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.
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 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.
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.
Includes the documentary "American Tongues"