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Southern American English as defined by the monophthongization of /aɪ/
before obstruents (Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006:126).
Southern American English is a group of dialects of the English language spoken throughout the Southern region of the United States, from Virginia and Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, and from the Atlantic coast to central Texas. Southern American English can be divided into different sub-dialects (see American English), with speech differing between regions. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) shares similarities with Southern dialect, unsurprising given African Americans' strong historical ties to the region.
The Southern American English dialects are often stigmatized (as are other American English dialects such as New York-New Jersey English). Therefore, speakers may code-switch or may eliminate more distinctive features from their personal idiolect in favor of "neutral-sounding" English (General American), though this involves more changes in phonetics than vocabulary. Well-known speakers of Southern dialect include playwright Tennessee Williams, singer Elvis Presley, and United States Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Overview of Southern dialects
The range of Southern dialects includes the Confederate states that seceded from the United States during the American Civil War, plus those that were divided by the conflict.
Southern dialects substantially originated from immigrants from the British Isles who moved to the South in the 17th and 18th centuries. The South was known for being largely settled by English from the West Midlands - the West Country. (The West Country dialect of Britain is also very similar to the Southern dialects.) Settlement was also made by peoples from other parts of the British isles, particularly by Protestants from Ulster and Scotland.
Others with mostly English roots usually settled along the Atlantic coast. Both strains combined with the African influences from the African Americans who were at this time enslaved in the South. Others brought accents from other cultural and linguistic traditions.
Southern dialects in some form can be found chiefly in the States of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the Ozark and Little Dixie areas in Missouri. The dialect found in the remaining rural areas of tidewater Maryland is similar to the dialect found in Virginia, and some experts have also suggested that the dialect found in two of Delaware's three counties is related to Southern.
There are also places in Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Montana, and the San Joaquin Valley of California where the prevailing dialect is Southern in character or heavily Southern-influenced, due to historical settlement by Southerners. Also, the speech patterns in the rural areas of the southernmost counties of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois - settled by Southerners and other groups - have strong Southern influences.
Southern dialects are also common in areas associated with the oil industry of Alaska. In the second half of the 20th-Century, concurrent with the development of the oil industry and pipeline, large numbers of Gulf Coast, Texas and Oklahoma petroleum workers moved to Alaska for high pay and adventure - and many stayed.
Few generalizations can be made about Southern pronunciation as a whole, as there is great variation between regions in the South (see the different southern American English dialects section below for more information) and between older and younger people. Upheavals such as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II caused mass migrations throughout the United States. Southern American English as we know it today began to take its current shape only after WWII.
The following features are characteristic of older SAE, and the younger a speaker is the less likely he or she is to use these features:
- Like Australian English and English English, the English of the coastal Deep South is historically non-rhotic: it drops the sound of final /r/ before a consonant or a word boundary, so that guard sounds similar to god (but the former has a longer vowel than the latter) and sore like saw. Intrusive /r/, where an /r/ sound is inserted at a word break between two vowel sounds ("lawr and order") is not a feature of coastal SAE, as it is in many other non-rhotic accents. Today only some areas like New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, and Norfolk have non-rhotic speakers (Labov, Ash, and Bomberg 2006: 47-48). Non-rhoticity is rapidly disappearing from almost all Southern accents, to a greater degree than it has been lost in the other traditionally non-rhotic dialects of the East Coast such as New York and Boston. The remaining non-rhotic SAE speakers also use intrusive r, like New England and New York City.
- /ɹ/ → 0 | before /+con/
- /ɹ/ → 0 | before #
- The distinction between the vowels sounds of words like caught and cot or talk and tock is mainly preserved. In much of the Deep South, the vowel found in words like talk and caught has developed into a diphthong, so that it sounds like the diphthong used in the word loud in the Northern United States.
- The distinction between /ɔr/ and /or/, as in horse and hoarse, for and four etc., is preserved.
- The wine-whine merger has not occurred, and these two words are pronounced with /w/ and /hw/ respectively.
