American Dialects: I Speak American, How About You?

To speak American English is to speak a dialect. Regionalisms that exist in the United States add to the variety and richness of the American language. Some people express prejudices towards others based on their regional dialects; however, there is no single standard dialect in the United States. People often judge other people’s dialects because they associate how people talk with how intelligent or friendly they are. In fact, dialects can reveal a lot about people, but they need not limit speakers to certain stereotypes.

A dialect map of the U.S., including major regions and their subsets
A dialect map of the U.S., including major regions and their subsets

Dialect regions

The United States has a culturally rich and diverse background that extends to its language. There are four major dialect regions, each having other subsets. The Northern dialect region has its origins in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. The Southern region also started in the seventeenth century, in Virginia and the Carolinas. The Midland dialect formed in Pennsylvania, in a convergence with the Northern. Finally, Western arrived, combining the other three regions.

There are phonological, lexical, and grammatical differences between the regions. The Northern dialect, for example, has rhoticity, the use of the “r” sound in words like “bird.” The exceptions are New York and New England, which often drop the “r” or use the intrusive “r”—as in Warshington and idear. The Northern dialect also distinguishes between “pin” and “pen,” which speakers of other dialects often cannot hear.

The Southern dialect turns monophthongs into diphthongs (in words like “tuna” and “torn”). The Southern region also makes the distinction between the names Don and Dawn, while in the North the names sound identical. Clearly, there are distinct differences in the way people talk based on what part of the country they live in.

An old but classic documentary on American dialects

Grammar

Grammar plays a large role in dialects. Most people learn proper grammar in school, but they may not employ it in natural speech. Formal standard English is mainly a written form. It is codified and very slow to change. It includes making proper use of pronouns (“This is she”) and using “who” and “whom” correctly, for example. Most of the spoken and written speech that Americans use is informal standard English. However, people who use extremely “bad” English are usually stigmatized. They may use double negatives, the word “ain’t,” or subject-verb disagreement. Many Americans fall somewhere in the middle between the two extremes of bad English and formal standard English.

The use and misuse of grammar may be a large factor in some of the biases towards certain dialects. People associate proper grammar with intelligence or education. Some people may have a problem with African American Vernacular English (AAVE), for example, for its use of multiple negation, inversions, and certain word replacements. In fact, AAVE is a dialect of English and is highly regular.

Illustration by James Collins
Illustration by James Collins

Regional biases

Since dialects are so natural and everyone speaks them, it may be surprising the way some people have biases towards certain dialects. Northerners and Southerners, for example, often have issues with the way the other speaks. Southerners find the Northern accent fast, clipped, and nasal. They may believe that Northerners are curt and unfriendly because of their direct and speedy speech. Northerners in turn often see Southerners as slow and simple because of their long, drawn-out drawl and twangy speech. “Y’all” may sound perfectly natural to Southerners, while in the North “youse guys” is common.

Ultimately, people pay a lot of attention to the way others speak because it is the way humans interact with one another. One can read a lot in a person’s tone and diction when he speaks, sometime more than when he writes. When people hear a different dialect, it may sound harsh or strange to them, and they may form unfounded opinions about the speakers of that dialect.

Take pride in your accent

In fact, there are many factors in one’s dialect—race, gender, age, level of education, social standing, and geographical region. Whether one is from an urban or rural area also plays a role in regionalisms. It is true that some dialects reveal a lack of education or lower-class standing. Some people are actually embarrassed by their accents and go to great lengths to hide them or learn standard English. It is also unfortunate but true that people may not hire someone with a strong or “disagreeable” accent. However, there are others who take great pride in their accents. Ultimately, dialects are a natural part of speaking American English. The differences between these regionalisms should be appreciated, or tolerated at the very least.

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Comments 31 comments

JBunce 6 years ago

it can even get specifc to particular PARTS of a single state. I originally came from the northern part of Minnesota and have lived in the southern part since age 8. And yet, at about age 48, I was talking to someone who had lived in the southern area here all here life and she asked me where I was originally from, because she could tell from my speech that I wasn't from South Minnesota... after I'd lived here for 40 years!

I've noticed pronunciation differences too... for instance, I was taught in school to pronounce "often" like it was spelled "offen"... no T. I couldn't understand after coming down here why everyone was saying "off-ten". I also didn't understand for the longest time why people from other parts of the country didn't understand what I was talking about when I referred to drinking some pop, until I found out they called it soda (or something else, even).

Good hub. thanks for posting it. I may have to check out those books.


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Interesting stuff, JBunce! Growing up in the South, too, there are so many different accents within each state. Even with my aunt and uncle's family, their kids have different accents (strong Tennessee).

Btw, I was taught "offen" too. My husband, who was raised here in GA, but whose mother was from Massachusetts, says "both" differently, with kind of an "l" sound. Bolth. It's amazing how many little differences there are in speech that our ears pick up.


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 6 years ago from South East Asia

An interesting article and much enjoyed. English English has its own multitude of accents too. Sometimes difficult to understand as an Englishman. I love accents.


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks, Peter. See, I wouldn't be able to tell one English accent from another! I think it's funny when people from a particular region evaluate how well actors do their accent--whether it sounds "authentic." That has to be one of the hardest things for an actor, I would imagine.


Kendall H. profile image

Kendall H. 6 years ago from Northern CA

I remember watching that documentary for a linguistics class I took in college. It was really fascinating. I noticed too how many of my friends from Maryland specifically Baltimore would say 'warsh.' Very intriguing to a Northern Californian who at least they say does not have specific dialect. Guess they hadn't read your hub. Even more interesting was how some friends in college thought I had grown up in Great Britain. :O Nope I just happen to annunciate and not acronym all my words. Great hub!


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks, Kendall! I watched the documentary in a college linguistics class, too. I'm still pretty bad at pinpointing different accents!


jayjay40 profile image

jayjay40 6 years ago from Bristol England

very interesting hub and a great read.


elayne001 profile image

elayne001 6 years ago from Rocky Mountains

Truly enjoyed this hub and from one who has Scottish, Danish, Tongan, Cherokee and other dialects in the family, it is a wonder we can even communicate at all - just kiddin'.

Congrats on your nomination!


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thank you, jayjay and elayne!


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

No wonder I too get confused and so I speak in the most simple English..is there such a thing? LOL Anyhow, I heartily announce that this hub has been chosen for the Hubnuggets! See it right here: http://hubpages.com/hubnuggets10/hub/hubnuggets-II... Good luck and vote, vote, vote and ask your friends to vote too!


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks, ripplemaker! Happy to be nominated!


Debbie T 6 years ago

I love trying to figure out where someone is from. Even in the same state. Someone who is not from Atlanta always pronounces Atlanta with a hard T sound. That is when you know they aren't from these parts.


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

That's so true! I noticed that with my Italian professor, who was Somalian, when he pronounced "Marietta" with the hard T! Thanks, Debbie!


Money Glitch profile image

Money Glitch 6 years ago from Texas

Cute hub, I was born in one region, raised in another, and now live in yet another region. My dialect is unique because it sounds like a blend of all 3 regions. LOL! Congrats on being selected as one of this week's HubNuggets Wannabe nominees. Good Luck!


shazwellyn profile image

shazwellyn 6 years ago from Great Britain

Another hubnuggets nomination? Well done. Keep it up and what a very unusual subject. I found it dialectous! hehehe


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Money Glitch: It's very interesting when dialects blend together! I have some family with that sort of thing--like a mix of Southern and Maine accents!

Shazwellyn: Thanks again!


Health Wise profile image

Health Wise 6 years ago

I always wondered how the different Regional American accents came about.I heard before that the two biggest ethnic majorities in the United States are German Americans & Irish Americans so maybe its a mix between these two accents which forms some of these regional dialects?


Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach 6 years ago

Loved your post on regional dialects/accents within the USA. I will RT on Twitter.

Not only are there differences in regional accents in America, there are many differences in what people expect in basic courtesy! It's not defined the same throughout the USA.

Here's a post with a short video link that expands this.

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http://katenasser.com/the-best-csrs-get-inter-cult...

Loved your article.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Health Wise: I'm sure those two ethnicities/nationalities had a major influence on certain dialects! I took a course on the formation of American dialects; it's a fascinating subject! Thanks for reading!

Kate Nasser: Thanks for the link to your blog--it had some great information! You're definitely right about different expectations of courtesy.


dashingclaire profile image

dashingclaire 6 years ago from United States

This hub is so right on! I moved from NYC to LA and how to learn the dialect to get fast food. Even how food is prepared is different. The experienced helped when I moved to other parts of the country.


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

That's funny, dashingclaire! I remember there was some confusion when my friend's mom suggested we get grinders for lunch. I thought she was talking about some kitchen appliance! It's like the coke, soda, or pop debate, too.


dramaqueen0630 6 years ago

Very interesting. My dad is Welsh, my mom is Colombian, but I'm growing up in Florida. Welsh is a distinct accent that my dad never picked up because none of his family was actually raised in Wales. Though I do not have a british accent I always use britisms, like saying boot instead of trunk. Also, all my cousins on my Colombian side were raised spanish/english speakers but b/c they have lived where they live (New Jersey and Canada) for so long they have acquired regional accents even though they are just a bunch of latinos!


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks again, dramaqueen! It's funny that you bring up britishisms, because I use them too sometimes. I think I get them from watching so much Fawlty Towers and Monty Python and reading Harry Potter. My favorite expression is "I'm going to have a lie-down" when I feel like a nap.

Another thing I've noticed is how accents can fade away and then abruptly reappear. My mother's southern accent always becomes stronger when she visits her family in Alabama, and my dad, who's lived in Georgia for 30 years, talks faster when he goes back to New Jersey.


Ian 6 years ago

New Jersey is a great example of dialect diversity

where I'm from, Morris County the r's are distinct and

there is a midwest feel


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 6 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

That's really interesting, Ian! I wouldn't have guessed that there were different Jersey accents! I wonder if an outsider would be able to pick up the variations or if you have to live there to hear it. Thanks for reading!


Aficionada profile image

Aficionada 5 years ago from Indiana, USA

I love accents too, and I've noticed the variations within several states. Mine has become something of an amalgam, and so wherever I am, I don't sound like the people who live there! Sometimes I also listen for grammatical differences within a region, but they spread so fast nowadays, it's hard to pin down where they started.


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 5 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

Thanks for the comment, Aficionada. You make some great observations, especially how quickly language and grammar quirks spread across the country. Thanks for reading.


zucko 3 years ago

I believe our country has many more dialects than the experts realize. I grew up in youngstown and moved to detroit in the 80's and I could not believe how certain words were pronounced in Michigan. Words such as Cosco or John sound much different in Michigan. The "o" in John sounds more like "a" and John is pronounced to sound more like the girls name Jan. Now, when I visit Youngstown, people there almost sound like they are drunk! I really do not know who speaks proper and who has the dialect, but it is amazing to me the difference of dialect between these two Midwestern cities.


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 3 years ago from Woodstock, GA Author

That's really true and fascinating, zucko. It's amazing how even in small areas, so many dialects can exist together.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 13 months ago from East Coast, United States

In my family, we prided ourselves on the fact that we did not have a Baltimore accent. But when my parents visited Florida back in the 80's, they were in a shop, chatting. From the other side of the room, the shop owner called, "I hear Baltimore!"


Painted Seahorse profile image

Painted Seahorse 8 weeks ago from Woodstock, GA Author

That's really funny!

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