Regional Dialects of the USA - An Introduction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Regional Dialects of the USA - An Introduction

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Introduction to American Dialects | Southern Drawl | Tawking the Tawk in Noo Yawk
New England's Wicked Good Accent | Philly Talk and Pittsburghese
The Midwestern 'Non-Accent' | Da Chicago Dialect and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift

The USA is a pretty big place. It's somewhat hard to grasp really how big a country like the USA is. It is also a very diverse place, ethnically, religiously, politically and linguistically. However, it is the last of these that we are concerned with here.

The dominant language of the US is English, and it contains more people who speak English as their primary language than any other country in the world. All government business is conducted in English and most of the USA's citizens speak it. The USA variety of English has sometimes been referred to as 'American' because it is seen as quite distinct from British English (that is, English spoken in the United Kingdom). The differences in pronunciation and vocabulary between the various American dialects is small compared to the divide between the Americans and the British. However, as is the case with many varieties of language, it is difficult to determine which of the US's many accents and dialects is 'American English'. This is due to the fact that language is not stable. Its ever-changing nature means that a few decades after this Entry is finished, its descriptions will be out of date. However, increasingly, students of English in non-English speaking countries will opt to learn American English.

There are literally thousands of small variations on accents throughout America. In the past, the difficulty of communication and transportation led to languages being developed in relative isolation. Accents might spread where transportation is easy, so a particular dialect would have been common amongst people living near a particular river or along a paved road.

There are umbrella groupings that many dialects fall under, but there are subtle shades and nuances to each dialect. Unfortunately, many local accents are being flattened or absorbed by regional accents due to increased communication and migration between areas of the United States that used to be very remote from each other. There is actually some concern that local accents will totally die out due to the influences of mass media and migrants. There is some evidence that local American dialects are dying out, and are being absorbed into more regional dialects, but regional dialects are growing stronger and more distinct than ever.

There are essentially nine distinct dialects that most people in the United States can identify with. In no particular order, they are called the Philadelphia, New York, Southern, Texan, Midwestern1, Western, Pittsburgh, Boston and Chicago accents. To an ear generally attuned to hearing British, Australian or even Canadian English, they would probably all sound just about the same. It's true that American English is just one limb of the English linguistic tree, but it has loads of little branches sprouting off of it.

All of the pronunciations in this series of Entries presuppose a plain Midland American accent as a basis for comparison. These Entries will also avoid using the international phonetic alphabet, because barely anyone is fluent in that.

Now, Then...

What is it that makes one American accent different from another American accent? Primarily, it has to do with the way that vowels are pronounced. When American linguists are poking around for clues to a person's dialect, they ask them to pronounce words that have different vowel sounds in different parts of America. Whether the words 'cot' and 'caught' are pronounced the same or not can be an excellent clue. If they are pronounced the same, the speaker might be from New England, Texas or the Midwest. If they're pronounced differently, the speaker might be from New York, Philadelphia or the South. There are distinctive regional patterns in the pronunciation of vowels that can be dead giveaways. The 'Northern Cities Vowel Shift' is changing the speech of about 30 million people in a very specific part of the country.

Another indicator of dialect is the use of the 'r' sound at the end of words. This is not quite as reliable, because it is now considered to be proper speech to use an 'r' sound, so the use of the 'r' sound is sometimes best as an indicator of how uptight a person's primary school English teacher was. However, if someone drops the 'r' sound from their words, they might be from Boston, New York or parts of the South. If they consistently use the 'r' sound, they might be from the Midwest, Philadelphia, the Appalachian mountains or Texas.

In addition, a person can use vocabulary and word choice to figure out where someone is from. This is often the most obvious indicator. Plenty of people will be aware that if someone refers to the beach as the 'shore', they're from New Jersey. If someone uses the phrase 'redd up' to mean 'clean up', they're from western Pennsylvania. If someone calls a submarine sandwich a 'hero', they're from New York. And of course, if someone asks for a 'coke' and then orders a Pepsi drink, they're from the South. That last example leads us to the great Coke/soda/pop debate...

Carbonated Beverages

For whatever reason, Americans cannot seem to come together on what the appropriate term for a soft, or fizzy drink is. Perhaps it's the fact that no such drink existed when colonists came over from Europe, so Americans had to independently invent their own names. Stories of miscommunication and confusion from tourists and travellers are numerous. It is worth taking a few moments to consider the American naming conventions of soft drinks...

In the southern US, stretching from New Mexico to Indiana, western North Carolina to most of Florida, all soft drinks are referred to as 'cokes', which to everyone else is the name of a specific drink - a Coca-Cola. A Southerner may want a 'coke' and get a Pepsi-Cola - the arch-rival of Coca-Cola. Of course, the same issue has arisen for brands like Kleenex and Band-Aid, whose product name has become synonymous for the kind of product itself.

'Soda' is a term in use throughout California, Nevada, Arizona and most of the Atlantic seaboard (excepting Georgia, South Carolina and parts of Florida which prefer 'coke'). There are also pockets of soda-speakers around the cities of Miami, St Louis and Milwaukee (and there's no easy explanation for why this term is preferred in these cities).

In Boston and New England, one term for a soft drink is often a 'tonic', which for everyone else is what you combine gin with. Of course, you could combine gin with any number of fizzy drink 'tonics', but that is for another entry. The term 'tonic' is fading out with time, and more and more New Englanders have adopted the term 'soda'.

Throughout most of the Midwest, from western Pennsylvania, through the Great Plains, to Oregon, the preferred usage is 'pop'. According to a huge survey across America2 the term 'pop' is a bit more popular with Americans than 'soda' (but only barely).

Some fence-sitters in the Western US prefer to call the drink 'soda-pop', combining the two most popular terms. This is a reasonable compromise, because most people would be familiar with one of the two terms. Of course, if the soda-pop is Coca-Cola and it's combined with some gin, just about everybody will be happy.

1The Midwestern, or Midland, dialect refers to the speech in an absolutely vast swathe of land whose denizens would contend that they have no accent.2...which forces one to wonder how such effort and funds could have been better spent.

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