- Lack of yod-dropping, thus pairs like do/due and loot/lute are distinct. Historically, words like due, lute, and new contained /juː/ (as RP does), but Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 53-54) report that the only Southern speakers today who make a distinction use a diphthong /ɪu/ in such words. They further report that speakers with the distinction are found primarily in North Carolina and northwest South Carolina, and in a corridor extending from Jackson to Tallahassee.
- The distinction between /ær/, /ɛr/, and /er/ in marry, merry, and Mary may be preserved by older speakers, but fewer young people make a distinction. The r-sound becomes almost a vowel, and may be elided after a long vowel, as it often is in AAVE.
The following phenomena are relatively wide spread in Newer SAE, though degree of features may differ between different regions and between rural and urban areas. The older the speaker the less likely he or she is to have these features:
- The merger of [ɛ] and [ɪ] before nasal consonants, so that pen and pin are pronounced the same, but the pin-pen merger is not found in New Orleans, Savannah, or Miami (which does not fall within the Southern dialect region). This sound change has spread beyond the South in recent decades and is now quite widespread in the Midwest and West as well.
- Lax and tense vowels often merge before /l/, making pairs like feel/fill and fail/fell homophones for speakers in some areas of the South. Some speakers may distinguish between the two sets of words by reversing the normal vowel sound, e.g., feel in SAE may sound like fill, and vice versa (Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006: 69-73). The final 'l'-sound in words like fool may be elided altogether, as it normally is in AAVE.
The following features are also associated with SAE:
- /z/ becomes [d] before /n/, for example [wʌdn̩t] wasn't, [bɪdnɪs] business, but hasn't is sometimes still pronounced [hæzənt] because there already exists a word hadn't pronounced [hædənt].
- /z/ → [d] | before /n/
- Many nouns are stressed on the first syllable that would be stressed on the second syllable in other accents. These include police, cement, Detroit, Thanksgiving, insurance, behind, display, recycle, and TV.
- The Southern Drawl, or the diphthongization or triphthongization of the traditional short front vowels as in the words pat, pet, and pit: these develop a glide up from their original starting position to [j], and then in some cases back down to schwa.
- /æ/ → [æjə]
- /ɛ/ → [ɛjə]
- /ɪ/ → [ɪjə]
- The Southern (Vowel) Shift, a chain shift of vowels which is described by Labov as:
- As a result of the "drawl" described above, [ɪ] moves to become a high front vowel, and [ɛ] to become a mid front vowel. In a parallel shift, the nuclei of [i] and [e] relax and become less front.
- The diphthong /aɪ/ becomes monophthongized to [aː]. Some speakers exhibit this feature at the ends of words and before voiced consonants but Canadian-style raising before voiceless consonants, so that ride is [raːd] and wide is [waːd], but right is [rəɪt] and white is [wəɪt]; others monophthongize /aɪ/ in all contexts. The [aː]-sound tends toward an [/æː/]-sound throughout most of the region, so that word pairs like rod (SAE [raːd], normally pronounced without any noticeable rounding) and ride (SAE [ræːd]) are never confused.
- /aɪ/ → [aː]
- The back vowels /u/ in boon and /o/ in code shift considerably forward.
- The open back unrounded vowel /ɑr/ card shifts upward towards /ɔ/ board, which in turn moves up towards the old location of /u/ in boon. This particular shift probably does not occur for speakers with the cot-caught merger.
- The distinction between /ɝr/ and /ʌr/ in furry and hurry is preserved.
- In some regions of the south, there is a merger of [ɔr] and [ɑr], making cord and card, for and far, form and farm etc. homonyms.
- The distinction between /ɪr/ and /iːr/ in mirror and nearer, Sirius and serious etc. are not preserved.
- /i/ is replaced with /ɛ/ at the end of a word, so that furry is pronounced as /fɝrɛ/ ("furreh")
- The distinction between the vowels that produce minimal pairs pour and poor, more and moor are not preserved.
