Major Regional Dialect Areas
Curricular Unit Menu
Most Americans are well aware that English sounds different in different parts of the country. They may assert that people in other places speak with a drawl or a twang or that they sound nasal. In some places, people are said to speak fast; in others, slowly. The existence of regional speech differences is indisputable, but the differences have contributed to widely held stereotypes: for instance, that Southerners are friendly, although perhaps not as intelligent as Northerners, but Northerners are rude. Why do these stereotypes persist despite evidence that they are inaccurate? Why are there so many regional varieties in the U.S.? This unit examines some of the major regional dialects in the U.S., the historical reasons for their existence, and some explanations for their persistence. Dialects examined include Eastern New England, Pennsylvania, Midland, Southern, and Western.
Description/Episode DVD Section VT Time Code Running Time
In this unit:
Pronunciation in Maine (DYSA/1) 1.2a [01:03:02] (2:36)
Dialect Area/ “cah” (DYSA/1) 1.2b [01:05:38] (1:27)
Pronunciation in Maine (DYSA/1)
1.2a [01:03:02] (2:36)
begins with an interview with a lobsterman, John Coffin, who describes how lobsters—and the people who make a living fishing them—are declining in number. As this traditional way of life dies out, Coffin fears some characteristics of the distinctive regional dialect (the Eastern New England dialect) will go with them.
Language Change (DYSA/1) 1.8
introduces linguist William Labov. He describes a shift that is currently going on in the vowel pronunciations of people in cities along the Great Lakes (Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, etc.). This Northern Cities Shift is making the Northern dialect more distinctive.
(DYSA/2) 2.2 [01:01:35] (7:27)
finds MacNeil traveling along the Ohio River with linguist Walt Wolfram. The Ohio River is traditionally seen as the boundary between Midland and Southern dialect regions. MacNeil and Dr. Wolfram dock at Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, to sample some Appalachian English, one of the varieties that makes up Southern English.
Country music/Cody James
has MacNeil continuing south to Nashville, Tennessee, where he speaks with country music singer Cody James about “talkin’ country” ¾ another dialect of Southern English. Although James is not a native Southerner, he incorporates Southern dialect features into his singing and speech.
Southern is Growing/John
introduces linguist John Fought. Fought explains that the American South is the fastest growing region in the country and now the most populous dialect region. Of course, many of its residents are not originally from the South, and this influx of people from other areas, sometimes called linguisticswamping, is having an impact on the traditional Southern way of speaking.
(DYSA/2) 2.3d [01:13:28] (1:37)
illustrates the change in the traditional Southern dialect. MacNeil goes to Oxford, Mississippi, where he listens to a recording of Eudora Welty reading a passage from her story, “The Optimist’s Daughter.” Welty’s speech patterns are clearly different from those of other Southern speakers heard in the video. One of her characteristic features is dropping of the “r” sound in words like forced and started. This traditional Southern feature has largely disappeared from Southern dialects.
Jeff Foxworthy (DYSA/2) 2.3e [01:15:04]
introduces standup comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who bases a large part of his act on stereotypes of Southern English and the people who speak it. Foxworthy and MacNeil discuss Americans’ perceptions about Southern English and why the dialect persists despite negative attitudes that many people have toward it.
Texas Legislature/Molly Ivins*
is set in Austin, Texas, where MacNeil visits the state legislature to hear different kinds of Texan talk. Texan is sometimes thought of as a distinctive dialect, although linguists generally classify it as part of the larger Southern dialect.
Texas Legislature/Molly Ivins*
introduces political commentator Molly Ivins, a native Texan, who describes Texas talk and its inventiveness with its words and phrases.
Teens and Slang
examines the effect of movies on the speech of California teens. Part of the Western dialect, California speech has emerged as an influential dialect, partly because movies and television are produced there, but also because California is envied for its active lifestyle. Californian youth are often thought of as an important source of new slang items.
Valleygirl and Surferdude(DYSA/3)
introduces Carmen Fought, a linguist who studies dialects in California. This section examines two of these Western dialects: Valleygirl and Surferdude. Fought explains some of the pronunciations that typify these dialects, and George Plomarity, a speaker of Surferdude, explains some the specialized jargon that surfers use and how some of it has entered mainstream American English.
