A Tour of U.S. Accents: Bostonian, Philadelphese, Gullah Creole & Other Intriguing Dialects

You don’t have an accent — or rather, every­one has an accent, but we don’t notice our own, espe­cial­ly if we asso­ciate most­ly with peo­ple of sim­i­lar cul­tur­al back­grounds. For how­ev­er we might like to describe our­selves, the way we speak reveals who we are: as dialect coach Erik Singer puts it in the Wired video above, “Accent is iden­ti­ty.” Among the forces shap­ing that iden­ti­ty he names not just geog­ra­phy but socioe­co­nom­ic back­ground, gen­er­a­tion, eth­nic­i­ty and race, and oth­er “indi­vid­ual fac­tors.”  The result is that a large and var­ied con­ti­nent like North Amer­i­ca has giv­en rise to a wide vari­ety of accents in the Eng­lish lan­guage alone.

In the video Singer and four oth­er spe­cial­ist lan­guage experts demon­strate a great many of these North Amer­i­can accents, iden­ti­fy­ing the most dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of each. The clas­sic Boston accent, for exam­ple, is “non-rhot­ic,” refer­ring to the drop­ping of “R” sounds that make pos­si­ble such clas­sic phras­es as “pahk yah cah in Havahd Yard.” It dif­fers in many ways from those com­mon in places like Rhode Island and New York City, rel­a­tive­ly close togeth­er though all three areas may seem: the diver­si­ty of accents on the U.S. east coast ver­sus its more recent­ly set­tled west coast under­scores the fact that region­al accents need time, usu­al­ly a mat­ter of gen­er­a­tion upon gen­er­a­tion, to emerge.

The way Philadel­phi­ans talk illus­trates what Singer calls “the ‘on’ line,” north of which most pro­nounce “on” as if it rhymes with “don,” and south of which — Philly and below — most pro­nounce “on” as if rhymes with “dawn.” You don’t even have to cross the Penn­syl­va­nia bor­der to find anoth­er unique accent. Only in Pitts­burgh do peo­ple “smooth the ‘mouth’ dipthong,” a dipthong being a syl­la­ble com­posed of two dis­tinct vow­els — here, the “ou” in “mouth” — the “smooth­ing out” of which turns it into a sin­gle (and to non-Pitts­burghers, unusu­al-sound­ing) vow­el.

By the end of these 20 min­utes, Singer and his crew have made it only as far as the “Piney Woods Belt” of the Amer­i­can south, whose accents bring to many of our minds the voice of Scar­lett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois. They’ve also touched on such lin­guis­tic curiosi­ties as Gul­lah cre­ole; the Eliz­a­bethan inflec­tion of Ocra­coke Island, North Car­oli­na,” pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture; and in some ways the most curi­ous of all, the broad­ly des­ig­nat­ed “gen­er­al Amer­i­can” speech that has emerged in recent decades. This is only the first video of a series [update: it’s now avail­able below], so keep an eye on Wired’s Youtube chan­nel for the next install­ment of the lin­guis­tic jour­ney — and keep an ear out for all the sub­tle vari­eties of Eng­lish you can catch in the mean­time.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

One Woman, 17 British Accents

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

Meet the Amer­i­cans Who Speak with Eliz­a­bethan Eng­lish Accents: An Intro­duc­tion to the “Hoi Toi­ders” from Ocra­coke, North Car­oli­na

Why Do Peo­ple Talk Fun­ny in Old Movies?, or The Ori­gin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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