Before moving to the United States, many British expatriates may not be aware that—just like Britain itself—countless regional dialects make up their new adoptive country.
Sure, most Brits are doubtless familiar with a generic form of New York, Southern and general American English, a.k.a. the accent of the nightly news, but—from one region to the next—America is jam-packed with a variety of words, phrases, and pronunciations much on the same scale as Old Blighty.
While the following list by no means encompasses all American dialects, and there are variations even within each dialect, it touches on some of the speech patterns of popular destinations for British expats.
1. Boston English
When thinking of New England, the place that often springs to mind is New York. However, though both named after the Duke of York, neither the city nor the state is part of New England at all. Instead, you have cities such as Boston, Massachusetts, where locals are likely to leave off the ‘r’ in words like “car.” Boston is also one of the few places in the U.S.—along with other parts of Eastern New England—where the words “father” and “bother” don’t rhyme (most of the U.S. is held to a linguistic phenomenon known as the father-bother merger).
From a lexical point of view, Bostonians have a unique way of incorporating the word “wicked” into their vernacular, employing it in place of the word “very” (e.g. “the film was wicked good”), while a soft drink might be referred to as a “tonic.” Note: the U.S. has a few regional variations to describe a soft drink.
You may be a bit familiar with Boston English if you’ve seen the film Good Will Hunting (language NSFW at link).
2. Philadelphia English
Along with Baltimore, New York, and New Jersey English, the dialect of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is known as Mid-Atlantic American English. In Philly (as in New York) locals might be prone, for instance, to pronouncing the word “human” as “YOO-men”—the result of what linguists refer to as an hj-cluster reduction (in layman terms, h-dropping).
Meanwhile, the word “water” bears a unique pronunciation among Philadelphians, who typically pronounce it “WOO-ter.” For British expats, who routinely clash with Americans over the pronunciation of this word, the Philadelphia way might prove something of a curve ball. Fun fact: did you know that Philadelphians have a different name for those chocolate sprinkles often found on ice cream? They call them “jimmies.”
3. Yooper Dialect
Fans of the film and television series Fargo might have a sense of this dialect. Most commonly associated with northern Wisconsin as well as parts of Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Yooper dialect is similar, in some respects, to Canadian English. Firstly, speakers of the dialect will often finish sentences with the word “eh” as an alternative to “huh.” For example, “You’re coming with us, eh?” This word can also be used to add emphasis to a sentence, as in “You look good tonight, eh!”
Another notable feature of Yooper present in Canadian English is the tendency to add a third syllable to the word “about,” which—contrary to popular belief—is pronounced not as “a-BOOT” but “a-BO-ut.” Influenced by the cold weather that befalls the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota during winter, there are many Yooper-exclusive words pertaining to that very season: you’ve got “choppers” (a form of long-sleeved mittens), a “yooper scooper” (an instrument for clearing snow), and a “chuk” (a knitted winter cap).
4. Chicago English
Surrounded geographically by the states referenced in No. 3 is the world famous city of Chicago. The Windy City shares many of its dialectal properties with southern Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana and, as such, is a variety of Inland Northern American English. Among its many characteristics is its adherence to the “Mary-marry-merry” merger, in which the words “Mary,” “marry,” and “merry” are homophones (pronounced the same way).
Actually, the word “Chicago” has something of a distinct pronunciation itself. Natives of the Chicago area often pronounce it “shi-CAW-go.” Meanwhile, Chicagoans might withdraw money not from an ATM (American English), nor a cash machine (British English), but from a “cash station.”
5. St. Louis English
A variety of Midland American English, the St. Louis dialect is distinct from its local counterparts in the following ways: firstly, and this is particularly true of older St. Louisans, there exists a merger between the vowel sounds in the words “far” and “for” (e.g. “what did you do that far?”). Humorously, this has prompted some locals to jokingly refer to one of its major highways as “Interstate Farty-Far.”
Speaking of older St. Louisans, many of them pronounce the words “wash” and “Washington” as “WARSH” and “WAR-shing-tun,” respectively, a phenomenon that can be occasionally observed in other parts of the Midwest.
6. Virginia Piedmont
There are so many southern American dialects that they almost warrant a separate list. Perhaps the most well-known is the Virginia Piedmont dialect, a non-rhotic variety of English (meaning that speakers do not pronounce the “r” in words like “car”). Among its many characteristics is its adherence to the pen-pin merger, in which the words “pen” and “pin” are pronounced the same. Additionally, the dialect is notable for its employment of the so-called “southern drawl,” a phenomenon indicated by a glide in words like “pet” (pronounced PAY-et).
7. Yat Dialect
Exclusive to the Greater New Orleans Area, the Yat dialect takes its name from the colloquial question, “where y’at?” Its influence was Louisiana French (the United States purchased the state from France in 1803), older southern English, and a host of European languages brought to the city by immigrants. Historically, in a phenomenon that was previously observed in New York City, speakers of the Yat dialect incorporated the coil-curl merger, in which the word “curl” was pronounced “COY-ul.”
Nowadays, the dialect is characterized by the substitution of “-en” or “-in” for the suffix “-ing” (e.g. “where ya go-en’?”/”where ya go-in’?”). Additionally, the dialect is—like Virginia Piedmont—non-rhotic; however, some speakers will insert an r-sound into words such as “toilet” (as in “TUR-let”).
8. California English
With a population nearing 40 million, it would be impossible to pinpoint the exact, universal form of California English. However, the state is perhaps better known for popularizing “Valley girl” speech, an admittedly overgeneralized phenomena that grew out of the 1980s and is observed in other parts of the country as well. Characteristics of this include the use of “like” as a filler between words (in place of “um” or “erm”)—something that has even entered the British vernacular in recent years. Furthermore, words such as “gnarly,” “awesome,” and “dude” have become popular in the state of California and enjoy continued use to this day.
What are some interesting dialects you’ve discovered while living or traveling in the U.S.? Tell us below:Read More