Not all people who speak a language speak it the same
way. A language
can be subdivided into any number of dialects which each vary in
some way from the parent language. The term, accent, is often
incorrectly used in its place, but an accent refers only to the way
words are pronounced, while a dialect has its own grammar, vocabulary,
syntax, and common expressions as well as pronunciation rules that make
it unique from other dialects of the same language. Another term,
idiolect, refers to the manner of speaking of an individual
person. No two people's idiolects are exactly the same, but people
who are part of the same group will have enough verbal elements in
common to be said to be using the same dialect.
Three things are needed for a new dialect to develop: a group of people
living in close proximity to each other; this group living in isolation
(either geographically or socially) from other groups; and the passage of
time. Given enough time, a dialect may evolve to the point that it
becomes a different language from the one it started as.
English began existence as a Germanic dialect called Anglo Saxon that
was brought to England by invaders from Germany. The Anglo Saxon peoples
in England were now geographically isolated from their cousins in
Germany which allowed the dialects to evolve in different directions.
Other invaders would also influence the development of English with
their languages until the modern English we speak today has become so
different from the modern German spoken in Germany that a speaker of one
cannot understand a speaker of the other. Thus English and German are
considered to be two distinct, though related, languages. The other
modern languages in this family are Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian,
This issue of mutual understandability is what in theory is used
to determine what is a dialect and what is a language, but in reality
there are social and political issues involved too. The government of a
country might declare that all the languages spoken in that country are
actually dialects of one language in order to create the illusion
of polital unity, while the government of another country might
declare that the dialect spoken by its people is actually a unique
language from other countries that speak dialects of the same language
in order to create a sense of national pride. History is full of governments
that have tried to impose a single language on all of its people with
varying results: sometimes the minority languages go entirely
extinct, sometimes they are reduced to surviving
only as dialects of the majority language, and sometimes new languages
are unintentionally created by a blending of the two languages.
This brings us to three other language terms that are
worth mentioning here. When two or more
groups of people who speak different languages need to communicate with
each other on a regular basis and do not want to
actually learn each others' language (such as when the European merchants
started trading with other peoples around the world), they may develop
what is called a pidgin language. This is a simplified language
that usually has as few words as possible in its vocabulary (taking some
from both languages) and has been stripped of any fancier grammatical rules
like the use of multiple verb conjugations and tenses - a kind of
"Me Tarzan, you Jane" way of talking. A pidgin is
nobody's native language and is used only in business settings. In fact,
the word "pidgin" may be derived from the way Chinese
merchants mispronounced the English word "business."
However, in some cases, the children in one of these areas might grow up
learning the pidgin as their first language. When this happens, the pidgin
can grow in complexity into a creole language
with a larger set of grammatical rules and a much larger vocabulary that
share elements of all the languages that went into creating it.
Finally, jargon is a specialized vocabulary used by people within
a particular discipline such as medical jargon for doctors, legal
jargon for lawyers, or
jargon for college professors. While jargon words occasionally
filter up into a mainstream dialect, they are usually used only by
experts and only when they are discussing their particular field.
Critics argue, with some justification, that jargon needlessly
complicates a statement that could be expressed in a more clear
manner. Users of it argue, also with justification, that it is
a more precise manner of speaking, although many examples can be
found (especially in politics and business) where it has been used
intentionally to obscure the fact that the speaker is trying to avoid
The modern development of communications technology may possibly slow
down the evolution of dialects and languages. For the first
time in history, a single dialect (sometimes called Network Standard)
can be broadcast over an entire country,
so very few people are actually living in geographic isolation anymore.
