Geitner Simmons, an editorial writer with the Omaha World-Herald, has a long and interesting post (at his blog Regions of Mind) about Southern speech, beginning with a striking quote from Thomas Nelson Page’s 1897 book Social Life in Old Virginia: Before the War:
Quite a large crop of so-called Southern plays, or at least plays in which Southerners have figured, has of late been introduced on the stage, and the supposititious Southerner is as absurd a creation as the wit of ignorance ever devised. The Southern girl is usually an underbred little provincial, whose chief characteristic is to say “reckon” and “real,” with strong emphasis, in every other sentence. And the Southern gentleman is a sloven whose linen has never known starch; who clips the endings of his words; says “Sah” at the end of every sentence, and never uses an “r” except in the last syllable of “nigger.” With a slouched hat, a slovenly dress, a plentiful supply of “sahs,” and a slurred speech exclusively applied to “niggers,” he is equipped for the stage. And yet it is not unkindly meant: only patronizingly, which is worse. That Thackeray, Matthew Arnold, Lawrence, and other visitors whose English passes current, declared after a visit to America that they found the purest English speech spoken in Virginia, goes for nothing.
(The Page book is online at what Simmons rightly calls the “terrific Web site” Documenting the American South.) He then quotes extensively from Michael Montgomery’s analysis of the history of the “Southern accent” in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and ends with one of the best nonstandard verb forms I’ve ever seen:
In the early ’90s, a coworker (and good friend) of mine at a North Carolina newspaper interviewed a local fellow who used an unusual faux-past tense form of the verb “squeeze.” The fellow was being interviewed because he had chased down a criminal and restrained him with a headlock. The fellow’s quote: “He tried to get loose, so I squz him harder.”