It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

“America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.”

-George Bernard Shaw

How many times do we think about our everyday speech? Yet simple things like the words we choose, how we pronounce them, and and the grammatical structure we put them in have a long and complex history.

Recently, I ran across something called the “Dialect Research Project” or “Regional Dialect Meme” online, where people record videos of themselves saying a set series of words and answering a set series of questions, that supposedly help pinpoint what dialect you are using when you speak. The list of words and questions is loosely based on those used by this study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

I decided to submit my own video on my own dialect:

This meme got me thinking about just how different we Americans can sound from coast to coast. Two-thirds of the world’s native English speakers come from here, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it when you hear some really thick Texan, Bostonian, New Yorker, and Wisconsonian accents. My mom recalls being confused all the time when she lived in Wisconsin, because they not only used words she was unfamiliar with (“bubbler” for drinking fountain, “davenport” for sofa, and so on), but also because she heard many locals using a German-like sentence structure: “Throw her, out the window, a kiss.” The large number of German immigrants that settled the state in the 19th century clearly impacted the language there.

If you think about it, though, the commonly accepted “standard American” is actually kind of arbitrary. It is based on the accent of a very particular spot in the United States:

Iowans. First the presidential election, now this.

Why is THAT the standard? Well, you can at least partially thank Walter Cronkite for that – the news anchor from Kansas City was by far America’s most popular news anchor for several decades, and most other news reporters were encouraged to mimic his easy-to-understand accent.

Oh, so it's your fault.

However, things are starting to change. Hollywood’s long, long domination of the TV and film industries means that more and more of our definition of “standard American” is shifting to the California dialect. Californians speak with an accent very similar to that of the Midwest – many of the people who settled here came from the Midwest, after all – but with some key differences. Where people in other states refer to an interstate highway as “the I-5”, Californians are more likely to just call it “the 5”. Most people will say “She said…” to begin a quotation, but Californians might substitute “She’s like…”. Californians also use the word “like” as a sentence-filler, in place of “um” or “uh”. And apparently we pronounce our vowels differently than in other places. We pronounce “cot” and “caught” identically, and apparently when we say “but” it sounds to non-Californians like “bet”.

Of course, the most distinctive accent in America is the southern accent, the most recognizable dialect of all of them. Except it isn’t just one dialect – there’s the Virginia Piedmont (the one popularized by Gone With the Wind), Coastal Southern, Highland Southern, Appalachian, Florida Cracker, Gulf Southern (Jimmy Buffet’s accent), Cajun, Creole, Yat (spoken in New Orleans), and Gullah dialects.

And then there’s the big oddity among America’s English-speakers: African-American Vernacular English, formerly known as Ebonics. During World War I, many black Americans from the south migrated to northern cities in search of work, and brought their southern dialects with them. Today, many people in big cities across the country, regardless of region, speak in this particular dialect with its own accent, its own grammar rules, and its own internal consistency. AAVE speakers will say “ain’t” instead of “isn’t”, pronounce “ask” as “aks”, and say “He been working” instead of “He has been working”. AAVE has started to influence the speech patterns of the rest of the country, especially with such popular phrases as “Where you at?”

And that’s just in America – I haven’t even begun to discuss the dialects of Canada, Jamaica, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa yet. And let’s not forget the Bahamas, Ireland, Barbados….

Information from the PBS series Do You Speak American? and Wikipedia.

3 Responses to It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

  1. AuntLeesie says:

    You never mentioned… what did you determine YOUR dialect to be? Inquiring minds want to know!

  2. Pingback: When does a dialect become a language? | Cat Flag

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