However, the existence of racism, poverty,
and class distinctions cause some groups
to remain socially isolated from the mainstream of a culture, giving rise
to social dialects like Black English (Ebonics) spoken by some African
Americans in urban areas. There was recently a great deal of
political controversy (ignoring the linguistic facts)
over whether Ebonics should be considered a unique language, a
"legitimate" dialect of English, or "illegimate"
gutterspeak. Also, teenagers enjoy creating their own dialects that they can
use to quickly determine who is or is not part of the "in crowd"
and as a "secret language" in front of their parents. These
dialects tend to go in and out of fashion very quickly;
by the time an expression
has filtered up to the mainstream dialect adults understand,
the teenagers have moved on to something else. Even the Internet has
given birth to what might be called a
social dialect (derived from
jargon) containing words like IMHO, IIRC, and ROTFLMAO.
Contrary to what your teachers probably tried to tell you, there is no
such thing as "correct English." Any manner of speaking that is
following the rules of a dialect is equally "correct." Words like
ain't are "real" words in some dialects and perfectly
acceptable to use. However, people are judged by the way they speak, and
dialects carry different levels of social prestige with them based on the
prejudices within a society. Generally, the southern dialects of American
English carry a lower prestige, at least among northerners who will assume
that a person speaking a southern dialect is less intelligent and less
educated than they are. Some educated southerners even feel this way and
will "correct" their speech to meet northern standards.
The New York City dialect carries the lowest prestige of all
(Received Standard, a dialect of British English used by the BBC and the
royal family, carries the highest
prestige - even among Americans). For this
reason, schools try to rid children of the local dialects they learned from their
family and friends in favor of a more prestigious one.
(Of course, some sentences like, "Me are a educated person," would
be incorrect in every dialect.)
American dialects come in many flavors.
The map and list below show the major (and a few minor) geographic
dialects and subdialects of English spoken in the United States. Many of
these may be further subdivided into local subdialects that are not shown
here. Obviously, the borders between dialect regions are not well defined
lines, as a map like this would imply, but a gradual transition extending
on both sides of the line. Also, as we enter the 21st century, many of the
features described below have become much less prevalent than they were
during the first half of the 20th century.
This is sometimes also refered to as General American
and is used in almost two-thirds of the country.
It breaks down into the dialect regions below.
Many of the Northern dialects can trace
their roots to this dialect which was
spread westward by the New England settlers
as they migrated west. It carries a high
prestige due to Boston's early economic
and cultural importance and the presence
of Harvard University. A famous speaker is Katherine Hepburn.
They sometimes call doughnuts cymbals,
simballs, and boil cakes.
New England, Eastern (1)
This is one of the most distinctive of all
the American dialects. R's
are often dropped, but an extra R
is added to words that end with a vowel.
A is pronounced
AH so that we get "Pahk
the cah in Hahvuhd yahd" and
"Pepperidge Fahm remembuhs."
Boston Urban (2)
Like many big cities, Boston has its own
dialects that are governed more by social
factors like class and ethnicity than by
geographic location. Greater Boston Area
is the most widely spoken and is very similar to Eastern New England.
Brahmin is spoken by the upper aristocratic class like Mr. Howell
on Gilligan's Island. Central City Area
is what most of us think of as
being the "Boston Accent." In the last few years, Saturday Night
Live has featured this dialect among a group of rowdy teenagers
who like to videotape themselves. Also think of Cliff on Cheers,
the only character on this Boston-based show to actually speak a Boston
New England, Western (3)
Less distinctive than Eastern, but more influential on the other
Hudson Valley (4)
New York was originally a Dutch colony, and that language influenced
this dialect's development. Some original Hudson Valley words are
stoop (small porch) and teeter-totter.
They call doughnuts (which were invented by the Dutch)
crullers and olycooks.
New York City (5)
Unlike Boston and other urban dialects, New York City stands by itself and
bears little resemblence to the other
dialects in this region. It is also the
most disliked and parodied of any American dialect (even among New Yorkers),
possibly because many Americans tend dislike large cities.
When an R comes after a vowel, it is often dropped. IR
becomes OI, but OI becomes IR, and TH becomes
D as in "Dey sell tirlets on doity-doid
street" and fugedaboudit (forget about it).
This pronounciation is particularly associated with Brooklyn but
exists to some extent throughout the city.