- The l's in the words walk and talk are occasionally pronounced, causing the words talk and walk to be pronounced /wɑlk/ and /tɑlk/ by some southerners. A sample of that pronunciation can be found at http://www.utexas.edu/courses/linguistics/resources/socioling/talkmap/talk-nc.html.
- The phrase right here is often pronounced right 'tchere, likewise "restaurant" is pronounced "restrunt".
- Zero plural-second person copula.
- You [Ø] taller than Sheila
- They [Ø] gonna leave today (Cukor-Avila, 2003).
- He was a-hootin' and a-hollerin.'
- the wind was a-howlin.'
- The use of like to to mean something like nearly, often used in violent situations.
- I like to had a heart attack.
- Use of the contraction y'all as the second person plural pronoun. Its uncombined form — you all — is used less frequently. 
- When speaking about a group, y'all is general (I know y'all) —as in that group of people is familiar to you and you know them as a whole, whereas all y'all is much more specific and means you know each and every person in that group, not as a whole, but individually ("I know all y'all.") Y'all can also be used with the standard "-s" possessive.
- "I've got y'all's assignments here."
- Y'all is distinctly separate from the singular you. The statement, "I gave y'all my payment last week," is more precise than "I gave you my payment last week." You (if interpreted as singular) could imply the payment was given directly to the person being spoken to — when that may not be the case.
- In rural Southern Appalachia yernses may be substituted for the 2nd person plural possessive yours.
- "That dog is yernses."
- In some instances in Appalachia, "Your'n," "His'n" and "Her'n" takes the place of the possessive pronouns "Yours," "His" and "Hers," wherein the antecedent of the pronoun can be either singular or plural.
- "Her dog is cuter than his'n."
- "My drawing is better than your'n."
- "That dress is her'n."
- Some Appalachian and Ozark dialects prefer you'uns, and by extension we'uns and they'uns or even 'uns used as a pronominal suffix to certain verbs. Another example is the use of the word young'uns for children.
- Use of dove as past tense for dive, drug as past tense for drag, and drunk as past tense for drink.
These features are characteristic of both older Southern American English and newer Southern American English.
- Use of (a-)fixin' to as an indicator of immediate future action.
- He's fixin' to eat.
- We're a-fixin' to go.
- Use of double modals (might could, might should, might would, used to could, etc.) and sometimes even triple modals that involve oughta or a double modal (like might should oughta, or used to could be able to.)
- I might could climb to the top.
- Addition of adverbs here or there after this or that.
- Johnny, fetch me that there hammer.
- That school been there a long time (Cukor-Avila, 2003).
This have/had deletion seems to be related to a few other issues.
- Use of done instead of have in perfect constructions (perfective done.)
- He done come up here.
- I done told you.
- Replacement of have (to possess) with got.
- I got one of them.
- Use of ain't (a contraction of am not) in place of "have not" in past perfect constructions.
- I ain't goin' there.
- Using them as a demonstrative adjective replacing those
- See them birds?
- Use of irregular preterits, Such as drowneded as the past tense of drown, knowed as past tense of know, degradated as the past tense of degrade, and seen replacing saw as past tense of see. This also includes using was for were, or in other words regularizing the past tense of be to was.
- You was sittin' on that chair.
- Use of unmarked verb preterits. Not marking come for tense is on the decline.
- They come in here last night.
- Multiple negation — namely, all elements that can be negated in one C-commanded structure are negated (Standard English allows only negation of the first negatable element).
- I don't buy nothing.
- I don't never buy nothing.
- The inceptive get/got to (indicating that an action is just getting started). Get to is more frequent in older SAE, and got to in newer SAE.
- I got to talking to him and we ended up talking all night.
- Replacement of the Negative Polarity item any with no or none in Declarative sentences.
- I ain't got no time
- I don't see none/nothing.
- Regularization of negative past tense do to don't, or in other words using don't for doesn't.
- He/she/it/John don't like cake.
- Existential It, a feature dating from Middle English which can be explained as substituting it for there when there refers to no physical location, but only to the existence of something.
- It's one lady that lives in town.
- Preservation of older English me, him, etc. as reflexive datives.
- I'm fixin' to paint me a picture.
