A couple weeks ago, I started leading an English language group as a buddy with SPEAK. The participants, most of whom are Brazilian, really wanted to know, is it easier to understand British English or American English? I’m an American, and I must confess: I often pretend to speak with an “English” accent. It’s very bad. I blame Tiktok.
But for me, an American accent is the easiest to understand. I explained to my new friends that there was no single American accent, though. American accents are as diverse as their population.
I learn, for instance, new slang words from different places in my own country – and the internet – all the time. Did you know that at least a fifth of all Americans speaks a language other than English at home? Culture, ethnicity, race, class, and so many other identities shape accents heard all over the states.
Let’s take a tour!
1. Accents In The Southern United States
I’m from the southern United States, and there’s a lot of linguistic diversity here. Most of my relatives from the southern US speak with a drawl, meaning they talk a little slower and add some extra syllables to words here and there, which makes for great storytelling. Some southerners speak with a twang, a word that also describes the sound of a plucked guitar. It’s a perfect representation of how the accents of this region influence and are influenced by rich music histories featuring stringed instruments. But a telltale sign that someone has spent some time in the South is by listening to not just how they speak, but what they say.
For instance, my grandmother from eastern North Carolina says she “might could” often.
Example: “I might could do that!” As in, she might be able to do it. Depending on the tone, she may not want to do it…
But if she wants to, and she’s planning on doing it, she’s: “fixin’ to.”
If you’re fixin’ to do something, you’re about to do it. Maybe now, maybe later, but you’ll be doing the darn thing!
Example: “I’m fixin’ to pitch a fit!”
(Bonus: “pitch a fit” means to get really upset.)
2. Accents In The Northeastern United States
Have you ever seen Good Will Hunting? It’s a great crash course in the Boston, Massachusetts accent.
Just kidding; it may not represent the most authentic Boston accent, but it gets close to some notable “o” sounds you’ll hear in the Northeast. You’ve probably heard the whole, “park the car in Harvard yard,” schtick before, where all the “a” sounds rise to the top of the mouth and the “r” seems to disappear, but I know someone’s speaking with an accent from Massachusetts when I hear one word: Worcester.
My next-door neighbors growing up were from Worcester, a city pronounced like “Woostah.” I was 22 years old when I learned how to spell that!
Of course, Massachusetts is only one small part of this region of the country. I had other neighbors growing up from Long Island, New York. Their family is Italian-American, and they always welcomed me into their home with lots of food, laughter, and a distinct way of saying words like “mall” and “coffee.” “Long Island” sounds more like “lawng island.”
In other parts of the region, the words “Mary, marry, and merry,” all sound different, which you might expect in some parts of the UK. For the majority of Americans outside the northeast, those words sound the same!
3. Accents In The Midwestern United States
My step-mother is from Wisconsin, a state name she pronounces like “Wis-khan-sin.” In the lands of sweeping plains and cold winters, you might hear people say the word “bag” like “beg.” My own accent is heavily influenced by my step-mom, my elementary school teachers from the midwest, and my roommate from Chicago. In Chicago, you’ll definitely hear vowel sounds like a long “o” and a long “a” get pushed to the front and top of the mouth.
Erik Singer explains it better than I ever could in this video. Check out the part of the video, too, where Kalina Newman shares about Native American English patterns amongst Indigenous communities in this region.
4. Accents In The Southwestern United States
Mexican Spanish is one of the most important influences on English in this region, in addition to Indigenous languages. There are lots of “loaner” words, words people use in everyday English conversation that have not been translated into English, especially in food words like “salsa.” Though common in lots of places, you may find Californians using more uptalk than other people in the states. Uptalk happens when people end sentences like they’re asking a question.
Now that you know there’s no single American accent, let’s pass this over to you.
What’s an important accent from your home community? You can lead a language group as a buddy and share how you speak your language with others! Check out the top tips for buddies so you have a good head start.
And can anyone tell me where I picked up saying “egg” like “aig?” (“Ai” as in “hey.”) That one’s really got me stumped.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of SPEAK.