The thickness of a speaker's dialect is directly
related to their social class, but these features have been
fading within all classes over recent decades.
Famous speakers are Rosie Perez, Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei in
My Cousin Vinny, Archie Bunker, Bugs Bunny, and
(if you're old enough to remember) the Bowery Boys.
Named for Accabonac Creek in eastern Long Island, this dialect is
rapidly dying out due to the influx of people from other areas. Back
when New York City belonged to the Dutch, this area was part of New England,
and Bonac shows elements of both dialects.
Inland Northern (7)
Combines elements of Western New England and Upper Midwestern. Marry,
merry, and Mary are pronounced the same.
They call doughnuts friedcakes.
San Francisco Urban (8)
Unlike the rest of California, which in the early twentieth century saw
an influx of people from the South and other parts of the West, San
Francisco continued to be settled by people
from the Northeast and Northern Midwest, and elements of their dialects
(North Midland, Upper Midwestern, Inland Northern) can be found.
Mission dialect, spoken by Irish Catholics in a specific part of the
city is very much like the New York City dialect.
Upper Midwestern (9)
Originally settled by people from New England and New York State who brought
those dialects, this area was also influenced by Southerners coming up
the Mississippi River as well as the speech patterns of the German and
Scandinavian immigrants and the Canadian English dialects from over the
border. It's sometimes referred to as a "Midwestern twang."
They call jelly doughnuts bismarks.
Minnewegian (Minnesota / Norwegian), a subdialect
spoken in the northernmost part of this
region was spoofed in the movies Fargo and Drop Dead
Chicago Urban (10)
Influenced by the Midland and Southern dialects. Often spoken by the
late John Belushi (Chicago's Second City comedy theater supplied
many Saturday Night Live actors). SNL used to spoof it
in the "Da Bears, Da Bulls" sketches.
They call any sweet roll doughnuts.
Compared with the Eastern United States, the Western regions were
settled too recently for very distinctive dialects to have time to
develop or to be studied in detail. Many words originally came from
Spanish, cowboy jargon, and even some from the languages of the
adobe, beer bust, belly up, boneyard, bronco, buckaroo, bunkhouse,
cahoots, corral, greenhorn, hightail, hoosegow, lasso, mustang,
maverick, roundup, wingding.
Rocky Mountain (13)
Originally developed from the North Midland and Northern dialects, but
was then influenced by the Mormon settlers in Utah and English coal miners
who settled in Wyoming. Some words that came from this dialect are
kick off (to die), cache (hiding place), and bushed
(tired). They also call jelly doughnuts bismarks.
Pacific Northwest (14)
Influenced by settlers from the Midwest and New England as well as
immigrants from England, Germany, Scandinavia, and Canada. Much earlier, a
pidgin called Chinook Jargon was developed between the languages of
the Native American tribes of this area. It would later also be used
and influenced by the European settlers who wished to
communicate with them. A few words from Chinook Jargon
like high muckamuck (important person) are still used
in this dialect today. (Note that, in this case, the word
"jargon" has a different meaning from the one discussed
Alaska (not shown)
Developed out of the Northern, Midland, and Western dialects. Also
influenced by the native languages of the Alutes, Innuit, and Chinook
Jargon. Some words that originated here are: bush (remote area),
cabin fever, mush (to travel by dog sled),
Pacific Southwest (15)
The first English speakers arrived here from New York, Ohio, Missouri,
New England, and other parts of the Northeast and Midwest in the 1840s,
bringing the Northern and North Midland dialects with them. Words
originally used by the gold miners of this period are still used today:
pay dirt (valuable discovery), pan out (to succeed), and
goner (doomed person).
The early twentieth century saw an influx of people from the South and
other parts of the West. The people here are particularly fond of
creating new slang and expressions, and, since Hollywood is located
here, these quickly get spread to the rest of the country and the world
(the influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
was examined in
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, an extreme
exaggeration of this dialect that came to be known as "Valley
Girl" or "Surfer Dude" was popular among teenagers and
much parodied in the media with phrases like "gag me with a
spoon" and "barf me back to the stone age."
Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Whoopie Goldberg in
her one women show are two famous examples.
By the time this area became part of the United States, there had already
been as many as ten generations of Spanish speaking people living here,
so the Mexican dialect of Spanish had an important influence on this
area that became a melting pot for dialects from all over the USA.
Some local words are: caballero, cantina, frijoles, madre, mesa,
nana, padre, patio, plaza, ramada, tortilla.
Hawaii (not shown)
The original language of the Native Hawaiians is part of the Polynesian
family. English speakers arrived in 1778, but many other settlers also
came from China, Portugal, Japan, Korea, Spain, and the Philippines
to influence the modern dialect. Hawaiian Creole developed from
a pidgin English spoken on the sugar plantations with workers from Hawaii
and many other countries. Some words are: look-see, no can, number
one (the best), plenty (very). It isn't widely spoken anymore.
Nonstandard Hawaiian English developed from Hawaiian Creole and is
spoken mostly by teenagers. Standard Hawaiian English is
part of the Western dialect family but shows less influence from
the early New England dialect than any other American dialect. It has
many words borowed from the original Hawaiian as well as some from the
other Asian languages mentioned above: aloha, hula, kahuna, lei,
luau, muumuu, poi, ukulele.
For a long time, the North Midland and South Midland dialects were considered to be
part of the Northern and Southern dialect regions respectively and served as a transition zone between them.
In recent decades, mainstream thought has begun to consider them to be a distinct dialect region.
North Midland (11)
Created as the people in Pennsylvania migrated westward and influenced
by Scotch-Irish, German, and English Quaker settlers.
They call doughnuts belly sinkers, doorknobs,
dunkers, and fatcakes.
Pennsylvania German-English (12)
This was strongly influenced by Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of
German spoken by people in this area (in this context, "Dutch"
is actually a mispronunciation of the German word, "Deutsch,"
which means "German"). Its grammar allows sentences like
"Smear your sister with jam on a slice of bread" and
"Throw your father out the window his hat."
They call doughnuts fasnacht, and they also invented dunking -
from the German "dunken" (to dip).
South Midland (17)
This area, dominated by the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozark
Mountains, was originally settled
by the Pennsylvania Dutch moving south from the North Midland areas
and the Scotch-Irish moving west from Virginia.
A TH at the end of words or syllables is sometimes
pronounced F, and the word ARE is often left out
of sentences as they are in Black English.
An A is usually placed at the beginning of verb that ends with
ING, and the G is dropped; an O at the end of
a word becomes ER.
("They a-celebratin' his birfday by a-goin' to see
'Old Yeller' in the theatah").
A T is frequently added to words that end with an S sound.
Some words are: bodacious, heap,
right smart (large amount), set a spell, and smidgin.
American English has retained more
elements of the Elizabethan English spoken in the time of Shakespeare
than modern British English has, and this region has retained the most.
Some Elizabethan words that are now less common in England are: bub,
cross-purposes, fall (autumn), flapjack,
greenhorn, guess (suppose), homely, homespun,
jeans, loophole, molasses, peek,
ragamuffin, reckon, sorry (inferior),
trash, well (healthy).
Made famous by the Beverly Hillbillies, this isolated area was
settled by people from the southern Appalachian region and developed
a particularly colorful manner of speaking.
Southern Appalachian (19)
Linguists are still studying the specific differences
with South Midland, but most of the research has concentrated on
the many archaic words that are still alive in its vocabulary
rather than on its grammar and usage. A
myth is that there are still a few remote regions here
that speak an unchanged form of Elizabethan English, but it
Smoky Mountain English (25)
One such region that is notable for the many archaic features
in its pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar is the Smoky
Mountains, a small, thirty by sixty mile area located on the
border between North Carolina and Tennessee
(the size is exaggerated on the maps). However,
while it has preserved a great many elements that once were -
but no longer are - used in Britain, it has also developed a large
number of unique features of its own.
