Mapping the Differences in How Americans Speak English: A Geographic Look at Words, Accents & Dialects

In the 2005 PBS doc­u­men­tary series Do You Speak Amer­i­can? jour­nal­ist Robert Mac­Neil trav­eled from fabled “sea to shin­ing sea” to explore the mys­ter­ies of Amer­i­can Eng­lish. Among the many ques­tions he addressed at the time was the wide­spread idea that mass media is “homog­e­niz­ing Amer­i­can lan­guage or mak­ing us all talk the same.” Mac­Neil, and the lin­guists he inter­viewed, found that this wasn’t true, but what accounts for the mis­per­cep­tion?

One rea­son we may have been inclined to think so is that region­al accents seemed to dis­ap­pear from tele­vi­sion and oth­er media, as the coun­try became more sub­ur­ban, and mid­dle class white Amer­i­cans dis­tanced them­selves from their immi­grant roots and from African Amer­i­cans and work­ing-class South­ern­ers. Aside from sev­er­al broad eth­nic stereo­types, many of which also fad­ed dur­ing the Civ­il Rights era, the more-or-less authen­tic region­al accents on TV seemed few­er and few­er.

A rush of media in recent decades, how­ev­er, from Far­go to The Sopra­nos, has rein­tro­duced Amer­i­cans to the region­al vari­eties of their lan­guage. At the same time, pop­u­lar treat­ment of lin­guis­tics, like MacNeil’s doc­u­men­tary, have intro­duced us to the tools researchers use to study the diver­si­ty of dif­fer­ence in Amer­i­can Eng­lish. Those dif­fer­ences can be mea­sured, for exam­ple, in whether peo­ple pro­nounce “R” sounds in words like “car,” a char­ac­ter­is­tic lin­guists call “rhotic­i­ty.”

In the past cen­tu­ry, Ben Traw­ick-Smith of Dialect Blog writes, “Amer­i­can and British atti­tudes toward non-rhotic­i­ty diverged. Where r‑lessness was once a pres­tige fea­ture in both coun­tries,” rep­re­sent­ing in the South­ern planter class and Boston Brah­mins in the U.S., for exam­ple, “it is a mark­er of work­ing-class or ver­nac­u­lar speech in 21st-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (typ­i­cal of the broad­est New York City, Boston and African Amer­i­can Ver­nac­u­lar Eng­lish­es).” In the short film at the top, you can hear sev­er­al vari­eties of rhot­ic and non-rhot­ic Amer­i­can Eng­lish in the mouths of speak­ers from 6 regions around the coun­try.

Pre­sent­ed by lin­guist Hen­ry Smith, Jr. the 1958 doc­u­men­tary details the pho­net­ic dif­fer­ences of each speak­er’s pro­nun­ci­a­tions. Lin­guists use cer­tain words to test for a vernacular’s pho­net­ic qual­i­ties, words like “water” and “oil,” which you can hear fur­ther up in a far more recent video, pro­nounced by speak­ers from dif­fer­ent states around the U.S. Region­al speech is also mea­sured by the choice of words we use to talk about the same thing, with one of the most promi­nent exam­ples in the U.S. being “Soda vs. Pop vs. Coke.” In the Atlantic video just above, see how those dif­fer­ent words break down accord­ing to region, and learn a bit more about the “at least 10 dis­tinct dialects of Eng­lish” spo­ken in the U.S.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A Brief Tour of British & Irish Accents: 14 Ways to Speak Eng­lish in 84 Sec­onds

What Eng­lish Would Sound Like If It Was Pro­nounced Pho­net­i­cal­ly

The Speech Accent Archive: The Eng­lish Accents of Peo­ple Who Speak 341 Dif­fer­ent Lan­guages

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Noel says:

    Such non­sense. Espe­cial­ly in the 21st cen­tu­ry the USA has no ” dis­tinct dialects “.
    And Coke clear­ly means Coca Cola every­where.
    But,yes, there are some region­al dif­fer­e­naces in word-usage , like pop instead of soda.
    And south­ern­ers have dif­fi­cul­ty in pro­nounc­ing some sounds such as oi and sh , and the ridicu­lous Bronx con­fu­sion with pro­nounc­ing er as oi and oi as er.

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