Find Your Passion: Southern Roots Inspire Student's Love of Language

Jamie Lee McReynolds

by Christoffer Feemster

If Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara of “Gone with the Wind” fame had grown up in the information age, would her words lose their magic?

Questions about language and culture formed the spark for Jamie Lee McReynolds to research, while a University of Alabama undergraduate, the way we speak and how it sounds.

After completing an introductory linguistics course at UA, McReynolds, a 22-year-old from Vernon who majored in English and Spanish, decided to capitalize on her fascination with dialects and enroll in an independent study course. Under the guidance of Dr. Thomas Sawallis, UA English instructor, she explored whether the Southern dialect was shifting toward a more standard form of English.

“I’ve always thought of dialects and linguistics as very interesting, and specifically the Southern dialect,” said McReynolds, who has a Southern drawl. The project involved studying speech patterns of three women from different generations and analyzing the emphasis each placed on different words.

“I took 15 words with the same beginning and end, like bad, bid, bud, and had my grandmother, mother and myself speak into a recorder,” McReynolds said. “I was looking to see if the vowel sounds would change between generations.”

Jamie Lee McReynolds
Jamie Lee McReynolds

Her 81-year-old grandmother, 56-year-old mother, and McReynolds’ recordings were then loaded into a computer and analyzed by a software program called Praat. Praat breaks down sound waves and analyzes the phonetics of speech. The results of the study surprised her.

“I found in my study that we weren’t shifting toward the standard,” she said. “This is odd, because most studies find the opposite. I believe it had to do with the size of my town; it’s small, having only about 1,800 people. In larger places though, the shift toward the standard is occurring.”

McReynolds said migration patterns in more populous areas result in a mingling of dialects and accents, eventually culminating with standard speech. This led McReynolds to conclude that the people surrounding you may have a greater impact on your dialect than anything else, including mass communications.

“A lot of studies have found that mass communication also contributes to the shift,” she said. “Most of the anchors on the news speak in a very standard form of English, but once I turn it off, I might call my grandmother and talk to her. I’m just as Southern as she is.”

McReynolds built on the project in another UA class, Advanced Studies in Linguistics, by conducting a more in-depth study. “This study involved the same three people, but rather than looking at the dialects directly, I looked at the discourse, which is the way that you talk, and the lexical data, the actual vocabulary and terminology that are used. I collected conversations and then used the recordings to analyze different features.”

Following her May graduation, McReynolds plans to attend graduate school in secondary education at UA.

“I plan to teach school, maybe English or Spanish, or perhaps I’ll be a translator. If I teach, I’d like to incorporate linguistics into my teaching.”

McReynolds said it was the classes and, specifically, the teachers at UA that helped ignite her passion for language.

“I have to say a lot of it carried over from the teachers. Dr. Sawallis worked with me on this project whenever I needed help -- weekends, breaks, anytime. Having someone there who keeps you motivated and on track meant a lot to me and has enhanced my studies greatly.”

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.