American English as spoken in the USA has many regional variations. From northern Maine to southern Mississippi, natives speak differently. This article is a handy guide for visitors, American English students, and for us Midwesterners (who, as everyone in the Midwest knows, actually have no accent). This article will, I hope, help the ESL learner in deciphering the bewildering variations in accents and pronunciation quirks they will undoubtedly encounter as they travel our country.
The Northeastern “Pahty-Gouhs.”
In the sentence, “I pahked my cah and went to the pahty,” the speaker is describing what action he took with his vehicle before he departed for a celebratory event. An exact, unaccented translation would be, “I parked my car and went to the party.” The speaker could be a man named “Cahl,” “Mahvin,” or “Rahbut” (Carl, Marvin, or Robert). His girlfriend could be “Shahlut” or “Rahbutah.” He might also be a “Bahstun Red Sokes” fan. (You get the gist by now, I think.)
The main distinction in our Northeastern accent, among other foibles, is the absence of the broad American “r” sound. North easterners threw away the “r” and substituted it with the sound “ah.” Also, those folks speak without the aid of any nasality whatsoever, which explains how “New York” can become “Noo Yahk.” That pronunciation could not survive adenoidal reverberation.
The Southern “Wretched Balks Steal-uhs”
Here’s a southern sentence: “Mahmuh, Wretched stowl mah balks.” To unravel the confusion this statement might cause the outsider, I shall parse that sentence: “Mahmuh” is the speaker’s mother (or, in southern lexicon, the “speakhuh’s muthah”). “Wretched” is the speaker’s brother. Other famous “Wretcheds” were “Wretched Nixon, Wretched Burton,” and the Shakespeare character “Wretched III” (of “Mah keengdum foah a hoahs!” fame).
Lastly, the term “balks” refers to a container, as in “mayutch balks,” where one would find implements to light fires. In the rural South they use “mayutches” in lieu of Zippo “lahtuhs.”
When listening for the southerners’ accent and speech patterns, be especially aware of their tendency to make two-syllable words out of one-syllable words. Examples would be “way-ul” (well), “hee-yit” (hit), and “ay-yunt” (aunt). Also, note that like Northeasterners, Southerners have jettisoned everyone else’s “r” sound; only they prefer to pronounce it “uh.” Thus, they might say, “Wretched Nixon stowl a lahtuh from the Whaht Hahs.”
California’s “Irritable Vowel” Sufferers
Yes, Californians do have an accent, and no, it is nothing like Gov. Schwartzenegger. Listen carefully and you will detect a few odd Californian pronunciations of common English words. For example, Californians would say, “I will yild my shild if I can build my fild on Shilds Avenue.” That would translate back East as “I will yield my shield if I can build my field on Shields Avenue.” (Of course, that sentence doesn’t really make sense unless you’re a retiring police officer in Fresno negotiating a real estate deal.)
There are other differences in the way those folks out west speak our language, but it is not so much an issue of accent as it is a question of strange usage and syntax. I am referring of course, to the famous “Valley Girl” jabber one might hear in a San Fernando mall: “Eww, lahk, I went Get yew!’ And he goes Yeh, I like to play, you know, the fild.'”
The Midwestern “Hoarse Horse”
I said at the beginning of this article that we Midwesterners don’t have an accent; everybody else does. I need to make two exceptions to that claim:
1. People from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, are more linguistically related to Canadians. We Missourians, for example, don’t recognize those folks as Midwesterners. This, of course, was not widely recognized until the release of the movie “Fargo.” Those who have seen the movie and were embarrassed by the script, acting, and accents will understand how we feel.
2. However, we Midwesterners do pride ourselves in our distinctive pronunciation of the following words: horse and hoarse. The latter (hoarse) is pronounced “hoers”; the former (horse) is pronounced “hahrse.” So, if you want to find out if someone is a Midwesterner, ask him or her how the hoarse horse is doing. (Good luck on working that sentence into a conversation. You might try showing an old episode of Mr. Ed.)
There are, of course many other regional variations of American accents. For example, I did not cover Maine, Texas, and the Northwest. In my research for this article, however, people I contacted from those areas claim they don’t have an accent.