travel in the opposite direction of rivers and old highways, and so the Southern dialect reached Arkansas at last. The widespread use of the cotton gin fueled this westward expansion, as interest in the cash crop grew across the Southwest, including the lowland plains of Arkansas.

The state welcomed immigration in a number of ways. During the California Gold Rush (1848–1855), the Arkansas Gazette encouraged travelers to pass through Arkansas instead of Independence, Missouri. Additionally, Arkansas’s tax laws were comparatively liberal, while public domain was abundant. One law granted residents 160 acres of land (compared to forty acres in other states), irrespective of age or sex, a full twenty-two years before the federal Homestead Act of 1862. After the Civil War, when the state was in desperate need of manpower, the Office of Immigration Commission was established to draw in immigrants. To that end, the office published and disseminated Resources of the State of Arkansas, with Description of Counties, Railroads, Mines, and the City of Little Rock. Fifty percent of these postwar immigrants were from Tennessee, with Missouri a strong second. A reputation for religious tolerance attracted Austrian, German, Swiss, and Irish Catholics to the state, and the Diocese of Little Rock’s Bishop Andrew Byrne furthermore recruited priests, nuns, laborers, and farmers from Ireland. Patricia Joanne Hoff reports that the state was even advertised at the World’s Fair of 1893. Finally, the drought and cold winters of 1894 and 1895 brought farmers from the Midwest and other parts of the South into the state.

A second federal Homestead Act was responsible for further in-migration at the turn of the twentieth century, but during the Great Depression, much of the population emigrated to Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and California. By 1960, Arkansas had sustained a net loss of population. The population has since stabilized and continues to increase gradually.

Mingling Dialects
To return to the question of geography, some scholars, such as Raouf J. Halaby, maintain that, during the mass immigration of the post–Civil War period, “the geographical division of the Ozark Mountain range of the central and northwestern segments of the state and the low plains to the east and south created contrasting and lasting cultural and economic differences.” This point would seem to cement the Midland and Southern dialects into their respective northwestern and southeastern orientations. But this is an oversimplification. Halaby, citing a 1975 survey, identifies four “corner dialects” (represented by Clay County in the northeast, Benton County in the northwest, Miller County in the southwest, and Chicot County in the southeast) that reflect the overlay of east-to-west migratory routes upon the unique geography and history of the state. Old migratory routes have indeed been preserved—of those people surveyed in 1975 aged seventy-five or older, northern Arkansans were most often born in the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, while southern Arkansans were from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—yet from their responses, Halaby identifies four distinct dialects rather than two.

Hoff likewise describes a muddling of Mountain Speech (Midland) and Southern dialects in her study of Faulkner County, describing the county as a “transitional area.” She finds that Faulkner County demonstrates greater differences than similarities with Southern dialect. For example, Southern speech is “r-less,” whereas the sound is used “almost invariably” in Faulkner County. The county does, however, demonstrate the Southern tendencies of diphthongization and monophthongization. Furthermore, she claims, Southern speech in Faulkner County bears some similarities to Mountain speech and even Eastern speech.

Gary N. Underwood, in contrast, interprets this heterogeneity as ultimate homogeneity: “While there may be numerous localized differences in vocabulary and incidental pronunciations, they are of minor importance in dialect differentiation […] systematic differences in syntax and phonology (that is, differences in the ordered generative and transformational rules constituting native speaker competence) appear to be few.”

Other Factors
Many non-geographical factors affect the distribution and evolution of dialects and complicate their classification. Social stratification is perhaps the most prominent, followed by age and degree of urbanization. Halaby’s study of age bears surprising results. He found that “the older a person is, the more varied and the richer is his/her dialect.” For example:

The great-grandparents of today’s youngsters courted, sparked, kept company with, or pursued their intended, promised, or betrothed.

To today’s youngsters, a fence is a fence; the vast majority amongst them do not know the difference between a picket fence, a slat fence, a paling fence, a grape stake, a wall fence, a rail fence, a log fence, a bois d’arc fence, a rick rack fence, and a split-rail fence.

Instead of taking her baby for a walk in a carriage, pram, go cart, crib cradle, buggy, or perambulator, today’s mother uses the stroller.

Halaby also argues that mass media, standardized education, rural-to-urban migration, and an evolving social code have together “contributed to a more standard dialect and a paucity of colorful and expressive terms” in younger generations. Wood expounds upon the standardization of dialect in Arkansas, describing how, with the influx of industrial interests in early statehood, some words were codified in commercial publications, while others were lost. Modern Arkansans, and indeed other southerners, can attest to this shift with use of brand words like “coke” and “kleenex.” But Wood goes on to suggest that the Midland dialect now seems to be expanding west and south in “wide zones,” and that “in the interior parts of the South dialectical patterns have not stabilized themselves.” The question is whether these shifts will result in further dialect differentiation or, as Halaby and Underwood suggest, homogenization.

Indeed, it would seem more research is needed on Arkansas dialects. A scholarly treatment of African-American dialects in the state is particularly overdue. But the studies that have been done clearly show that the landscape of Arkansas dialects is a product of geography, migration, social stratification, and relative age and exposure.

For additional information:
“Arkansas.” International Dialects of English Archive. http://www.dialectsarchive.com/arkansas (accessed April 22, 2022).

Boeree, C. George. “Dialects of English.” http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/dialectsofenglish.html (accessed April 22, 2022).

Bynum, Joyce. “Folk Speech in Southwestern Arkansas.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics 49 (Winter 1992–1993): 485.

Dumas, Bethany Kay. “A Study of the Dialect in Newton County, Arkansas.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 1971.

Halaby, Raouf J. The Impact of Migratory Routes on Arkansas Dialects. Arkadelphia, AR: Ouachita Baptist University, 2007.

Hoff, Patricia Joanne. “A Dialect Study of Faulkner County, Arkansas.” PhD diss., Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 1968.

Kurath, Hans. A Word Geography of the Eastern United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949.

Kurath, Hans, and Raven I. McDavid Jr. The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961.

Lancaster, Bob. “A Few Bits of Arkiana.” Arkansas Times, November 9, 2011. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/no-cuppa-nothing/Content?oid=1938745 (accessed April 22, 2022).

Randolph, Vance, and George P. Wilson. Down in the Holler: A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953.

Underwood, Gary N. “Research Methods of the Arkansas Language Survey.” American Speech 43, nos. 3/4 (1972): 211–220.

Wood, Gordon R. “Dialect Contours in the Southern States.” American Speech 38, no. 4 (1963): 243–256.

Monica Madey Mylonas
Center for Arkansas History and Culture


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