Why Americans in different parts of the US have unique ways of speaking

Aaron Robins
Jul 23 · 3 min read

Many people are familiar with the term accent, but have you ever heard of a term called dialect?

The two terms have often been used interchangeably because they are related, but they are noticeably different. A dialect can have a different vocabulary, syntax or grammar, while an accent only refers to how words are pronounced.

This is important to understand because it has become commonplace to hear people say that all of the different regions of the country have their own accents. However, it would be more accurate to say that they all have their own dialects.

“The term dialect is limited to varieties of a language that first develop among native speakers of the language. When you have a second language learner, that is considered to be an accent,” said Erik Thomas, a professor of linguistics at North Carolina State University.

How these distinct dialects ended up in different regions of the country has a lot to do with immigration, migration and isolation. According to Salikoko Mufwene, a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, it all began with early settlers moving from the Atlantic area, between the southeast and the northeast areas, spreading from east to west — especially after the American Revolution.

“As people were spreading from the east to the west, there were also immigrants from Europe. For instance, Scandinavians settled in the Midwest, especially in the Minnesota area. And there were German settlements like Wisconsin. There were also people coming from England mixing with the people that were spreading from the east. The mix created these new dialects,” said Mufwene.

“In the Minnesota area, the Scandinavians shifted from Scandinavian languages to speak English. So they influenced part of the English that developed in the Minnesota area.”

This is an example of how population movements, bringing groups of people in contact with others and sometimes causing them to change languages, can cause new dialects to born. The way they speak the second language might retain traces from the first language, creating a whole new dialect for the second language.

Isolation is another factor in how different regions came to develop their own unique dialects.

“Generally speaking, isolation is the thing that causes dialects to diverge. Say two groups of people are apart from each other for a long time, their speech will go two different ways,” said Thomas.

Thomas also mentions something called the founder effect, which simply means, the first settlers establish the dialect of the location. The new people that move there learn the established dialect, further cementing it as the dominant way of speaking in the region.

“In cases where you see other influences like in Minnesota, it’s mainly because Germans and Scandinavians were the first groups that settled there. In Philadelphia or Boston, the first people who settled there where English. They established the dialect,“ said Thomas.

Dialect colleges have divided the country into three or more basic dialects — Northern, Midland, and Southern. Other studies have divided them up further. It’s almost impossible to give a definitive number as to how many dialects are actually in the country because there are so many varieties. In addition to regional dialects, there are also ethnic and social dialects.

Some of the dialects in the General North region include Upper Midwestern, Inland North, Boston Urban.

Some dialects in the Southern region include Pamlico Sound, South Carolina/Georgia Low Country, Southern Piedmont, and Southern Louisiana.

A few Midland region dialects include Southern Appalachian, Ozark and Pennsylvania German-English.

Western dialects are still somewhat difficult to discern, but some of the possible dialects may include Rocky Mountain, Pacific Northwest, Pacific Southwest and Southwestern. This is only a brief list of some of the dialects within these regions.

With so many different varieties, it’s only natural to wonder how a dialect is born. Mufwene puts it into a very interesting context.

“It’s really like the saying birds of a feather flock together, when it comes to dialects you should turn the phrase around and say birds that flock together develop the same feathers.”

Aaron Robins

Written by

Freelance journalist focused on science, technology, politics, domestic and international issues.

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