Do you pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd? Do you refer to multiple people as “dey”? Is a jelly doughnut called a “bismark,” or is everything that comes out of a soda fountain called a coke, even if it’s really 7-Up? Do you root for Da Bears?
The way we speak, both the phrases we use and the accents that inflect those phrases, come from our upbringings. And in a nation of more than 300 million people, it’s little wonder that those accents vary widely. More than a decade ago, Robert Delaney, a reference associate at Long Island University, put together this map of the 24 regions of American English:
YouTube users across the United States have uploaded dozens of videos to demonstrate their local dialects. PostTV examined people's accents and state-specific answers to a list of questions created by Bert Vaux for a 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey.
Oof-dah! They didn't even acknowledge the Minnissoutah dialect?
We don't need to agree with this Harvard study. But it starts a good conversation. This report first appeared in the Washington Post, by Jonathan Elker, Kate M. Tobey and Davin Coburn.
Here’s a quick rundown of the regions Delaney identified:
- Eastern New England: These are the cah pahkahs, the blue collar residents from Maine to Massachusetts who drop their Rs and substitute an H. Think Jack Donaghy when he hangs out with Nancy Donovan on “30 Rock.”
- Boston Urban: There are a few sub-dialects in the Hub, from the stereotypical Southie dialect (Sully and Denise on “Saturday Night Live”) to the Boston Brahmin (John Kerry). The differences are more determined by class than anything else.
- Western New England: Outside eastern Massachusetts, it’s the T that gets dropped. The last Democratic president was Bill Clin-n, for example. It’s not as distinctive as the eastern accent.
- Hudson Valley: Dutch settlers, Delaney says, influenced language development north of New York City. The sitting area in front of your doorstep is a stoop, and the best-sellers at Dunkin’ Donuts are crullers and olycooks.
- New York City: The mix of ethnicities that built the Big Apple created their own dialect that doesn’t sound much like the rest of America. TH sounds become Ds, and words get smashed together easily. There’s no better example than Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny.”
- Bonac: A small and dwindling dialect on Long Island, which was once a part of New England. Combine New York City and Eastern New England and you get the idea.
- Inland Northern: Upstate New York and Vermont combine Western New England and the Midwest, and words like marry, merry and Mary are all pronounced identically. Delaney points out another doughnut difference: Here, they’re called friedcakes.
- San Francisco Urban: The city by the bay has more in common with the East Coast than the West Coast, thanks to the settlers who originally made their way to the Bay Area. San Franciscans speak a mishmash of Northeastern and Midwestern English.
- Upper Midwestern: Home of the Midwestern twang, influenced by a combination of Northeasterners and Southerners who migrated up the Mississippi River, as well as the Scandinavian immigrants who settled the area. A subdialect in and around Minnesota reflects more of that Norwegian influence. Think “Drop Dead Gorgeous.”
- Chicago Urban: Bill Swerski would be proud. Chicago’s distinctive dialect is influenced by what linguists call the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, when short vowels started sounding like their longer cousins. Chicago’s dialect was influenced by migrants who traveled along the Erie Canal, west from the Northeast. They root, of course, for Da Bears.
- North Midland: Here’s where the European immigrants who didn’t move to New York City start playing a role. The Scotch-Irish, German and Quaker settlers from Pennsylvania to the central Midwest created what Delaney calls a “transition zone” between the north and south. Doughnuts are dunkers or fatcakes.
- Pennsylvania German-English: A small but distinct dialect in the center of the Keystone State, probably spoken by Dwight Schrute’s ancestors. The grammar system is the most distinctive remnant of the region’s immigrant populations; it sounds more like German than English.
- Rocky Mountain: Think Montana, Colorado and Utah. Heavy influences from frontier settlers and Native American languages.
- Pacific Northwest: More influence from Native American languages. An example is the potluck, a gathering where everyone brings a dish, a derivation of the Native American “potlatch.” Muckatymuck, known elsewhere as a big shot, is another Native American term adopted by Northwesterners. But there’s less of an accent here than elsewhere, given the fact that the region was settled relatively recently.
- Pacific Southwest: The settlers who showed up came to California for the gold, and that still shows in some of their slang — Delaney cites “pay dirt,” “pan out” and “goner” as phrases that started in California. Sub-dialects of Valley Girls and Surfer Dudes are ripe for parody, as in Cher and Travis from the timeless classic “Clueless.”
- Southwestern: Mexican dialects of Spanish infuse Southwestern English, though the region is still what Delaney calls a melting pot of other dialects. Words like “patio” and “plaza” became a part of everyday English thanks to the Southwest.
- South Midland: West of the Appalachians and into North Texas, speakers here sometimes put an A before a word ending in -ING, in place of words like “are.” TH is often replaced with an F. Delaney says this region retains more strains of Elizabethan English than modern British English has, including words like “ragamuffin,” “reckon” and “sorry,” meaning “inferior.”
- Ozark: Southern Appalachian settlers developed their own dialect, best embodied in pop culture by the Beverly Hillbillies.
- Southern Appalachian: The “g” in gerunds doesn’t survive often here. But overall, the accent is pretty similar to the South Midlands.
- Virginia Piedmont: A syrupy drawl starts to develop south of Washington, where the letter R, when coming after a vowel, becomes what Delaney calls a slided sound. So “four dogs” sounds like “fo-uh dahawgs.”
- Coastal Southern: Similar to the Piedmont drawl, but with more remnants of Colonial English. Something diagonally across the street is “catty-corner.”
- Gullah: A Creole mix found in coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina combines English with West African languages brought over by slaves who entered the U.S. in the 1700s and 1800s. Words like “peruse,” “yam” and “samba” all entered the country here.
- Gulf Southern: Basically the Deep South minus Georgia and New Orleans. It’s a result of mixing English settlers from the southern colonies with French settlers in Louisiana, and it’s where we get words like “armoire,” “bisque” and “bayou.”
- Louisiana: The French settlers who first traveled up the Mississippi River brought a whole mess of dialects. They include Cajun French, which incorporates some Spanish, and Cajun English, which makes New Orleans “Nawlins.”
- Smokey Mtn. A Nashville metro way of speaking. For further elaboration, watch some reruns of 'Hee Haw'.