Thursday, February 7, 2013

United States of Languages: East South Central

As we move on from yesterday's linguistic voyage through the South Atlantic, we find ourselves in the traditional "South", often referred to as Dixie.


Not just famous for fried chicken and horse racing, Kentucky is also the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. Most Kentuckians are of English, German, Irish and African descent. English is the official language and less than one in twenty speak a language other than English.

Like most places in the U.S., Spanish is the second language with nearly 2% of the population speaking it as their main language. German, French, Chinese and Japanese combine to account for only 1% of the population.

Elvis Presley, "The King of Rock and Roll"

The state of Tennessee was originally named after Tanasi, a Cherokee village that was encountered by British traders in the early 1700s. The meaning of the name is uncertain, but some have claimed it means "meeting place" or "winding river". Tennessee is often known as the homeland of many genres of popular American music, including rock and roll. Memphis, the state's largest city, is considered to be the birthplace of blues, while Nashville is the center of the country music world. Elvis Presley, otherwise known as "The King", also called the state home. 

Just over 95% of Tennesseeans speak English as their main language, while Spanish comes in a distant second with 2.5% of the population. German and French combined account for less than one percent of the entire population, while Chinese and Vietnamese are even less widespread. 


Before the Civil War, Mississippi was one of the richest states in the country, but nowadays it is one of the poorest. Historically, its economy was centered on cotton production, which is still important in the state today. The state's name is a favorite children's spelling word (especially when competing to see who can do it fastest), and comes from the Mississippi River, which got its name from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi, meaning "Great River". 

The majority of Mississippians speak English at home, though Spanish comes in with 2% of the population. There are also small numbers of French and Chinese speakers. Another minority language is Choctaw, a member of the Muskogean language family that is spoken by members of the Choctaw tribe. The Choctaw language has three dialects, two of which are spoken in Oklahoma, and one particular to the Choctaw people in Mississippi. If you want to say "dog" in Choctaw, it's ofi, while katos is "cat". 

An Alabama cotton farm during harvest.

Nicknamed the "Heart of Dixie", Alabama is also known for its cotton production, just like Mississippi. The state is named for a Native American tribe of the same name. The Alabama people now live in Texas, and a few still speak the Alabama language, another Muskogean language like Choctaw. 

Over 96% of Alabamians (don't ask us why it's not "Alabamans") only speak English, with just over 2% speaking Spanish at home, and much smaller numbers of German and French speakers. Sadly, Dixie is not as linguistically diverse as other parts of the United States. Its place names were influenced by the various languages of original settlers, however. Alabama has been known by many names since European settlers appeared in America, including Alibamo, Limamu, Alebamon, and Allibamou.

Tomorrow we'll be moving towards the center of the country to look at states such as Oklahoma and Texas.