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American English dialects: always changing, yet here to stay

Are Americans in different parts of the country starting to talk more alike? It’s a reasonable question to ask. Americans have always been footloose, and now that working remotely is possible, they’re relocating to other regions more than ever. Americans watch the same television shows, listen to the same radio programs and podcasts, and converse on the same microblogs and message boards. Once new slang finds its way onto the Internet, it quickly nationalizes. Certain words and usages traditionally associated with one part of the country have started expanding their territory. For example, y’all, once used exclusively in the South, is starting to be heard in other places.

American English, like all languages, is made up of dialects. A dialect is a set of words, pronunciations, and sentence structures that connects its speakers to a particular region or social group. Dialect boundaries can never be rigid or exact. Not only do dialect regions always include an admixture of people from other places, but even speakers who were born in the area vary in which linguistic features they adopt (if any). The way people talk depends on many factors besides where they grew up, such as age, gender, social status, education, and ethnicity.

“A dialect is a set of words, pronunciations, and sentence structures that connects its speakers to a particular region or social group.”

In spite of these complicating factors, distinctive regional dialects are still alive and well in the United States. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, several projects have recorded American regional speech, including the Linguistic Atlas, the University of Pennsylvania Telsur (telephone survey), and the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. Interviewers for these projects often had to speak to several people before finding someone native to the place. Nonetheless, clear regional patterns emerged, each with a unique constellation of words, pronunciations, and usages. Remarkably, the regions that make up the present-day dialect map of the United States are essentially the same ones that were in place by the time of the American Revolution.

American dialects got their start with the four major groups who colonized British North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Each brought their own way of talking. The Puritans, who began arriving in Massachusetts in 1629, came mainly from East Anglia in the southeast of England. The Cavaliers, aristocrats who settled in Virginia during the second half of the seventeenth century, were mostly from areas of southern England to the south and west of London. The Quakers, who settled Pennsylvania between 1675 and 1715, were more geographically mixed, but most came from the North Midlands. The final rush of colonists, arriving between 1717 and 1775, migrated from the border regions of Scotland and northern England, plus northern Ireland, and settled in western Pennsylvania and the Appalachian backcountry.

As these early colonists and their descendants spread out across the continent, they tended to move directly west. Their settlement patterns are reflected in the current dialect regions of the United States. These are the North, covering the northeastern states and the upper Midwest; the South, encompassing the southeastern states and the inland South as far west as Texas; the Midland, which includes the strip of states between the North and the South, from Pennsylvania to the Rocky Mountains; and the West, which runs approximately from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. The West represents a new dialect area. People from everywhere flooded into that region during the nineteenth century and no single dialect gained a dominant hold.

“British regional dialects are the foundation on which American speech was built, and traces of these original speech patterns still exist.”

It would be a vast oversimplification to say that modern American dialects are the direct descendants of British regional dialects, but they are the foundation on which American speech was built, and traces of these original speech patterns still exist. For instance, y’all and its variant you’uns came over with the Scots and Irish who settled western Pennsylvania and the mountainous backcountry of the South. They’ve been heard in these places since the early nineteenth century, and they are still heard in more or less the same areas today. In fact, the use of you’uns is one of the chief identifiers of natives of the western Pennsylvania city of Pittsburgh. (Pittsburghers spell it yinz.)

Other examples run through the language. Several southern terms can be traced to southern England, including disremember for forget; favor for resemble; traipse for walk in a straggling way; and like to meaning almost (I like to died). Pronunciations that until recently were typical of New England country folk, such as ‘deef” for deaf, ‘marcy’ for mercy, and ‘desate’ for deceit, arrived with the Puritans. The expressions want in and want out and the combination of need with a past participle (That needs washed) are likely contributions of immigrants from northern Ireland who settled the Midland in the eighteenth century.

What’s next for American English dialects? They’ll no doubt continue to evolve, as all languages do. For instance, a noticeable change in progress involves the pronunciation of word pairs like cot/caughtDon/dawn, and stock/stalk. Traditionally, speakers in the Southeast and the North say these words differently, producing the vowel sound of the first word with unrounded lips (like ah) and that of the second word with lips rounded (like aw). In other parts of the country, people typically pronounce both words of each pair the same way, with unrounded lips. Lately, the second pronunciation is spreading into some northern states and will probably become the most common one. Similar pronunciation changes are happening in other places too.

However, it’s unlikely that any of these changes will result in the merging or disappearance of regional variations. American dialect boundaries have stayed the same for a few centuries now, so they’ll likely continue to do so. New Englanders of today don’t talk the same way as New Englanders of fifty years ago, but they still sound different from Southerners, Midwesterners, and Californians.

Featured image by Nico Smit via Unsplash, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Paula Park

    What about the role of Irish people in developing the English and dialects of the US.

  2. Richard E. Hennessey

    So many aspects of the particular version of the English I knew, say, 70 years ago in West Bath, Maine, have largely disappeared, e.g.: “ayuh” for “yes” and “a dite” (the “i” as in “like”) for “a bit.” So too the stereotypical “r” has significantly retreated and the transition from the BATH side of the TRAP-BATH divide to the TRAP side continues unabated.

  3. Brenda Sumrow

    Re Paula Park, paragraphs 4,6, and 7.

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