American Dialects

Native American languages have had a substrate impact on American English, of course. It is dramatic in the case of place-names, which tend to be from Indian languages. There is also a significant amount of American vocabulary drawn from Indian languages, some of which has spread outwards into British and World English.

American English and British English are remarkably similar in 2010 – I say "remarkably" since the two countries have been politically independent of each other for well over 200 years and are separated by an ocean. Still, Americans are understood in England and English people are understood here. This fact should be compared to the divergence of English from continental dialects of West Germanic in the early Middle Ages, or to the profound changes in English between 1100 and 1300.

Phonological differences between American and British English are largely the result of American pronunciations staying conservative and British pronunciations tending to shift with time. That's counter-intuitive; Britain after all is the "old country" and America is the vibrant new innovator, right? But linguistically, a smaller and more isolated population will tend to conserve forms and usages. A larger, more "cosmopolitan" and metropolitan country will tend to change more quickly and noticeably.

An example from another language is the incidence of postvocalic /s/ in Spanish. In phrases like mas o menos or dos o tres, most Mexican Spanish speakers pronounce a final /s/ – therefore most people in Texas also have an /s/ at the end of those words. But Mexico (and areas of the US influenced by Mexican dialect) and Peru are the only two major Spanish-speaking countries where postvocalic /s/ is common.

Throughout the Caribbean, and in much of Central America and southern South America, the postvocalic /s/ has disappeared. The phrases I've given above sound like "mah o menoh," "doh o treh." Why? The loss of /s/ (we know that it was originally there because of the spelling) corresponds to a loss of that sound in southern Spain in the late 1600s and in the 1700s. The Caribbean countries kept in close contact with Spain and absorbed the change into their own dialect. (Argentina and Chile, settled later, brought the change over with them.) But Mexico and Peru, relatively isolated because of altitude and sheer distance from Spain, and relatively self-sufficient and politically powerful, ignored the change. So in one key respect, Mexican Spanish is like the Spanish spoken in Spain in the 1500s – as we might expect, given the history of the country.

The American analogy to Spanish /s/ is English postvocalic /r/. This sound is absent in southeastern England, especially in the RP; it's also absent in Australia, New Zealand, and much of the rest of the English-speaking world. It survives in Scotland, some parts of Ireland, and in most of the United States – the "rhotic" nations – though the /r/ is absent in New England, New York, and much of the Tidewater and Deep South.

What's going on here? This /r/ – as at the end of color and winter, more and star – was pronounced in Old and Middle English, because we see it spelled out there. But between the first English settlement in America (mid-1600s) and the first settlement of Australia and New Zealand (after 1800), the sound disappeared (for unknown reasons) in the South of England. Southern English people transmitted their non-rhotic accent to people in the port cities of the American colonies, to New England and to the tidewater South. But a substantial start on settlement of the interior of North America had been made by /r/ speakers who migrated westward through Pennsylvania and the Appalachians. That's where we find the /r/ today – in Appalachian speech, in the Midwest, and throughout the entire western US. Yet in the Deep South – southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – the accent without /r/ spread because of settlement by /r/-less speakers from the Tidewater.

Let's look at the National Map of the Phonological Atlas of North America to get a sense of the major regions defined by the /r/ and many other features. Phonological data for the Atlas provides some of the documentation behind this map. The consonants of American English are relatively homogeneous, but the notorious American "accents" are largely the result of vowel shifts, explained in some detail (and with graphic demonstrations) in the Atlas documentation.

Rhotic and non-rhotic isoglosses provide the most salient contrasts in the linguistic geography of the United States. But many other features (phonological, lexical, even syntactic) provide numerous intersecting isoglosses that define different American dialect regions. One of the simplest (as students who have moved around a lot sometimes note in their Inventories) are regional terms for a soft drink. Smaller regional isoglosses are documented for items like terms for the night before Halloween. The larger pattern of dialect data at this dialect survey site is enormously complicated by several factors, some in terms of study design, but for our purposes more importantly social and linguistic. American regional dialects are getting increasingly difficult to define in the 21st century, because we simply move around too much. "People from" one place or another may well talk in distinctive ways – but fewer people are "from" one and only one specific American place any more.

Two major variants of American English deserve emphasis here. One is African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), which has generated enormous controversy in schools and the media. The best way to study AAVE soberly is to read an objective scholarly paper on it, like Walt Wolfram's 2004 "The grammar of urban African American Vernacular English" (.pdf file! from Kortmann and Schneider, eds., Handbook of Varieties of English [Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter]). Wolfram lays out distinct linguistic features that appear in many African-American speech communities, and tries to group them by region and other sociolinguistic factors, with attention here to the Urban AAVE sub-dialect. The controversies that have ensued over AAVE have largely been centered on its use in schools (Ebonics as a kind of complement to, or parody of, Phonics) and its status as a product of descriptive linguistics in contexts where many observers (black and white) would prefer a prescriptive linguistics that would train students in Standard English.

Spanglish, the second major variant, is equally controversial in the media, and equally the study of academic linguists. AAVE is a dialect of English (with, arguably, some kind of African-language substrate, though linguists differ on its amount and importance). Spanglish, on the other hand, is technically a form of "code-switching" between Spanish and English. It is spoken in situations of linguistic contact so intimate that speakers break from one language to the other in the course of a single utterance. Academic studies of Spanglish, like Alfredo Aredila's "Spanglish: An Anglicized Spanish Dialect" (Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 2005), stress "two types of phenomena [...]: superficial, including borrowing and code-switching; and deep, including lexical-semantic, grammatical, and the "equalization to English" phenomenon."

Top of this Page