What's in an american accent

Dialects and Subdialects of American English in the 48 conterminous states, image copyright Robert Delaney

By Justin K. Thomas

Nov. 13, 2017

The concept behind the United States is unique: come here to find a new life and opportunities for success. And, for the past 240 years, people from all over the world have come here, bringing with them distinct vocal characteristics and accents.

Even native-born Americans’ vocal characteristics vary by where they call home, whether it be New England, Southern California or somewhere in between.

Most people believe that it is an “accent” that makes a person’s speech different, but in fact, it’s what experts call a “dialect,” said Dr. Leslie E. Cochrane, a lecturer of Linguistics and English at the College of William & Mary.

“The language varieties that are used by people in the United States are not just accents,” she said. “They have their own grammatical rules at the levels of sound structure, word structure, sentence structure, and vocabulary; or what linguists call phonology, morphology, syntax, and the lexicon.”

Dialects are influenced by the mixing of various cultures, Cochrane said. Originally, dialects of the English language in colonial America came from English-speaking settlers who themselves spoke with unique deviations of British English.

“On the east coast of the [United States] regional dialects still reflect some of the early settlement patterns,” she said. “American English dialects have also been influenced by other languages. Cajun English in Louisiana, for instance, was influenced by French-speaking settlers from Canada. Since language is always changing, dialects in the United States will have their own distinct varieties.”

Dialects are at times mistakenly connected to a person’s level of “intelligence,” Cochrane said. But, she points out that everyone speaks a particular dialect of their language—education and dialect cannot be assumed to be correlated.

“To look down on someone for their dialect means looking down on the identity that dialect is associated with,” she said. “I earned my master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Oxford, but no one expects me to speak a British English dialect as a result of my education since my identity remains American. Likewise, we need to reject the widespread idea that any dialect of American English is somehow less valid than any other.”

Crystal Ditro, an auditor with the Department of the Navy said that she, as a teenager, was a victim of dialect-stereotyping when she moved to Colorado.

“I was raised in the South," she said. "Then I moved to Denver at 16-years-old. I would use terms like 'y'all' and 'ain't.' But after a few weeks at my new school, I realized that my classmates believed people who sounded like me were considered 'dumb,' 'ignorant' or 'uneducated' no matter how intelligent they actually were. So, I forced myself to change [my way of speaking] so that I could better 'fit in.' Now, most people assume that I'm a northerner when they first meet me."

Currently, Cochrane said, there are subtle transformations in American English dialects that many people may not be aware of.

“There are many changes in progress regarding the various dialects of American English,” she said. “In some dialects, the vowels in “caught” and “cot” are becoming merged to the point that they sound the same. This kind of change is constantly happening in language. There are also shifts in the way we use words. The word like, for instance, was not always used in the same way as the word as. Nowadays, most people use it ‘like’ I just did in this sentence.”

Since the dialects we speak are also tied to our identities, Cochrane said that there will always be variations of English spoken in America, even in the distant future, because change is a linguistic constant.

“I expect that there will always be differences in spoken English,” she said. “And because language is always changing, we can expect that people in two centuries will not sound the way we do—just as we don't talk the way people did at the time of the American Revolution.”

Dr. Cochrane's research focuses on sociolinguistics and disability; she has an article in press analyzing blogs by wheelchair users and an upcoming chapter on teaching linguistics to college undergraduates.