"They" is used in the place of "there";
subject-verb agreement can differ; and plural nouns may not end
with an "s" ("They's ten mile from here to
the school"). An "-est" can be placed at the
end of a word instead of "most" at the beginning
(workingest, completest). Irregular verbs may
be treated as regular verbs and vice versa, or they may be
treated as irregular in a different way from more general
dialects (arrove, blowed, costed).
Like many of the other dialects discussed on this page, the
decrease in isolation caused by the increases in mobility and
literacy has caused Smoky Mountain to be much less spoken
today than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Some local words are withouten (unless) and
whenevern (as soon as).
General Southern (red)
This dialect region (along with South Midland) matches the borders of the Confederate states that
seceded during the "Confederate War" and is still a culturally distinct
region of the United States. Since it was largely an agricultural area,
people tended to move around less than they did in the north, and as
a result, the subdialects are much less uniform than those of the
General Northern regions and have much more clearly defined boundaries.
Other languages that had an important influence on it are French (since
the western region was originally French territory) and the African
languages spoken by the people brought over as slaves. People tend
to speak slower here than in the north creating the famous southern
"drawl." I is pronounced AH, and OO is
pronounced YOO, as in "Ah'm dyoo home at fahv o'clock."
An OW in words like loud is pronounced with a slided
double sound AOO (combining the vowel sounds in "hat" and
Some local words are: boogerman, funky (bad smelling),
jump the broomstick (get married), kinfolks, mammy,
muleheaded, overseer, tote, y'all.
As the northern dialects were originally dominated by
Boston, the southern dialects were heavily influenced
by Charleston, Richmond, and Savannah. They tend to
drop Rs the way New Englanders do, but they
don't add extra Rs. Some words are:
big daddy (grandfather), big mamma (grandmother),
Confederate War (Civil War), cooter (turtle),
fixing to (going to), goober (peanut), hey (hello),
mouth harp (harmonica), on account of (because).
Virginia Piedmont (20)
When an R comes after a vowel, it becomes UH,
and AW becomes the
slided sound, AH-AW. Thus, four
dogs becomes fo-uh dah-awgs.
Some local words are: hoppergrass (grasshopper),
old-field colt (illegitimate child),
school breaks up (school lets out),
Coastal Southern (21)
Very closely resembles Virginia Piedmont but has
preserved more elements from the colonial era dialect
than any other region of the United States
outside Eastern New England. Some local words are:
catty-corner (diagonal), dope
(soda, Coca-Cola), fussbox (fussy
person), kernal (pit), savannah
(grassland), Sunday child (illegitimate
child). They call doughnuts cookies.
There are those who consider that this region should be reclassified
as part of the Northern dialect region. So many people from the North -
particularly New York - have moved here that the majority of people
tend to sound more Northern than Southern.
Named for the island off the coast of North Carolina
where it is spoken, this dialect is also called
Hoi Toide (because of the way its speakers
pronounce the long I sound in words like
"high" and "tide")
and Outer Banks English to include the coastal regions of
North Carolina and Virginia where it is also sometimes heard.
OW becomes a long A so that
"town" becomes "tain".
Unlike other Southerners who tend to drop their Rs,
Hoi Toiders actually emphasize their Rs.
Overall it tends to resemble the Scottish and Irish
dialects and is another area that is often incorrectly believed to be
speaking an unchanged form of Elizabethan English. Some
local words are mommuck (to bother) and
Sometimes called Geechee, this creole language
is spoken by some African Americans
on the coastal areas and coastal islands of Georgia and
South Carolina and was featured
in the novel on which the musical, Porgy and Bess,
was based. It combines English with several West African
languages: Mende, Yoruba, Wolof, Kongo, Twi, Vai, Temne,
Ibo, Ewe, Fula, Umbundu, Hausa, Bambara, Fante, and more.
The name comes either from the Gola tribe in Liberia or the
Ngola tribe in Angola. The grammar and pronunciation are too
complicated to go into here, but some words are:
bad mouth (curse), guba
(peanut - from which we get the English word
goober), gumbo (okra), juju (magic),
juke (disorderly, wicked), peruse
(to walk leisurely), samba (to dance),
yam (sweet potato).
Gulf Southern (23)
This area was settled by English speakers moving
west from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas,
as well as French speaking settlers spreading out from
Louisiana, especially the Acadians (see "Cajuns" below).
Some words are: armoire (wardrobe), bayou
(small stream), bisque (rich soup),
civit cat (skunk), flitters (pancakes),
gallery (porch), hydrant (faucet),
neutral ground (median strip), pecan patty
There's a lot going on down here. There are even some people
in southern Louisiana who might be able to speak more than one
of the dialects and languages below.
(the Cajuns were originally French settlers in
Acadia, Canada - now called Nova Scotia - who
were kicked out when the British took over; in
1765, they arrived in New Orleans which was still
French territory) carries the highest prestige of
the French dialects here and has preserved a number
of elements from the older French of the 1600s. It
has also borrowed some words from the Spanish who
once controlled this area. There are many local
variations of it, but they would all be mutually
understandable with each other as well as - with
some effort - the standard French in France.
Cajun English borrows vocabulary and grammar from
French and gives us the famous pronunciations
"un-YON" (onion) and "I ga-RON-tee"
as well as the phrase "Let de good times role!",
but movies about cajuns usually get the rest wrong. A famous
authentic speaker is humorist
Justin Wilson, who had a
cooking show on PBS, with his catch phrase,
"How y'all are? I'm glad for you to see me."
There is another dialect of English
spoken in New Orleans that is
informally, and some would say pejoratively, called
Yat (from the
greeting, "Where y'at"), that resembles the New York City
(particularly Brooklyn) dialect
Provincial French was the upper class dialect
of the pre-Cajun French settlers and closely resembles
Standard French but isn't widely spoken anymore
since this group no longer exists as a separate
Louisiana French Creole blends French with the
languages of the West Africans who were brought here
as slaves. It is quite different from both the
Louisiana and standard dialects of French but is
very similar to the other creoles that developed
between African and French on various Caribbean Islands.
A few married couples may speak Creole to each other,
Cajun French with other people, and English to their
Success with words: a guide to the
American language / Reader's Digest;
prepared in association with Peter Davies; David Rattray, project editor.
Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1988.
The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language / David Crystal.
Cambridge, England : Cambridge University Press, 2000.
(emphasizes British English but also covers American)
What is a dialect? - The Sci.Lang FAQ: Frequently Asked
Questions About Linguistics / Michael Covington and Mark Rosenfelder.
Mark Rosenfelder's Metaverse, March 3, 2002.
Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English / Michael B. Montgomery
and Joseph S. Hall. Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press, 2004.
Hoi toide on the Outer Banks : the story of the Ocracoke brogue /
Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes.
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
The Oxford companion to the English language / Tom
McArthur, editor; Feri McArthur, managing editor. Oxford; New York:
Oxford University Press, 1992. (for additional information on Cajun English)
A lexicon of New Orleans terminology and speech /
Chuck Taggart. The Gumbo Pages, accessed May 7, 2001.
For Further Information:
dialect links (courtesy of Evolution Publishing's American
Survey Maps (maps out locations where different pronunciations
of particular words are used and where different expressions are
used for the same concept)
Do you speak American?
(extensive website to accompany the PBS documentary)
Dialects of English Archive
(audio files of each dialect)
The great pop vs. soda
controversy / Alan McConchie. (maps out locations where different
terms for carbonated beverages are used)
The Septic's Companion (The
English-to-American Dictionary) / Chris Rae. (translates words from
British English into American English)
Robert Delaney, last updated April 15, 2013