Tag Archives: American regional English

Do You Have an Accent?

Depending on what part of the country (any country) you grew up in, you have an accent, often recognizable by others, who are able to place you with varying degrees of accuracy. In the United States, people may be able to tell you are from the Midwest or the South, while others are able to be more specific: Minnesota or Alabama. Still others—perhaps related to Henry Higgins in G.B. Shaw’s play Pygmalion or in the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, which was based on the play—may be able to trace your linguistic origin to East Minneapolis or Birmingham.

Everyone has an accent. After all,what is unaccented English (or Spanish or Lao or Urdu)? When I was in grad school at UCLA, I stepped into an elevator and the man already in it asked me what floor I wanted.”Three, please,” I said. Immediately, he asked me what part of New York I was from. I didn’t realize my accent was so recognizable. My late mother-in-law, who had a strong New York accent to my ears, was certain she didn’t. After all, she insisted, “I’ve been in Califawnia faw fawty-faw yee-uhs.” I rest my case.

The way we speak depends on the first language in our childhood home, as well as on socio-economic factors, ethnicity, education, geography, and social class. So how can there be a way of speaking in any language that is unaccented? However, a strong non-native accent can stand in the way of comprehension on the part of listeners. As a teacher of English as a Second Language, I recognized that many of my students were difficult to understand; their heavy accents could hold them back. So we worked on pronunciation that did not eliminate their native accent but did make it more comprehensible. In no case did I ever tell students not to speak in their native language at home or among others from their home countries. That language was an intrinsic and valuable part of who they were.

The fact remains that some accents are prized and even imitated while others are looked down upon. Who doesn’t love a British or Italian accent? But if a person has an accent that is considered undesirable, that person might face discrimination in housing or employment. However, in America it is unusual to hear a newscaster (called, much more accurately, a “newsreader” in Great Britain) speak with a British, much less an Italian accent. What you are likely to hear is a neutral accent without definite geographical markers. Yet it still is an accent. Worldwide, according to one estimate, more than 50 million people speak English as a second language, so what in the world does a “native English accent” sound like?

You have an accent. I have an accent. Everyone has an accent.

 

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Cold or Allergy?

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When someone near you sneezes, what do you say? In Josh Katz’s book, Speaking American, he explains regional differences. Approximately 73% of Americans respond with some form of “Bless you.” God may or may not be invoked. But in the upper Midwest, gesundheit, meaning health, is popular because many German-and Yiddish-speaking immigrants moved to that region over 100 years ago.  Approximately 6% of people near a sneezer say nothing, with twice as many men as women not responding. (When I’m near a sneezer, I tend to hold my breath, hoping not to catch what the sneezer has. So I’m also likely not to say anything because I’m too busy not breathing.)

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“Speaking American”: A Book I Love

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I recently bought this book by Josh Katz. The subtitle is “How Y’All, Youse, and You Guys Talk.” It’s a visual guide to American regional English. For years now I’ve been pining for DARE, the Dictionary of American English. The last time I looked it was three volumes and cost close to $400. That price was steep enough that I haven’t checked back.

But along came this book for $25 and I knew I had to have it. What the author did was take everyday objects and illustrate with maps of the United States what those objects are called in various parts of the country.

For instance, take “a sandwich on a long roll with meats and cheeses.” Here in California, I instantly think “sub.” But around Pennsylvania, it’s a “hoagie,” in NYC and on Long Island it’s a “hero,” a little piece of Connecticut says it’s a “wedge” (who knew?), the Upper Midwest and the Illinois/ Indiana area prefer “grinders,”  and most of New England has decided it’s an “Italian sandwich.”

Do you call this type of sandwich something other than one of these regionalisms? If so, tell me what it is and let me know where you live.

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