Do you pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd? Do you refer to multiple people as “dey”? Is a jelly doughnut called a “bismark,” or is everything that comes out of a soda fountain called a coke, even if it’s really 7-Up? Do you root for Da Bears?
The way we speak, both the phrases we use
and the accents that inflect those phrases, come from our upbringings.
And in a nation of more than 300 million people, it’s little wonder that
those accents vary widely. More than a decade ago, Robert Delaney, a
reference associate at Long Island University, put together this map of the 24 regions of American English:
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Here’s a quick rundown of the regions Delaney identified:
Eastern New England: These are the cah pahkahs, the blue collar residents from Maine to Massachusetts who drop their Rs and substitute an H. Think Jack Donaghy when he hangs out with Nancy Donovan on “30 Rock.”
Boston Urban: There are a few sub-dialects in the Hub, from the stereotypical Southie dialect (Sully and Denise on “Saturday Night Live”) to the Boston Brahmin (John Kerry). The differences are more determined by class than anything else.
Western New England:
Outside eastern Massachusetts, it’s the T that gets dropped. The last
Democratic president was Bill Clin-n, for example. It’s not as
distinctive as the eastern accent.
Dutch settlers, Delaney says, influenced language development north of
New York City. The sitting area in front of your doorstep is a stoop,
and the best-sellers at Dunkin’ Donuts are crullers and olycooks.
New York City:
The mix of ethnicities that built the Big Apple created their own
dialect that doesn’t sound much like the rest of America. TH sounds
become Ds, and words get smashed together easily. There’s no better
example than Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny.”
A small and dwindling dialect on Long Island, which was once a part of
New England. Combine New York City and Eastern New England and you get
Inland Northern: Upstate New York and
Vermont combine Western New England and the Midwest, and words like
marry, merry and Mary are all pronounced identically. Delaney points out
another doughnut difference: Here, they’re called friedcakes.
San Francisco Urban:
The city by the bay has more in common with the East Coast than the
West Coast, thanks to the settlers who originally made their way to the
Bay Area. San Franciscans speak a mishmash of Northeastern and
Upper Midwestern: Home of the
Midwestern twang, influenced by a combination of Northeasterners and
Southerners who migrated up the Mississippi River, as well as the
Scandanavian immigrants who settled the area. A subdialect in and around
Minnesota reflects more of that Norweigan influence. Think “Drop Dead Gorgeous.”
Chicago Urban: Bill Swerski
would be proud. Chicago’s distinctive dialect is influenced by what
linguists call the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, when short vowels
started sounding like their longer cousins. Chicago’s dialect was
influenced by migrants who traveled along the Erie Canal, west from the Northeast. They root, of course, for Da Bears.
Here’s where the European immigrants who didn’t move to New York City
start playing a role. The Scotch-Irish, German and Quaker settlers from
Pennsylvania to the central Midwest created what Delaney calls a
“transition zone” between the north and south. Doughnuts are dunkers or
Pennsylvania German-English: A small but distinct dialect in the center of the Keystone State, probably spoken by Dwight Schrute’s ancestors.
The grammar system is the most distinctive remnant of the region’s
immigrant populations; it sounds more like German than English.
Rocky Mountain: Think Montana, Colorado and Utah. Heavy influences from frontier settlers and Native American languages.
More influence from Native American languages. An example is the
potluck, a gathering where everyone brings a dish, a derivation of the
Native American “potlatch.” Muckatymuck, known elsewhere as a big shot,
is another Native American term adopted by Northwesterners. But there’s
less of an accent here than elsewhere, given the fact that the region
was settled relatively recently.
The settlers who showed up came to California for the gold, and that
still shows in some of their slang — Delaney cites “pay dirt,” “pan out”
and “goner” as phrases that started in California. Sub-dialects of
Valley Girls and Surfer Dudes are ripe for parody, as in Cher and Travis from the timeless classic “Clueless.”
Mexican dialects of Spanish infuse Southwestern English, though the
region is still what Delaney calls a melting pot of other dialects.
Words like “patio” and “plaza” became a part of everyday English thanks
to the Southwest.
South Midland: West of the
Appalachians and into North Texas, speakers here sometimes put an A
before a word ending in -ING, in place of words like “are.” TH is often
replaced with an F. Delaney says this region retains more strains of
Elizabethan English than modern British English has, including words
like “ragamuffin,” “reckon” and “sorry,” meaning “inferior.”
Ozark: Southern Appalachian settlers developed their own dialect, best embodied in pop culture by the Beverly Hillbillies.
Southern Appalachian: The “g” in gerunds doesn’t survive often here. But overall, the accent is pretty similar to the South Midlands.
A syrupy drawl starts to develop south of Washington, where the letter
R, when coming after a vowel, becomes what Delaney calls a slided sound.
So “four dogs” sounds like “fo-uh dahawgs.”
Similar to the Piedmont drawl, but with more remnants of Colonial
English. Something diagonally across the street is “catty-corner.”
A Creole mix found in coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina
combines English with West African languages brought over by slaves who
entered the U.S. in the 1700s and 1800s. Words like “peruse,” “yam” and
“samba” all entered the country here.
Basically the Deep South minus Georgia and New Orleans. It’s a result
of mixing English settlers from the southern colonies with French
settlers in Louisiana, and it’s where we get words like “armoire,”
“bisque” and “bayou.”
Louisiana: The French
settlers who first traveled up the Mississippi River brought a whole
mess of dialects. They include Cajun French, which incorporates some
Spanish, and Cajun English, which makes New Orleans “Nawlins.”
Here’s another way linguists view the English dialects spoken in the U.S.: