Wednesday, August 07, 2013

American Accents: There Are More Than Most Brits Imagine

Growing up in England, you get to know a thing or two about accents. In my case, from a relatively young age, I would secretly practice various incarnations of British English - often using the speech style and dialect of British celebrities.

I learned Cockney from Michael Caine, and channeled the cast of Brookside to sound more like a Scouser. In fact, soap operas - little though I cared for them - were actually an invaluable source of acquisition. Emmerdale taught me to speak like a Yorkie and Coronation Street like a Mancunian. I learned a Welsh variant by listening to interviews with former Manchester United striker Mark Hughes. Any attempts at Glaswegian were inspired by Billy Connolly, while my bastardization of Irish brogue was the unfortunate result of watching too much Father Ted.

And of course, because Britain is saturated with American television and film, I even picked up what I'd always believed to be a relatively decent American accent.

However, until I began interacting with Americans during my university days, I also legitimately believed that there existed only three accents in the United States: 1) that of the New Yorker 2) that of the deep south and 3) "general American".

What a revelation it was, then, to discover that not only does the deep south possess a variety of accents within itself, but that accents differ wildly up and down the entire country.

One of my favourites comes from far north: the adorable and elongated delivery of words like no (which becomes noo) in Wisconsin, a state also noted for the dialectal phenomenon of adding eh? to the end of sentences. You may be familiar with this speech style from the film Fargo, though Wisconsinites are quick to point out that the accents used in the movie are "over-stated". Anyway, it's a beautiful accent and I could listen to it all day.

Further down, in my current home state of Indiana, Hoosiers like to insist that they don't have an accent, that their brand of "American" is more in line with nightly news anchors. While this may be true in certain areas of Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, there is actually a very pronounced Indiana drawl that at once seems to be a combination of northern and southern styles. Further, the Indiana dialect is marked by phrases such as "who all is going?", which would seem to have its roots in the South.

Speaking of the South, there are all kinds of subtle variations in accent and dialect beneath the Mason-Dixon Line. Along the coast you have Virginia Piedmont, a non-rhotic dialect (meaning speakers don't pronounce the "R" in words like car), while in the state of Louisiana, there are several dialects from French, English and Creole. Meanwhile, from the Ohio River down to northern Texas, there is the South Midland dialect, which bears all the hallmarks of a southern drawl, save for the fact that it incorporates the rhotic R.

Perhaps my absolute favourite (sorry, Wisconsin) would have to be a Bostonian accent, or - as it is known more broadly in linguistic circles - Eastern New England dialect. There is something so gratifying about hearing the word yard pronounced with both a broad A and a non-rhotic R, while Eastern New England is probably the only dialect in America in which the words father and bother don't rhyme.

Over to the west coast, you have the dialects of the Pacific South West and Pacific North West. The latter is characterized by Canadian-esque vowel shifts and the tendency to pronounce words like string as shtring. In California, most of us think of the accent and dialect used in films like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. But the Golden State is home to some 38 million people (roughly the same as Poland) and speech patterns vary depending on where you are.

In truth, the United States is swarming with hundreds of subtle variations that it would be difficult to cover them all in one blog post. When you take into account the further influence the Hispanic and African American communities have on the language, you realize how complex American English is.

But maw on dat layda

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Jonathan Thomas said...

I've often been told that I have a pronounced mid-western accent. My wife grew up closer to Chicago so she has a clear 'Chicago Accent' which I often chide her for.

I grew up in Texas for a few years as a child and while there is no trace of a southern drawl in my accent now, I'll occasionally drop an unconscious 'y'all.'

Laurence Brown said...

And it's funny, because "y'all" has definitely made its way north. I hear it in Indiana all the time.

Expat mum said...

Don't Hoosiers also say "wershing" instead of "washing"? I love that.

Gloria said...

My mom (and family members) say George "Warshington" or "Warshington" D.C. And yes, do the "warsh". It makes me smile.

Laurence Brown said...

They also have a unique way of saying "iron".

Anonymous said...

I've worked with a lot of international people and consider myself better than average at understanding people with accents. However when it comes to people from Boston I need a translator :)

themovetoamerica said...

My husband was born in West Virginia and raised in Ohio and his accent seems like that of an Ohioan but when a fellow West Virginian (or near by state) is around they instantly know he comes from there. He does tend to say certain words differently from others in Ohio.

Interesting post.


Nora Fitzgerald said...

As a resident of Southern Illinois, I have to say that I recognized "who all is going" without knowing that its not used commonly in other areas of the country. And, our state has two definite accents, it's easy to tell if someone is from the Chicago area (they may even ask for a "pop", pronounced "pap" to our ears). Residents of Clinton County, Illinois say "warsh" their "hairs" when shampooing, but it may have something to do with a very strong German background in the area, not sure. My friend from Wisconsin has a sing-song accent and takes "pitchers" and says "no?" at the end of her sentences! 

Melissa S. said...

I'm with you Laurence, the Bostonian accent is my favorite as well.

n0aaa said...

I lived in eastern Massachusetts for 10 years early in my life and married a girl from there. It is amazing how many people I run into from there (including my wife) show no traces of it now, but when I first moved there from California I didn't understand a word. It is getting rarer, but is the most distinctive American accent of them all.

Kaley said...

I must be a Hoosier, since "Who all is going?" sounds perfectly normal to me, and I'm struggling to think of a better way to say it.

I do think many college-educated people tend to lose some of their accents, so I think my grandparents (who grew up in small-town Indiana and never left) have a rather pronounced Hoosier accent, whereas my brother and I do not. That's not to say we don't say some things in a Hoosier way, but the pronunciation "warsh" will never come out of my mouth! :)

Anonymous said...

You weren't in Wisconsin when you noted the dialectal phenomenon of adding eh to the end of sentences; you would have been in Canada. In the real Far North, Minnesotans and North Dakotans end their sentences with "Uff da" and "For sure."

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