Why are There Dialects?
Settlement and migration are two major factors that have shaped the linguistic landscape of the U.S. Different regions of America were settled by different groups from the British Isles (and elsewhere), who brought with them their unique ways of speaking. Some of these differences have been preserved and can be heard in the major regional dialects of the U.S. Early settlement occurred along the East coast, from North to South, with people from different dialect areas of Britain establishing themselves in different areas. As settlers moved further inland, they took their dialects with them. Thus, dialect differences are greater from North to South than from East to West. Once settlers passed the Mississippi River and moved into the Great Plains, travel was less restricted by geographical barriers, which led to increased mixing of dialects in the western part of the country. The discovery of gold in California also contributed to this mixing, as people from all over the country, with various speech patterns, congregated there.
Also important to the development and preservation of dialectal differences is isolation, whether geographical or social. Geographically isolated groups include those who have lived for generations on islands—like natives of Martha’s Vineyard, MA, or Ocracoke, NC—and those who are separated from the surrounding area by mountains—like Appalachian English speakers. All of these groups have developed distinctive speech varieties—subdialects of the major regional dialects.
Social isolation is exemplified by nineteenth-century immigrant groups, who often settled in their own urban neighborhoods and lived and worked apart from other groups; although they were not separated from the mainstream by mountains, they were effectively cut off from it socially. To this day, many large cities have Italian, Chinese, German, Irish, Jewish, or Polish neighborhoods. Dialect differences (some corresponding to socio-economic differences) resulted from dissimilarities in the English acquired by these different ethnic groups. Something similar happened with African American English (AAE): Even after emancipation, many African Americans were socially isolated, and thus African American English has developed as a distinct dialect. A comparable process has given rise to Chicano English, a dialect of English spoken by some people of Hispanic descent. Native Americans, too, were forcibly isolated from other Americans, and some of them have developed a distinct dialect of English (sometimes in addition to preserving their native languages). Social dialects such as AAE and Chicano English cross-cut the major regional dialects of America.
Contact between English and other languages has contributed its share to the growth of American dialects. In Louisiana, the contact between English and French produced unique dialects of both of those languages. In Hawaii, English encountered the Hawaiian language (a Polynesian language), and the contact gave rise to a Hawaiian variety of English. In Alaska, English came into contact with more than twenty different native languages, and linguists are now studying the properties of the variety of English spoken by Alaskan Natives.
Factors contributing to dialect preservation can be hard to pin down. Speaking a certain dialect can be a means of identifying with a region or a way of life; the speech patterns of groups or individuals are an important part of their identity. For instance, in Appalachia, improved roads have recently had a tremendous impact on previously isolated communities. However, the distinctive speech forms of the region have not been eradicated altogether, for pride in the traditional Appalachian way of life has encouraged some people to protect their way of speaking. On an individual level, choosing to retain or to modify a dialect acquired in childhood is part of the way one presents oneself: More on this topic appears in the Communicative Choices & Linguistic Style unit.
Are Regional Dialects Homogeneous?
The boundaries between the major regional dialects tend to correspond to major geographical barriers. For example, the Ohio River separates the Midland Dialect from the Southern Dialect. Within the major dialect regions are sub-regional dialects. Although many people refer to them by state (e.g., Ohio dialect, Wisconsin dialect), their boundaries rarely correspond to political boundaries. As an example of sub-dialects, consider the myriad varieties of Southern. These include Appalachian English; the speech of Tory cities such as Savannah and Charleston; the speech of the Mid-South (Virginia, North Carolina); the speech of the Deep South (Alabama, Mississippi); the speech of Texas; the speech of the Hoi Toiders of the Outer Banks; the French-influenced English heard in Louisiana; the speech of the Bluegrass region (Kentucky), and so forth. These dialects—like all dialects—have changed over time and continue to change, but all remain distinctly different from each other. Although television may introduce and spread new words and phrases, it is not causing regional dialects to die out.
In no regional dialect area, then, do people all speak the same way. Furthermore, within geographical areas, social groups distinguish themselves through speech. Language can vary according to class, ethnicity, occupation, or gender; it can vary because of isolation or contact; it can vary because people are individuals and language is part of their individuality.
What Differentiates Regional Dialects?
One difference among regional dialects is vocabulary: pop vs. soda, pail vs. bucket, lightning bug vs. firefly. Even the second person plural pronoun can vary: you, y’all, you guys, youse guys, you’uns, or yinz. Linguistics maps such as those in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) identify many regional vocabulary differences. DARE was compiled by analyzing interviews conducted in the late 1960s with people all over the country. (Since most of them were elderly at the time, the information in DARE reflects the speech of people who learned English in the late 19th century.)
Pronunciation, too, differs from region to region. DARE contains information about pronunciation differences, as does the Telsur Project. For instance, in the Midland and Western dialect regions—but not elsewhere—words like caught and cot are pronounced the same. In the Southern dialect region—but not elsewhere—words like pin and pen are pronounced the same. As described above, a pronunciation shift is now in progress in the Northern dialect region—the Northern Cities Shift. Students can hear people from other areas speak, by listening to radio broadcasts from every state using the Do You Speak American? Virtual Radio Dial.
Finally, there are grammatical differences in the speech of regional dialects. For example, some Southerners use two modal verbs—for example, I might could mow the lawn tomorrow, which means something like, “It’s possible that I’ll mow the lawn but I’m not committing to it.” In parts of Pennsylvania, people typically say the car needs washed instead of the car needs washing or the car needs to be washed.
Pronunciation in New England (DYSA/1)
1. Lobsterman/Pronunciation in Maine : MacNeil says, “Mainers fear that their dialect . . . is coming to the end of the road.” How might a decline in a way of life be related to a decline in a way of speaking? Does one cause the other or do they just coincide? Can there be one without the other?
2 . Buying a car: Pam Head, the Massachusetts native, tells a story of living in Oklahoma, where people did not understand her pronunciation of the word car as “cah.” If Head had remained in Oklahoma, do you think she would have continued to use her Massachusetts pronunciation? If you have ever moved from one dialect region to another, did you notice yourself changing your pronunciation? If so, why? In order to be understood? In order to fit in? For some other reason? Have you ever noticed other people changing their pronunciation? Which is harder, adopting new and strange vocabulary items or modifying pronunciation? What are the advantages and disadvantages of trying to adopt a different regional dialect?
Language Attitudes/Dennis Preston on the train (DYSA/1)
3a. Dennis Preston: MacNeil says, “Americans are ambivalent about language. They may think that New York and Southern accents are bad English but they can also find them charming.” Do you agree that Americans are ambivalent about language? Do you share the sorts of feelings MacNeil describes? Do you consider your own variety of English to be prestigious or stigmatized?
3b . Dennis Preston: Dennis Preston studies Americans’ perceptions and attitudes about English, called folk linguistics. Do you consider speakers of some varieties to sound “more educated,” “more friendly,” “more intelligent,” or “more cheerful”? If so, why do you think that is? Are your impressions similar to your classmates’?
Language Change (DYSA/1)
4. Language Change : Compare the ways in which linguist William Labov (speaking about the Northern dialect) and the lobsterman (speaking about Maine) view language change. What experiences do they use to talk about language change? Are their views positive, negative, or neutral? What aspects of language does each person highlight in talking about language change?
Appalachian English (DYSA/2)
5. North/South division : MacNeil claims, “the greatest division America ever experienced was between North and South, and that is still reflected in our language.” Do you agree? How do North/South differences compare to East/West differences? What is the relationship between historical migration, modern migration, and language?
6. Celebrating dialect diversity: Linguist Walt Wolfram says, “We’re coming to celebrate and recognize some of the dialect differences as part of our natural cultural heritage.” He believes that we ought to celebrate language variety instead of trying to eradicate it. In what ways can we celebrate language variety differences? What varieties of English do people tend to celebrate? Are there any varieties that people still typically do not celebrate?
Sounding Country/Southern English (DYSA/2)
7. Country music : Cody James, a singer from Oregon, says that country music doesn’t necessarily have to be sung with a Southern accent but that it seems right to do so. What language varieties seem right for singing the following: jazz, pop, heavy metal, hip-hop. Why? What would it be like if the voice didn’t match the style of the music—for example, what would it sound like if Cody James sang with a New York accent? Are there other activities besides singing that invite a certain accent or other features of a dialect?
