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 American Midwest is generally believed to consist of the states around the Great Lakes and some of the 'corn-belt' states to the west of the Great Lakes. However, the 'Midwestern' English accent, as it is known, extends much further west to include land all the way to the West Coast. For that reason, linguists prefer to call this accent the 'Midland' dialect. What characterises the 'Midland' accent is that it is plain, flat, easily understood and fairly standard. Unless someone has an obviously unique accent or dialect, they are considered to have a plain American accent, which is associated with the Midwest and Great Lakes region. If you ask a Midwesterner what kind of accent he has, he'll more likely than not say that he doesn't have one. Of all Americans, people from the Midwest are least aware of their speech patterns1. Certainly, to British, Australian or even Canadian ears the Midwestern accent would sound odd, but in the realm of American English, it's about as plain as you can get.
Because of their easily discernible dialect, Midlanders tend to be more likely to get jobs in mass media. Television anchors, weathermen, radio announcers and advertising voiceover people all tend to come from areas with Midland accents. Aspiring actors pay exorbitant fees to speech coaches to lose their natural accent and adopt the Midland, in order to get work. It is thought that a plain accent will appeal more broadly to all audiences, everywhere. However, in some places local residents actually resent the fact that their local reporters say the word 'curb' or 'murder' wrongly. The mass-media proliferation of the Midland dialect has also caused alarmists to fear that regional and local dialects will be flattened out and homogenised throughout America.
Linguists don't believe that a great flattening out is happening, though. Regional accents are actually strengthening - that is, growing more different from each other. At the same time, the Midland accent is splintering off a bit. The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is increasingly increasing the linguistic divide between people of the upper Midland cities bordering the Great Lakes (Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland for instance) and people elsewhere in the Midland. There are also increasing divides in the American West and upper Midwest (Minnesota and Wisconsin).
It's Raining in Boss-tun
It's difficult to talk about the features of Midland English because it is the standard to which other American accents are held. American dictionaries were written by Midlanders with an eye to the plain dialect. Americans generally rate the Midland accent as being the most correct of all American accents (though there really can't be one 'correct' dialect - any dialect is technically just as correct as the next one).
Unlike many other dialects, speakers of the Midland tend to pronounce all the 'r' sounds in a word as well as suffixes like '-ing' and '-er'. Some parts of the Midland region have quirky vowel pronunciations and unusual diphthongisation of vowel sounds (the Northern Cities Vowel Shift is a particularly potent example of this). However, these shifts remain the exception rather than the rule.
Other than the Chicago accent and the changing nature of the Upper Midwest due to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, there are several local or subregional oddities in the Midland accent.
The Minnesotan way of speech, also affecting nearby Wisconsin, is heavily influenced by Scandinavian and German immigrants. Their pronunciation of the 'o' sound in words is distinct. It generally comes out a bit more 'round' and emphasized so that Minnesota becomes 'Minnesooota' (with the 'ooo' sound resembling the vowel sound of a cow's moo).
Not too terribly different from the Minnesotan accent is the 'Yooper' accent, which arises out of the Upper Peninsula of the state of Michigan (the word Yooper coming from a pronunciation of the abbreviation UP, for Upper Peninsula). Known among other things for appending 'eh?' to the end of sentences, Yoopers are dialectically (and geographically) not far from Canadians. However, the Yooper accent is rather forced by some, or spoken with a tongue firmly in cheek. A true Yooper accent is somewhat difficult to find.
The Western United States is an enormous area, but it is not as rich in dialects as the Eastern United States. However, while on the surface the dialect in Los Angeles, California seems identical to the dialect 2,000 miles away in Dayton, Ohio, there are actually some subtle differences. When making vowel sounds, Californians and Westerners tend to hang their mouth open more than Midwesterners. This contributes to a slight chain shift involving the tongue, which produces vowel sounds that can be distinct from those of the more eastern speakers of the Midland accent. Even within the state of California, people from the north of the state can sometimes identify southern Californians based on their approach to the language.
Fer sure, fer sure
She's a valley girl
In a clothing store
- From the Moon Unit and Frank Zappa song 'Valley Girl'
There is also the youthfully feminine 'Valley Girl Talk', arising out of southern Californian shopping malls, which insists on inserting the words 'like' and 'totally' into just about every sentence as well as many other annoying mannerisms. While this youth dialect phenomenon was most potent in California some decades ago, it has now spread to shopping malls throughout America, and beyond.
The term 'Hoosier' refers to the people of the state of Indiana. Some people, in fact, call the plain Midwest accent the 'Hoosier Accent'. Indiana is interesting from a dialect standpoint. In southern Indiana, a southern drawl is present. In the middle of the state, including the capital of Indianapolis, there is a plain Midland accent. Customer service call centres are often placed in Indianapolis because of its plain accent. The north is a bit more influenced by the Chicago accent.
The strength and resiliency of a 'non-accent' can be questionable at best. Anecdotes abound of people from a 'non-accent' part of the world who move to a dialect-rich part of America, only to be unintelligible to relatives at Thanksgiving a few years later. Perhaps most interesting is the experience of one h2g2 Researcher:
What really surprised me though was when several years ago while out drinking, someone asked me where I was from. I replied that I was from here [St Louis], and he said he was sure I was from much farther south. Discussing this with the friend I was drinking with, he confirmed that when I'm drinking I have a quite noticeable southern drawl.