The Dialects of American English

      The various Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) who invaded Britain after 437 AD brought with them their own dialects of West Germanic. These formed the basis for the emergence of later dialect areas. The submergence of the various British Celtic languages (of which Welsh is the only modern survivor) also lead to innovations in British English.  The Viking invasions resulted in more Norse influence in the north than in the south, thereby contributing another layer to the existing dialects. Likewise, the Norman French invaders influenced the south more than the north, which came to be more conservative linguistically. The Great Vowel Shift of the 1500's didn't affect northern English dialects, which came to be called Scots English. Because of the long history of dialect creation in the English speaking areas of Great Britain, there are more dialects of English in Britain than in America, Canada, and Australia combined. (Unfortunately, we don't have time to cover modern British English dialects in any detail.)

      British colonization of other continents led to the establishment of various colonial, or overseas, dialects. These dialects developed because of the following factors: 1) the language spoken by emigrants who first established the colony was a particular variety of British English--the so-called founder's effect; 2) this may have mixed with some non-English language in the colony--the so-called substrate effect; 3) there may have been further mixing with other English dialects in the colony--the leveling effect of dialect mixing; 4) innovations in British English that did not occur in the more conservative overseas dialect, or conversely, innovation in the colonial dialect (for any of the three previous reasons) which did not occur in Britain.

      The main dialect areas of the US can be traced to the four main migrations of English speaking people to America from the British Isles during the colonial period (1607-1775).

1. From 1629-1640 Puritan religious dissenters fleeing oppression from Charles I fled East Anglia and brought their distinctive twang (a sort of "flat sounding" nasal lengthening of vowels) to Massachusetts.  The extreme conservatism and nostalgia for England helped maintain this dialect while the language of East Anglia changed (speech similar to New England can still be found in East Anglia. Today the 16 million or so descendants of the Puritans and many of their neighbors speak some form of this East Anglia derived speech.

Main features

--pronunciation of [O] in caught, bought

--low fronted [a] instead of back[A] in words such asfar, father (the so-called nasal twang)

--Deletion of syllable final [r], as in far pronounced "fah", Carter pronounced "Cahtah".

--Compensatory addition of [r] after a final schwa, as in Cuber (instead of Cuba).  This trait developed after the colonial period.

--some lexical particularities, such as earthworm  called an angleworm,pail rather thanbucket (either word is used in standard American.)

Influence on General American

--The New England dialect eventually influenced speech in many areas of the Northeast, from Main to Wisconsin, especially in the Chicago area.      

--A large number of New England town, city and county names derive from East Anglia.

--Due to the influence of the Puritan Religion, Old testament first names are found in New England far more than anywhere else in the American colonies (Nathanial, Nehemiah, Joshua, etc.); New England also has a large share of Hebrew town names (Salem, Concord)

--gave us the word cuss from curse, originally a high class, [r]-less pronunciation

--gave us such words as conniption fit, scrimp, pesky, snicker.

--gave English such idioms as: sharp as a meat ax, big as all outdoors, cool as a cucumber.  Since everyone was expected to know how to make Boston baked beans, today we also have the idiom to not know beans about.  Also: Wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole (rivermen used 10-foot poles to guide their ships). 

      Many idioms associated with sailing derive from the New England dialect, as one might espect: to lower the boom on someone, three sheets to the wind (meaning "drunk"), take the wind out of one's sails, and even cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Unlike many other American regional dialects, New England speech was not affected significantly by any non-English language.

New York English, as a special variety of general New England speech, developed after the British took possession of the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam in 1664, leading to the rapid conversion of Dutch speakers to English. Dutch left a strong phonetic substrate, however, which sets Brooklyn speech apart from other northern dialects.

Features shared with New England speech:

--final [r] is dropped: beer = bee-ah

--caught, bought  are pronounced with [O] rather than [A]

Main features deriving from the Dutch influence:

--interdentals become t,d.  For instance, them, these, that become: dem, dese, dat (since Dutch has no interdentals)

--er => [schwa + y]  thirty purple birds,  thirty third street  = uh in final position  were =wuh

-- [oi] => [er] oil, oyster  (a later compensatory development)

--I want you to (do something)-> I want you should (do something)

      In connection with New York, it might be apropos to mention one of the ethnic-based dialects that undoubtedly contributed to the uniqueness of the city's linguistic soundscape: the language of the European Jews who came to New York in large numbers beginning during the last century.

      Most immigrant groups who came into the US after the colonial period--in the 19th and 20th centuries--did not establish permanent ethnic dialects of their own.  (Instead, they conformed to whatever the local dialect was.) But one group contributed heavily to New York English.  Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, most of whom spoke Yiddish, added their own additional flavor to New York phonology and vocabulary.

