Potato bugs, toilet paper, and the South Carolina primaries

The presidential election season is bringing the South Carolina dialect into the news. Here’s how to understand it.

A potato bug. Picture source: http://homeceomom.blogspot.com/2011/07/bug-is-bug.html.

In general, there is not nearly as much dialectal diversity in the United States as there is in most of the rest of the world.  There are a couple of reasons for this, the biggest one being that English speakers haven’t been here long enough to develop very many of them.  English has been spoken in England for maybe 1600 years, and there is an enormous amount of dialect diversity there.  (I’m a native speaker, and I frequently can’t understand people in the north of England, although they’re definitely native speakers, too.  Actually, I have trouble with some of the south of England, too.)  In contrast, we’ve been here for maybe 400 years–there just hasn’t been time for the language to diverge as much as it has on the other side of the pond.  You can see a strong correspondence between dialect diversity and how long a region of the United States has been settled by English speakers–the population history is oldest on the East Coast, and that’s where the bulk of the dialect diversity is.  Travel west, where English speakers settled much more recently, and there’s much less regional difference in the language.  (In contrast: Spanish has been spoken in the western US considerably longer, and there are fascinating regional dialects of Spanish in the western US.)

The weird rhythms of the ongoing American presidential election season are taking us to South Carolina at the moment, and that has had the effect of bringing South Carolina dialects to someplace where you don’t normally hear them much: the national media.  In case you’re not American, here’s a little something to help you acclimate yourself to the way the English language is spoken in the south of the country.  The first video is short, but has a lot of data.  The second one is long, but funny. Some things to watch for:

  • The l after vowels.  Across the Anglophone world, l after vowels (i.e., at the end of the syllable) is a common locus for dialectal variation.  For the southerners, there really isn’t one–it’s more like a w or a u In English dialects worldwide, this is a pretty common variant.   Listen to the words oil  and y’all.
  • The second person plural y’all. 
  • Lexical items.  In the longer video, any American native speaker will fall on the floor laughing when the southerner first says that she calls any carbonated beverage coke, and then claims that she doesn’t.  Basically, carbonated beverages are soda in some parts of the country, pop in others, soda pop in a few, and–this is highly stigmatized–coke in others, stereotypically in southern parts of the country.
  • The pronunciation of the vowel spelt a at the end of words like grandma, and in the middle of water, caught, and lawyer. 

Here’s the short video:

Here’s the long video.  The Northerner is from Pennsylvania, and the Southerner is from North Carolina.  (Yes, North Carolina is in the south.)  I get the impression that they both went to college in Pennsylvania, and the Southerner talks a lot about how she has tried to speak differently since leaving the South.


A couple of notes:

  1. As a native of the Pacific Northwest, I must insist on this. They’re not rolly-pollies–they’re potato bugs!
  2. I can’t even imagine what word or expression the survey is trying to get at when it asks what you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining: in the Pacific Northwest, the sun does not shine.
  3. If you’re wondering about the expression for when you throw toilet paper at a house: yes, in the United States that is “a thing.” Teenagers do it to hassle people they don’t like.  Typically it includes TP’ing a tree in the front yard in addition to the house; it’s difficult to impossible to get the TP out of a tree, and it stays there, a mark of shame, for weeks. See below.

4 thoughts on “Potato bugs, toilet paper, and the South Carolina primaries”

  1. Ok…it’s a sun shower; I’ve never heard of a potato bug; and tp-ing is as often a sign of affection as it is a sign of hatred. Left NJ when I was 18 months old for Miami. Raised by New Yorkers. Frequent sun showers in both Miami and my current home of Colorado. Additional tidbit…the oo in roof in root sounds just like the oo in BOOT! Great post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Curative Power of Medical Data

JCDL 2020 Workshop on Biomedical Natural Language Processing


Criminal Curiosities


Biomedical natural language processing

Mostly Mammoths

but other things that fascinate me, too


Adventures in natural history collections

Our French Oasis


ACL 2017

PC Chairs Blog

Abby Mullen

A site about history and life

EFL Notes

Random commentary on teaching English as a foreign language

Natural Language Processing

Université Paris-Centrale, Spring 2017

Speak Out in Spanish!

living and loving language




Exploring and venting about quantitative issues

%d bloggers like this: