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American Varieties

It's hard to put a number on  the varieties of American English. Explore a few. Discover the facts behind the myth that we're all starting to speak and sound alike.
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A-Prefixing

African American English

Californian

Cajun

Chicano English

Lumbee

Midwest

New York City

Pacific Northwest

Pittsburghese

great smoky mountains, courtesy, national parks conservation association

R-ful Southern

Smoky Mountains

¡Spanglish!

Texan

Social scientists estimate the number of U.S. dialects range from a basic three - New England, Southern and Western/General America - to 24 or more . Some researchers go so far as to suggest it's actually impossible to count the number of dialects in the United States because under a loose definition of the term, thousands of cities, towns and groups have their own varieties or dialects.

The authors of American English explain it this way:

When people ask us what we do for a living, and we reply that we study American English dialects, one of the next questions inevitably is, "how many dialects are there?" This question is surprisingly difficult to answer, despite the fact that researchers have been investigating language variation in America for at least a century. Discrete boundaries between dialects are often difficult to determine, since dialects share many features with one another. In addition, even the smallest dialect areas are characterized by incredible heterogeneity. Speakers use different language forms - or identical forms at different percentage rates or in different ways - based not only on where they live but also on such factors as their social class, their ethnicity, their gender, and even whether or not they view their home region as a good place to live. Further, different dialect boundaries may emerge depending on which level of language we chose to focus on.
 - Walt Wolfram & Natalie Schillings-Estes

Listen to people in your town or in your neighborhood or social group. Do you use unique words or have a distinctive manner of speaking? Consider the following:

Dialect Myths and Reality

  • MYTH: A dialect is something that SOMEONE ELSE speaks.

    REALITY: Everyone who speaks a language speaks some dialect of the language; it is not possible to speak a language without speaking a dialect of the language.

  • MYTH: Dialects always have highly noticeable features that set them apart.

    REALITY: Some dialects get much more attention than others; the status of a dialect, however, is unrelated to public commentary about its special characteristics.

  • MYTH: Only varieties of a language spoken by socially disfavored groups are dialects.

    REALITY: The notion of dialect exists apart from the social status of the language variety; there are socially favored as well as socially disfavored dialects.

  • MYTH: Dialects result from unsuccessful attempts to speak the "correct" form of a language.

    REALITY: Dialect speakers acquire their language by adopting the speech features of those around them, not by failing in their attempts to adopt standard language features.

  • MYTH: Dialects have no linguistic patterning in their own right; they are derivations from standard speech.

    REALITY: Dialects, like all language systems, are systematic and regular; furthermore, socially disfavored dialects can be described with the same kind of precision as standard language varieties.

  • MYTH: Dialects inherently carry negative connotations.

    REALITY: Dialects are not necessarily positively or negatively valued; their social values are derived strictly from the social position of their community of speakers.

  • Additional Resources

Source:  Wolfram, W., & Schilling-Estes, N.  American English: Dialects and Variation, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1998.

Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York