      The Ashkenazi Jews in Central Europe spoke a dialect of German called Yiddish.  The Sephardic Jews of Spain spoke Ladino, a medieval dialect of Spanish.  Yiddish especially has influenced New York speech and also contributed words than Americans of all dialects may use and know:

--many words and phrases from Yiddish that have come into General American English have a special twist of humor or irony: schmaltz, chutzpah, schlemiel, schlimazel, klutz (wooden beam), kvetch, yenta, schmuck, schnoz (big noze).  Yiddish has even brought about minor changes in the phonotactic rules of English: which now allow the combination sh+consonant at the beginning of a word: example: schnook (dope).

--Standard American phrases originating in the Yiddish speaking community include: Get lost, What's up, I should worry, I should live so long, I need it like a hole in the head, You don't know from nothin', Pardon the expression, Enjoy.

--Rhyming slang: Deprecation is shown by means of partial reduplications such as Joe-schmo; or Oedipus-schmedipus, so long as he loves his mother.

Modern New York influence on General American, of course, is not confined to Yiddish origins. Even people who have never traveled to New York are familiar with this accent from watching TV.  Recently, New York has given American English such terms as: Yuppie (young urban professional), and bag lady.

2. Let's move on to a very different dialect.  From 1642-1675 the Royalists, also called Cavaliers, fled from the south and southwest England with their indentured servants and settled in Virginia when the English Civil War against Charles I began. They brought with them their south England drawl (a drawing out of the vowels); they also brought such phrases as aksed (instead of asked), and ain't (instead of isn't).  Royalists later settled the Carolinas as well. Southern English speech laid the foundation for the development of American Tidewater speech, or Coastal Southern English.

      A large number of features distinguish southern dialects as a group from their cousin dialects in the American north, as well as from modern British dialects in the south of England.

--the classic Southern drawl, caused when vowels become long or diphthongalized: house = ha:wse, eggs = ai:gz;  some words even contain triphthongs: flowers. [fla:ierz]

--loss of final t, d after another consonant:  an(d), tol(d)

--first syllable accented (rather than the second) in such words as: guitar, insurance, July, police, elope, etc.

--yall for you all

--bucket, not pail

Influence on General American--

Southern English has contributed and continues to contribute to General English a variety of highly colorful idioms: Mad as a rooster in an empty henhouse, Don't get crosslegged (Don't get mad.), tearing up the peapatch (on a rampage), kneewalkin' drunk, He's three bricks shy of a load. (dumb)   

Other southernisms that made it into general American include

--snickerdoodles;  tackyvarmint, from vermin, vittles  > victuals.

--spitting image of  > spirit and image of

--fink, ratfink > Albert Fink, an unpleasant railroad detective after the Civil War.

      What is the origin of certain features of Southern English that cannot be traced back to dialectal differences among the original immigrants from the British Isles? 

      The upper class southern dialects and the dialects of the coastal southern areas (where few native Americans remained) were influenced by the English spoken by West Africans. Most linguists today believe these features derive from the influence of the speech patterns of the Africans brought to the 13 colonies as slaves between 1619 and 1808, when the slave trade was prohibited.  This would include the southern drawl.  Let's take a look at the ethnic dialect that has come to be known as Black English.

Black English developed in the Southern states when speakers of dozens of West African languages were abruptly forced to abandon their native tongues and learn English.  Slaves from different tribes couldn't communicate with one another--in fact, masters deliberately tried to separate slaves who could speak the same language.  Since the Africans had to communicate with one another, as well as with the whites, a kind of compromise language evolved on the basis of English and a mixture of the original West African languages.  Such a makeshift, compromize language, used as a second language by adults, is known as a pidgin.  When a pidgin becomes the native language of the next generation, it becomes a creole--a full-fledged language.  The African-English creole in the American colonies evolved into today's Black English. 

Black English was most influenced by the speech of the southern whites.

        Features carried over from early Southern English into Black English:

--loss of final consonants, especially sonorants: po(or), sto(re) like aristocratic southern English.

-- use of double negatives, ain't, as in early English.

--loss of ng: somethin', nothin', etc.

      Black English, in turn, gradually influenced the speech of southern whites--especially the children of the aristocratic slave owners.  Given the social prejudices of the Old South, this seems paradoxical.  However, remember that throughout all the slave owning areas, black nannies helped raise white children, and the children of blacks and whites played freely together before the Civil War.  Since language features acquired in early childhood tend to be kept throughout life, Southern English naturally became mixed with Black English. 

      Let's look more closely at how Black English developed on the basis of West African Dialects.  Whenever a group of adults is forced to learn a second language, the language learned retains many features of the original native language.  Thus, the English of black slaves retained many features that were African and not present in English at all.  The children of the slaves learned this form of English as their native language.  Thus, on the basis of language mixing, a new dialect, called a creole, was born.  This process--at least in some small degree-- characterizes the English of all Americans whose parents spoke English as a second language.  But in the case of African Americans, due to the social separation they lived under from the very start, the differences were stronger and more lasting.  

Main features carried over from West African languages.

--No use of the linking verb 'to be'  or generalization of one form for it.

--emphasis on aspect rather than tense: He workin'  (right now) vs.  He be workin'.  This is found in many West African languages.

--I done gone (from Wolof doon , the completive verb aspect particle + English 'done').

--Regularization of present tense verb conjugation: He don't, he know it.

--voiced th in initial position becomes d: dis, dey; in medial position it becomes v: brother > brovva.   final voiceless th = f  with =wif

      A large number of West African words came into Standard American through the medium of Black English: bug (bugu = annoy), dig (degu/ understand), tote bag (tota = carry in Kikonga), hip (Wolof hepicat one who has his eyes wide open), voodoo (obosum, guardian spirit) mumbo jumbo (from name of a West African god), jazz (? Bantu from Arabic jazib one who allures), banjo (mbanza?), chigger (jigger/ bloodsucking mite), goober (nguba /Bantu), okra (nkruman/ Bantu), yam (njami/ Senegal), banana (Wolof).  Also, the phrases: sweet talking, every which way; to bad-mouth, high-five are from Black English--seem to be either American innovations or loan translations from West African languages.

      The speech of African Americans gradually became more like the speech of their southern white neighbors--a process called decreolization. (And the speech of the whites became slightly more like that of the blacks).  However, in a few areas, the original African English creole was preserved more fully.  There is one dialect of Black English still spoken on the Georgia coast, called Gullah, which is still spoken there by about 20,000 people; it is thought to represents the closest thing to the original creole. 

      After the Civil War, Black English continued to evolve and change, especially in the creation of new vocabulary.  After the 1920's millions of blacks migrated to northern cities, where various varieties of Black English continue to develop.

      There is one other notable southern English dialect.  The Cajun French in Louisiana also adopted English with noticeable traces of their former language.

3. From 1675-1725 the Quakers, or Society of Friends, migrated from the north midlands of England and Wales to the Delaware valley. Their speechways--mixed with those of later German and Swedish immigrants--gave rise to the distinctive band of dialects spoken in parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

--Phonetic features include the pronunciation of a back rounded [Ć] in words such as caught, saw.

Also, the pronunciation of [E] instead of [œ] in bad, and, sack, etc.

--Retention of the syllable final [r] in all places.

Contributions to American English: great number of euphemisms.  Speakers tried to avoid saying male or female names for animals that might have sexual connotations (bull, cock, etc.), and also avoided names of parts of the body: used rock instead ofstone (Old Eng. fortesticle'); chicken breast/leg =white meat, dark meat.

4. From 1718-1775 English speakers left North Britain and Northern Ireland and settled in the Appalachian backcountry. These people are called the "Scots-Irish." These were mostly Anglo-Saxons refugees of the Norman Conquest who had settled within the Celtic fringe of Britain. The true Scottish and Irish people were Celts who spoke Scots-Gaelic or its close relative Irish-Gaelic and most did not adopt English until the 18th or 19th century. The immigration of true Irish and Scottish peoples, beginning in the mid-1800's, had little permanent effect on American dialect formation.

      One island of early Scotch-Irish English speech was left behind and preserved during the push west.  This special, archaic variety of English is known as Appalachian English.  It preserves many archaic features that date back to earlier stages in the development of English in Britain.  Forms thought to be substandard today are actually the outmoded standard of yesterday.  A good example is the use of double negatives such as 'not nobody.'  Linguists have dubbed this variety of English as "American Old English" or "American Anglo Saxon".  Other mountainous, relatively isolated areas of the American East show a similar preservation of archaic speech.  Mario Pei, a popular writer on linguistics, said that "The speech of the Ozarks comes closer to Elizabethan English in many ways than the speech of modern London." 

Main features--

--pronouns: hit (it), youns, (ye ones--Chaucer), (possessives) hisn, hern, yorn, theirn  them used as an adjective in place of their; them boys.

--Retention of preposition in the progressive aspect: I'm a talking to you.

--propensity to use compound nouns: men-folk, man-child, kin folks

--exchanging parts of speech in comparison to standard English: It pleasures me, That was mighty fetchin' of you, She prettied herself up, I'll muscle it up (lift it up), He bigged her (made her pregnant); He daddied that child.

--Many colorful idioms.  Slow as Christmas (slow in coming about), slick as a peeled onion (sly), His backbone's rubbin' his belly. (very hungry).