- He's gonna catch him a big one.
- Merging of adjective and adverbial forms of related words (quick/quickly), generally in favor of the adjective.
- He's movin' real quick.
- Adverbial use of right to mean quite or fairly.
- I'm right tired.
- Word use tendencies from the Harvard Dialect Survey :
- Likely influenced by the dominance of Coca-Cola in the Deep South, a carbonated beverage in general is referred to as coke, or cocola, even if referring to non-colas. Soda is rarely used, and in parts of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia the word "pop" is used instead.
- The use of singular nouns as if they were plural as in, "Pass me those molasses." or "Did you get your license?....Yes, I got them."
- The push-cart at the grocery store as a buggy (or less often, jitney or trolley).
- The small freshwater crustacean in lakes and streams as a crawdad, crawfish, or crayfish depending on the location (note: the pronunciations of crawfish and crayfish can be inverse to the spelling; i.e. crawfish pronounced as though it were spelled crayfish and vice versa)
- Use of the term "mosquito hawk" or "snake doctor" for a dragonfly or a crane fly (Diptera Tipulidae).
- Use of "over yonder" in place of "over there" or "in or at that indicated place," especially when being used to refer to a particularly different spot, such as in "the house over yonder." Additionally, "yonder" tends to refer to a third, larger degree of distance beyond both "here" and "there," indicating that something is a long way away, and to a lesser extent, in an open expanse, as in the church hymn "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder." (The term "yonder" is still widely used in British English.)
- Use of the verb "reckon" to mean "perceive" or "think". For example "I reckon there's a chance of rain" or "I reckon I want to go fishin'". The term "reckon" is also still widely used in British English.
- Use of "to love on someone or something" in place of "to show affection to" or "be affectionate with someone or something." For example: "He was lovin' on his new kitten."
- Use of the word "mash" in the place of "press" or "push". Example: "Would you mash that elevator button for me?"
- Use of the word "carry" in the place of "drive". Example: "Would you carry me in your car to the store?"
- The use of the word "cut" rather than "turn" on/off lights in a house or car, as in, "cut the lights on for me"
- Use of the word "young'un" instead of "child" or "kid".
- Use of the word "tote" instead of "carry". Example: "Tote that bucket over to me."
- Use of archaic "hit" for "it."
- Use of the verb "to tump over," meaning "to tip over so that the contents spill out."
- Use of the verb "to chuck" or "to chunk" for "to throw."
- Use of the word "proud" to mean "happy" or "pleased" as in, "I was real proud to meet y'all."
- In Kentucky and East Tennessee, "I don't care to do that" carries the connotation that the speaker is willing to do something for another person. For example, if Person A said, "I need a ride to the post office," Person B could indicate willingness to drive Person A to the post office by saying, "I don't care to take you." (The seeming contradictory meaning may stem from the idea of "It does not cause me care [or worry] to do that for you.")
Different Southern American English dialects
In a sense, there is no one dialect called "Southern". Instead, there are a number of regional dialects found across the Southern United States. Although different "Southern" dialects exist, speakers of each can still understand each other perfectly.
The Virginia Piedmont dialect is possibly the most famous of Southern dialects because of its strong influence on the South's speech patterns. Because the dialect has long been associated with the upperclass or aristocratic plantation class in the South, many of the most important figures in Southern history spoke with a Virginia Piedmont accent. Virginia Piedmont is non-rhotic, meaning speakers pronounce "R" only if it is followed by a vowel (contrary to New York City English, wherein non-rhotic accent is now mostly used by middle- and lower-class speakers). The dialect also features the Southern drawl (mentioned above).
Coastal Southern resembles Virginia Piedmont but has preserved more elements from the colonial era dialect than almost any other region of the United States. It can be found along the coasts of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. It is most prevalent in the Charleston, South Carolina area. In addition, like Virginia Piedmont, Coastal Southern is non-rhotic.
