How Many American Dialects Could There Possibly Be? (We’ll Tell You.)

*Co-written with Elliot Crumpley.

The Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research (CMWR) held a workshop on October 3 focusing on American dialects. To this you might ask yourself… “Really? American dialects?”  The answer is, of course.

The average native speaker of American English is aware of dialects in a general way – we know that someone from Louisiana sounds a lot different than someone from South Dakota.  These differences are sometimes a source of amusement but not really a hindrance for native speakers.  Native speakers develop a general sense of how people sound and what to expect in the language of different regions.  For a non-native speaker of American English however, the varied and sometimes conflicting linguistic identities that exist in the United States can be a source of confusion.Strict textbook lessons about the English language, though assisting fluency in academic English, oftentimes lack a nuanced survey of language use in the United States; they also do not prepare language learners to understand or interpret the language variety they may encounter in the country.  As it turned out, even we native speakers had something learn about how dialects are practiced and understood in the United States.

Is there a quintessentially “American” accent?  As it turns out, not really. In the 1950’s the accent encountered in the Midwest was identified as generally the most “unaccented” and thus became the model for the American accent perpetuated by television, Hollywood, and music. Just think Brian Williams.  In reality, this model was not derived from any one particular region in the Midwest, and from the start was more manufactured than real. However, the commitment to “unaccented” English in the media has contributed to the myth of a single, clearly articulated American accent.  This version of English is still not really spoken in any part of the country as even the Midwest accent has grown increasingly distinct over the past decades.

Every region in the U.S. contains some linguistic variation or nuance, and the workshop gave participants an opportunity to study these variations and connect certain traits to certain regions.  For example, the longer intonations and rounded syllables across the South (The Office sums this up rather hilariously in this clip), and the East coast tendency to produce disseminating versions of a consonant-clipped, Italian-influenced New York accent—how you doin’? (Also see Boston and Pittsburgh). From there we can go to the enthusiastic California Valley Girl/surfer dialect (no better example than this guy), and a certain Cher Horowitz from Clueless can’t help but come to mind. Or there’s the upper Midwestern accent exemplified in Fargo, and one of my personal favorite accents, ever.

Just as important to note are variations coming from different ethnic populations, where other languages adapted in their own ways to the authority of the English language in America. Particularly, the workshop focused on Spanglish, a blend of Spanish and English that involves code-switching (switching briefly from one language to another mid-speech), and/or language shift involving the development of new Spanish-sounding words taken from English roots—for example, “to park” becomes parquear.

Finally we looked at  the dialect of African American Vernacular English, touching briefly on its historical development and the social implications that it has today, especially looking at the debate on whether it should be integrated in schools. We all hear this dialect every day, because it is just as commonly used as the above mentioned dialects; just as with Spanglish, it’s important that we’re all cognizant of the debates and tensions surrounding the use of these alternative dialects in mainstream American communication. Not to end on too critical a note, though, we provide you with one last clip.

It proves to be invaluable to acknowledge and appreciate America’s different accents, because they each represent distinct regional and social histories. It is also a very useful tool in helping those learning American English, not only to better attune one’s ear to different English variants but also to better understand our entire culture through how we use our language.

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  • “In the 1950’s the accent encountered in the Midwest was identified as generally the most “unaccented””
    That’s what I always thought we (most in the Midwest area) sounded like, lack of accent. Great post.