Skip to main content

Mapping Southern American English, 1861-1865

  • Michael Ellis (a1)

Since April 2015 is the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, now is a particularly appropriate time to review the progress of the Corpus of American Civil War Letters (CACWL) project and to suggest directions it might go in the future. Since 2007, we have located and collected images of nearly 11,000 letters and transcribed over 9,000 of these, totaling well over four million words. Of the transcribed letters, just over 6,000 were written by southerners (490 individual letter writers), a corpus extensive enough to begin identifying and describing what features were distinctively Southern in 19th-century American English. We have already mapped many of these features that are especially common in southern letters, for example, fixing to, howdy, past tense/past participle hope ‘helped’, qualifier tolerable, intensifier mighty, pronoun hit, and the noun heap. By way of comparison, we also have a somewhat smaller but rapidly growing collection of 3,000 transcribed letters written by individuals from northern states, and variant features from these letters are also being mapped. The work at present is very preliminary; there are thousands of additional letters to be collected and transcribed, particularly from northern states and from states west of the Mississippi. However, by mapping variants from letters that have already been transcribed, we can begin to get a better understanding of regional differences, as well as how regional features spread westward in the decades before the Civil War. We can also begin to obtain some sense of how American English in general, and particularly its regional dialects, may have changed since the mid 19th century. This article presents a preview of a number of those findings.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: Michael Ellis, Department of English, Missouri State University, 901 S. National Ave., Springfield, Missouri 65806, E-mail:
Hide All
Atwood, E. Bagby. 1953. A survey of verb forms in the eastern United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Bailey, Guy. 1997. When did Southern American English begin? In Edgar W. Schneider (ed.), Englishes around the world. Vol. 1: General studies, British Isles, North America. Studies in Honour of Manfred Görlach, 255-275. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Dakin, Robert F. 1966. The Dialect Vocabulary of the Ohio River Valley: A Survey of the Distribution of Selected Vocabulary Forms in an Area of Complex Settlement History. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan PhD dissertation.
DARE. Dictionary of American Regional English. 1985-2013. Edited by Frederic G. Cassidy, John Houston Hall, and Luanne von Schneidemesser. 6 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Ellis, Michael. 1994. Literary dialect as linguistic evidence: Subject-verb concord in nineteenth-century Southern literature. American Speech 69(2). 128-144.
Ellis, Michael and Montgomery, Michael B.. 2011. About all: Studies in nineteenth-century American English I. American Speech 86(3). 340-354.
Ellis, Michael and Montgomery, Michael B.. 2012. LAMSAS, CACWL, and the South-South Midland dialect boundry in nineteenth-century North Carolina. American Speech 87(4). 470-490.
Ellis, Michael. 2013. North Carolina English, 1861–1865, a guide and glossary. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Kurath, Hans. 1949. A word geography of the eastern United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Kurath, Hans and McDavid, Raven I. Jr. 1961. The pronunciation of English in the Atlantic states. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Montgomery, Michael B. 2006. Notes on the development of existential they . American Speech 81(2). 132-145.
Montgomery, Michael B., Ellis, Michael and Cooper, Brandon. 2014. “When did Southern American English really begin?” In Sarah Buschfeld, Thomas Hoffmann, Magnus Huber and Alexander Kautzch (eds.), The Evolution of Englishes. The Dynamic Model and beyond, 331-348. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Montgomery, Michael B. 2015. The crucial century for English in the American South. In Michael D. Picone and Catherin Evans Davies (eds.), New perspectives on language variety in the South, historical and contemporary approaches, 97-117. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
OED. Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2000–. Oxford University Press.
Pederson, Lee, McDaniel, Susan L. and Adams, Carol M. (eds.). 1986-1993. Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States. 7 vols. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Linguistic Geography
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 2049-7547
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-linguistic-geography
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 34
Total number of PDF views: 98 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 501 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 6th December 2016 - 19th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.