Subject Material

US - Dialects and Accents

Published: 25.08.2010, Updated: 03.03.2017
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The United States is a vast country divided into four regions and fifty states and with a population of over 300 million consisting of a countless number of nationalities and ethnicities. Yet, with this enormity, they have only one common language. Although English is not the official national language of the country, it is the official language of thirty states. The majority of people speak English as a native language, and even though accents and dialects exist, your chances of understanding everyone are very good.

Here is a trailer for the movie Forrest Gump. Enjoy the very fine Southern accent before you continue reading.

Forrest GumpForrest Gump 

Dialect/Accent - Who Me?

So where will you find these dialects and accents? Do people from the East speak and sound the same as people from the West or South? That will depend on who you ask! Most people will claim
that they don’t have an accent, that it’s the other person who speaks strangely. But in reality, everyone speaks with a dialect of some sort. This particular pattern of speech tends to reflect the region, or perhaps even the city/town one is from.

Accent and Dialect

What is the difference between an accent and a dialect? Accents demonstrate the variety in speech sounds (phonology), meaning the use of the same words, but pronounced differently. Dialect is broader. In addition to accent, it takes into consideration vocabulary and grammar. Certain words, expressions and/or slang may be used in one region and not another, making American English quite varied.

Two Regions-Two Distinct Dialects

A general look at a few regions may help us understand some differences. Two regions which have distinct dialects are the Northeast and the South. The Northeast’s accent is a result of both the influence of British English during colonial times and the fact that this region is the oldest and has had more time to develop. The Southern accent has great variations; among them is African American Vernacular (Black English).

South

Southerners are quick to judge Northerners as rude, as they interpret their tone as offensive. Perhaps this is because Northerners tend to speak rapidly and a bit louder and more assertive than others. A Southerner, on the other hand, speaks at a slower pace, and therefore may sound gentler/kinder. They are perceived as a friendly and more laid back people. Just as the Southerner perceives the Northerner as rude, a Northerner visiting the South may interpret their dialect as a bit phony, more “put on”, rather than genuine.

Southerners have a distinct drawl, which lengthens vowel sounds (how y’all doin). They also put more stress on the first syllable, as in police (poh-lees) and cement (cee-ment). Other features include the use of "a" in front of verbs and "in" at the end of them, e.g. He was a hootin’ and a hollerin’. They may use "done" instead of "did" ( I already done my homework.) They also frequently include a redundant modal verb (an extra modal verb which has no grammatical function) like "I done told you not to touch that there", and “was” instead of “were”: You sure was dancin’ up a storm last night.

accents female boston massachusetts usaaccents female boston massachusetts usa 

Sample from Virginia

male, fairfax, virginia, usa 

Please call Stella.  Ask her to bring these things with her from the store:  Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob.  We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids.  She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

Northeast

The best two cities to exemplify the Northeastern accent/dialect are most certainly Boston (MA) and New York City (NY). In Boston, the distinct feature is undoubtedly the dropping of the final “r” in words, as in “park the car” (pahk the kah) and a broadening of the vowels, as in the words Boston (Bahstn) and coffee (caw-fee). They have words which are unique to their region, as in frappe, which is a milkshake and bubbler (pronounced – bubbla) which is a water fountain. New Yorkers have many of the same sound patterns. They, too, drop the “r”, “I’m from hea (here), New Yawk”.

accents female boston massachusetts usaaccents female boston massachusetts usa 

Sample from Massachusetts

female, boston, massachusetts, usa 

Please call Stella.  Ask her to bring these things with her from the store:  Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob.  We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids.  She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

Less Distinct Regions: Mid West/West

The remaining two regions, the Mid-West and the West, have dialects too, but not as distinct. The Mid-West was settled by people from many regions, and therefore they are considered to speak more “generic/neutral/mainstream”. They enjoy the freedom of using variety in the pronunciation of vowels, as in the word roof (ruf), creek (krik) and aunt (ant, or awnt). The West Coast, more specifically California, is a metropolis of cultures, due to immigrants and the mobility of Americans. This makes it difficult to distinguish a regional dialect. They are more known for their vocabulary/phrases, rather than distinct accents. Words like totally, dude, awesome and fer sure (for sure) originated there.

All in all, wherever you visit in the US, understanding the various dialects and accents should not be your biggest concern. Fitting all your purchases into your luggage will probably be at the top of the list!


Discussion

  1. Are some accents nicer than others? If so - which is your favorite?
  2. Is there a close connection between your accent, your dialect and your cultural identity, or is language just a tool for communication?
  3. What is the difference between a dialect and an accent?

Reading

Try reading this text with a Southern and Northeastern accent.

Please call Stella.  Ask her to bring these things with her from the store:  Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob.  We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids.  She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

Further research

  1. You may find samples of accents from all over the world here: The speech accent archive 
  2. You may also search for accents and dialect on the Internet, but some of the material at sites like YouTube may not be reliable. Suggested search words: Southern accent or Boston accent.
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