--fixin to, pert near, afeared, beholden (indebted), took sick, upped an, mess of (lot of)

--Rhyming euphemisms: swan, swanny = swear, land sakes alive, golly, dad blamed

--Special distance words: This here, that there, that yonder.

--bag called sack; dragonfly  called mosquito hawk, green bean called a snap bean; pail called a bucket.

      Some southern features from the poorer classes are shared with the dialects of the rural midwest since poor southerners helped colonize the midwest.  Also, some features of Appalachian English are shared with the speech of poorer southern whites for the same reason.

--ain't, use of double negatives--older "correct" version of English, avoided by the upper classes, who chose the innovative single negatives preferred by the British upper classes.

--ng = n: somethin, nothin, (also found in Scotch-Irish dialects of middle English: Celtic languages had no ng)

      The "Scots-Irish" dialect of southern English mingled with Cherokee and other Native American languages in a band running from western North Carolina to Oklahoma and East Texas, giving rise to the so-called backwoods, or highlands, southern dialect, which is more faster and high-pitched than tidewater southern and more nasal than Appalachian English. Some of the phonological features of the backwoods southern dialects undoubtedly come from Cherokee and other Native American languages.  The south was the only area in the East where Native Americans mixed significantly with the whites.  This occurred mostly with the poorer whites on the frontier.  Substrate features include: nasality, tensing of vowels [e] instead of [E] rather than diphthongization as in Tidewater Southern English.

Influence on General American--

-- highly expressive idioms: He can lick his weight in wildcats.  Faster 'n greased lightning, can't hold a candle to, sharp as a tack, madder 'n a wet hen, tuckered out.

--Some words widely assumed to be of Appalachian origin are not: the word moonshine was coined in England, 'hooch' is of Native American origin.  Words like redneck, cracker, hoosier were coined in Northern England and brought over; originally, they were not necessarily insults. The derogatory term Hillbilly was coined only in early 1900's.

5. Remember that dialects based primarily on geography are called areal dialects.  One of the main researchers of areal dialects of the United States was Hans Kurath, author of the Dialect Atlas of America  He found that there are four main dialect areas in the Eastern us: New England (including New York), Middle Atlantic, Backwoods, and Southern Tidewater;  The three main dialectal divisions can further be subdivided into at least 27 subdialects.  The original eastern dialects tended to become more leveled and to merge farther west. 

General American-- After the Civil War the rapid and extensive move West of settlers from all dialect areas of the eastern US led to a leveling of eastern dialectal features and the creation of a more General American, or Middle American dialect. People who are said to speak "without an accent" are actually speaking with this leveled-out form of speech that developed from the mid-Atlantic stretching westward through the Ohio valley.  Most features of Standard American developed from a levelled mixture of dialects mostly from the poorer classes along the middle Atlantic seaboard who immigrated west after the American Revolution to find a better life.

Main features:

1) retention of [r] in all places

2) pronunciation of [ae] in many words.  Cf. British 'class' 'aunt'.  Gives American English a flat sound to British ears.

3) vocab--stringbean (snapbean in the South), earthworm (angleworm), creek (not brook)

Origins--Derived from the speech of settlers moving west of the original 13 colonies into the Ohio valley and beyond.  These people were of Scotch-Irish origin rather than upper class English, which explains the differences between Middle American and New England.  The post-vocalic [r], which dropped out in the speech of the upper British classes, was retained in the English of the Scotch Irish and other originally Celtic speaking peoples of Britain.  Competition between immigrants from Germany and the lower classes of the British isles in the push westward tended to level many of the differences peculiar to one or another smaller group of people.  (The Pennsylvania Dutch are actually "Deutsch", in other words Germans.)  The Middle American dialect area contributed the most to speech in western states and forms the basis of the speech usually considered as standard American today.  There were, however, certain features that remained isolated and unique to one or another of the Middle American dialect group. This was especially true on the mid-Atlantic seaboard.  Maryland adds [r] after [a] before another cons: [Warshington].

      Now, this western, "leveled" English is itself showing signs of dialect genesis. The history of American English and of English is far from over.

      What does the future hold for American dialects?  Will they evolve into separate languages?  Due to the levelling influence of mass communication and travel, probably not.  In fact, dialectal divergence in the US seems to be slowing down.  John Steinbeck, in his 1962 novel, Travels with Charley, in which he describes how he traveled by camper all over the US with a French poodle named Charley, expressed fear that American dialects would disappear because of the influence of mass communication.  Most dialectologists, however, believe that dialects are here to stay, since they are acquired from parents at an early age.  Thus the well established regional dialects of American English are not disappearing. In fact, the western, "leveled" English is itself showing signs of dialect genesis.  So the history of American English and of English is far from over.