8. Language prejudices : In the story about Eudora Welty that MacNeil recounts, Welty claims that when she was at Columbia University in New York, she was never given tickets to cultural events because people interpreted her way of speaking as evidence that she would not be interested in cultural activities. When you hear someone speak, what judgments do you feel confident about making? Do you think you can judge people’s interests from the way they sound? What assumptions do you think people make about you based on the way you speak? What sort of connections between speech and other attributes are most valid, and which are least valid?
10. Jeff Foxworthy: Foxworthy makes a joke about not wanting your brain surgeon to have a Southern accent. What accent would you like your brain surgeon to have? What about a car mechanic or a computer repairperson? How are assumptions about regional dialects made and why are they maintained? How could misleading ones be modified?
Language & Politics/Texas talk (DYSA/2)
11. Molly Ivins: Molly Ivins describes Texas and Texans as “just like the rest of the country except more so. Everything [in Texas] is slightly exaggerated.” How would you describe your language variety to Molly Ivins?
Teens and Slang (DYSA/3)
12. Slang: Slang words are used on informal occasions in place words that would be appropriate in a wider range of situations—for instance, “dude” instead of “man.” Slang terms tend to be short-lived, although some endure and some eventually lose their slang connotations. Do you think that most slang originates in a certain region? Where? Of the examples of slang vocabulary discussed in the video, are these words used where you live? Where you go to school? How do you think slang travels from region to region? Can one’s slang mark one’s language background? How hard is it to adopt new slang words as compared to other new vocabulary? Can you think of words that are sometimes said to be slang but that do not fit the definition of slang given here?
Valleygirl and Surferdude (DYSA/3)
12b. Identify four slang terms from MacNeil’s conversation with the teenagers in Irvine. Are these terms used in your area? Do you think they ever will be? Do your parents or your professors understand these terms? Have they ever used them? Do you think they ever will?
1. Any of the discussion questions above could be used as a journal writing prompt, a portfolio writing assignment, or another general writing assignment.
2. Folk linguistics assignment : Print a copy of a United States map by clicking here (PDF). Draw divisions of where you think regional varieties of English are spoken, and label them (“California English,” “Southern English,” etc.) Compare your mapping with the maps of others. Alternatively, ask friends or family members to fill out the maps, and discuss your findings with classmates.
3. Fun quiz : Listen to the voices in the Clopper & Pisoni quiz, “Where is this person from?” and attempt to label the region that the voices evoke. Discuss what you heard that led you to your decisions.
4. Fun quiz : See what dialect terms you can figure out by using the DARE matching quizzes/exercises Alternatively, consult DARE and/or other sources to try to figure out the correct matches.
5. Slang: Reexamine sections 3.4 and 3.5 of the film (section 3.6 offers more examples) and classify terms used there as slang, or examine a passage from a current magazine (sports, style, music, etc.) and note usages that you consider to be slang. Get people of various ages to define the terms. Who uses them? Who knows what they mean? What is accomplished by using these terms rather than an alternative?
6. Read (and respond) assignment : Read the essays by Bailey & Tillery “Lone Star Language”; “Sounds of the South”; Ekert & Mendoza-Denton “Getting Real in the Golden State”; Gordon “Changing sounds of American English”; “Land Without an Accent”; Mallinson, et al, “Smoky Mountain Speech” and present overviews to the class.
7. Research and reflect : Keep a list of putative slang terms that you use or hear during a day or a week. Keep track of where you hear a term (school, athletic event, home, television, etc.) and who uses it. Write or discuss your findings: What terms were used most frequently, where, and by what groups (e.g., gender, age, group affiliation)? What do the patterns of usage suggest? Come up with a working definition of slang. Is it helpful to distinguish slang from standard casual usage?
8. Research assignment : Select a vocabulary or pronunciation item that shows regional variation. Consult DARE and other sources to see where the various terms or pronunciations come from and where variations occur.
9. Research assignment: Select one regional dialect, find further information about its sounds, vocabulary, and grammar, and present this information to the class.
10. Literary-based assignment: Examine regional dialects in literature. Authors you might consider include Charles Chesnutt, Stephen Crane, Bret Hart, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, and Lee Smith. Focus on which dialects are spoken by various characters and why authors gave those voices to those characters.
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