Baltimorese, sometimes phonetically written Bawlmerese, is a dialect of American English which originated among the white blue-collar residents of southern Baltimore. Today, it is heard throughout the city and in some areas of central Maryland, in the Mid-Atlantic States, though its "native speakers" remain overwhelmingly white and working class. It shares many characteristics of other types of Southern speech, as might befit a port city of a border state. The films of John Waters, all of which have been filmed in and around Baltimore, usually feature actors and actresses with thick Baltimore accents, particularly in his early films. In the accent, the words Baltimore and towel would be pronounced Bawlmer and tail. The majority of Baltimore natives now speak a variety of the Philadelphia accent, which is Midland and not Southern.
Midland & Highland
- South Midland or Highland Southern
This dialect arose in the inland areas of the South. It shares many of the characteristics of dialects of the Appalachians and Ozark Mountains. The area was settled largely by Scots-Irish, Scottish Highlanders, persons from the North and Western Parts of England and Wales, and Germans.
This dialect follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moves from Kentucky, across Missouri and Oklahoma, and peters out in western Texas. This is the dialect most associated with truck drivers on the CB radio and country music. It has assimilated some coastal Southern forms, most noticeably the loss of the diphthong /aj/, which becomes /aː/, and the second person plural pronoun "you-all" or "y'all". Unlike Coastal Southern, however, South Midland is a rhotic dialect, pronouncing /r/ wherever it has historically occurred.
Due to the isolation of the Appalachian regions of the South, the Appalachian accent is one of the hardest for outsiders to understand. This dialect is also rhotic, meaning speakers pronounce "R"s wherever they appear in words, and sometimes when they do not (for example "worsh" for "wash.")
The Southern Appalachian dialect is, among all the dialects of American English, the one most closely related to the Scottish dialect of English (see also Scots language and Ulster Scots language). The dialect can be heard, as its name implies, in North Georgia, North Alabama, East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, and West Virginia. Southern Appalachian speech patterns, however, are not entirely confined to these mountain regions previously listed. For instance, there are places in Georgia far from the mountains where among the white population, the manner of speech is indiscernable from the speech spoken in the North Georgia mountains — for instance Glascock County and Jefferson County in the east central part of the state.
The common thread in the areas of the South where a rhotic version of the dialect is heard is almost invariably a traceable line of descent from Scots or Scots-Irish ancestors amongst its speakers. The dialect is also not devoid of early influence from Welsh settlers, the dialect retaining the Welsh English tendency to pronounce words beginning with the letter "h" as though the "h" were silent; for instance "humble" often is rendered "umble".
A popular myth claims that this dialect closely resembles Early Modern or Shakespearean English.  Although this dialect retains many words from the Elizabethan era that are no longer in common usage, this myth is largely apochryphal. 
This dialect developed in the heart of the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri and northwest Arkansas. It is similar to Appalachian dialects but also has some Midwestern influences. This dialect is riddled with colorful expressions, and is frequently lampooned in popular culture, such as the television comedy The Beverly Hillbillies.
The dialect is derived from the South Midland dialect, and found throughout several regions of Florida and in south Georgia. There are several different variations of the dialect found in Florida. From Pensacola to Tallahassee the dialect is non-rhotic and shares many characteristics with the speech patterns of southern Alabama. Another form of the dialect is spoken in northeast Florida, North Central Florida and the Nature Coast. This dialect was made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' book the Yearling. However the dialect begins to disappear once in the outskirts of Orlando and Tampa or on the Atlantic coast south of Jacksonville. However there are some isolated pockets of the cracker dialect in rural Central Florida and a large pool of speakers in the agricultural counties around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
The dialect also has some distinct words to it. Some speakers may call a river turtle a "cooter", a land tortoise a "gopher", a bass a "trout", and a crappie fish a "speck".
Gulf of Mexico
- Gulf Southern & Mississippi Delta
This area of the South was settled by English speakers moving west from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas, along with French settlers from Louisiana (see the section below). This accent is common in Mississippi, northern Lousiana, southern and eastern Arkansas, and western Tennessee. Familiar speakers include Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. A dialect found in Georgia and Alabama has some characteristics of both the Gulf Southern dialect and the Virginia Piedmont/Coastal Southern dialect.
Louisiana, southeast Texas ( Houston to Beaumont ), and coastal Mississippi, feature a number of dialects. There is Cajun French, which combines elements of Acadian French with other French and Spanish words. This dialect is spoken by many of the older members of the Cajun ethnic group and is said to be dying out. Many younger Cajuns speak Cajun English, which retains Acadian French influences and words, such as "cher" (dear) or "nonc" (uncle). The French language can also still be heard in Louisiana, along with different mixtures of all of these dialects and languages.
Louisiana Creole French (Kreyol Lwiziyen) is a French-based creole language spoken in Louisiana. It has many resemblances to other French creoles in the Caribbean. While Cajun French and Louisiana Creole have had a significant influence on each other, they are unrelated. While Cajun is basically a French dialect with grammar similar to standard French, Louisiana Creole applies a French lexicon to a system of grammar and syntax which is quite different from French grammar..
Around New Orleans, you can hear an accent similar to that of Atlantic coast cities such as New York, Philadephia, and Baltimore. It is referred to as Yat, from the phrases such as "Where y'at?" for "How are you?" However, Hurricane Katrina of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, and its resultant mass evacuation of New Orleans and other areas along the Mexican Gulf has further endangered the preservation of these dialects.
Although African influences are common in all strains of Southern Dialects, especially Creole, the following dialects were most influenced by African languages.
Sometimes called Geechee, this creole language originated with African American slaves on the coastal areas and coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The dialect was used to communicate with both Europeans and members of African tribes other than their own. Gullah was strongly influenced by West African languages such as Vai, Mende, Twi, Ewe, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Kikongo. The name and chorus of the Christian hymn "Kumbaya" is said to be Gullah for come by here. Other English words attributed to Gullah are juke (jukebox), goober (Southern term for peanut) and voodoo. In a 1930s study by Lorenzo Dow Turner, over 4,000 words from many different African languages were discovered in Gullah. Other words, such as yez for ears, are just phonetic spellings of English words as pronounced by the Gullahs, on the basis of influence from Southern & Western English dialects.
- African American Vernacular English
This type of Southern American English originated in the Southern States where Africans at that time were held as slaves. These slaves originally spoke indigenous African languages but were forced to speak English to communicate with their masters and each other. Since the slave masters spoke Southern American English, the English the slaves learned, which has developed into what is now African American Vernacular English, had many SAE features. While the African slaves and their descendants lost most of their language and culture, various vocabulary and grammatical features from indigenous West African languages remain in AAVE. While AAVE may also be spoken by members of other ethnic groups, it is largely spoken by and associated with blacks in many parts of the U.S. AAVE is considered by a number of English speakers to be a substandard dialect. As a result, AAVE speakers desiring social mobility typically learn to code-switch between AAVE and a more standardized English dialect.
- Regional vocabularies of American English
- Southern literature
- Famous Southern American English performances
- U.S. dialect map
- Glossary of Southernisms by Dr. Robert Beard
- ^ Hazen, Kirk and Fluharty, Ellen. "Linguistic Diversity in the South: changing Codes, Practices and Ideology". Page 59. Georgia University Press; 1st Edition: 2004. ISBN 0-8203-2586-4
- ^ Noted in the Harvard Dialect Survey
- ^ Definition from THe Free Dictionary
- ^ Regional Note from THe Free Dictionary
- Bernstein, Cynthia (2003). "Grammatical features of southern speech", in In Stephen J. Nagel and Sara L. Sanders, eds.,: English in the Southern United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82264-5.
- Crystal, David (2000). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82348-X.
- Cukor-Avila, Patricia (2003). "The complex grammatical history of African-American and white vernaculars in the South", in In Stephen J. Nagel and Sara L. Sanders, eds.,: English in the Southern United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82264-5.
- Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.
- Hazen, Kirk, and Fluharty, Ellen (2004). "Defining Appalacian English", in Bender, Margaret: Linguistic Diversity in the South. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-2586-4.
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