What are the Different Accents and Dialects in American English?

A Kaminsky

With a population of 300 million or so, and a language that has borrowed from nearly every other language in the world, American English is has dozens of accents and dialects. Some vary from region to region, state to state, county to county, and even neighborhood to neighborhood. George Bernard Shaw’s Professor Henry Higgins would have a grand time sorting them all out.

A New York accent might sound more guttural than others.
A New York accent might sound more guttural than others.

An accent generally refers to how words are pronounced. Dialect is more of a mini-language, incorporating the accent, but adding expressions and phrases unique to itself. American English can be very roughly divided into the following dialects: New England, Mid-Atlantic, Southern, Midwestern, Upper Midwestern, Western, Northwestern and Californian.

American English has dozens of dialects and accents.
American English has dozens of dialects and accents.

American English often takes its dialects and accents from the language roots of the first settlers in the area. There is something very British about the way people from Massachusetts or Pennsylvania pronounce certain words. Those in New York sound perhaps more guttural, owing to their strong German and Eastern European influences.

There is something very British about the way Americans from Massachusetts pronounce certain words.
There is something very British about the way Americans from Massachusetts pronounce certain words.

Southerners sound mostly alike to non-Southern ears, but a native has no trouble distinguishing a mountain accent from one hailing from the Tidewater area of Virginia. The Southern accent is deceptively complex, borrowing as it does from the British accent, Scottish “burr” and Irish “brogue,” the Cherokee language, and mixed with slurred French intonations and staccato Spanish and spiced with African-American speech.

The Midwestern accent is usually considered the most “correct” of accents in American English, since it lacks a great deal of specific inflection, and sounds "flat." Upper Midwestern English takes its sound from the Scandinavian accents of those who first settled there.

The western accent of American English has Southern inflections, mixed with the Midwest accent of those settlers who made the trek with the wagon trains. The Pacific Northwest residents have western accents tinged with those of their Canadian neighbors in Alberta and British Columbia, just over the border. Californians tend to have less specific “accent” than other Americans, although when they do, it sounds more western. Southern Californians, like those raised in New York City, tend toward rapid-fire speech, and mix in the latest slang.

American English is so distinctive that it marks its speakers anywhere they travel. Many world citizens who have never traveled to the United States know an American immediately. Some people can even hazard a guess at where in the States an American lives by the accent.

However, the dialects and accents of American English also create walls among its speakers. American citizens are often stereotyped among each other because of how they speak. Dialect coaches make a great deal of money training actors to speak properly, not because they do not speak clearly, but because they use an unacceptable accent. Some Americans are considered ignorant or uninformed by their countrymen because of their particular brand of American English.

Some Haitian-Americans speak a pidgen language that blends English and Creole.
Some Haitian-Americans speak a pidgen language that blends English and Creole.

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Discussion Comments


There is no such thing as "lack of accent." I am from Southwest VA, and people comment on my accent everywhere I go. I once told a guy he sounded like he was from Wisconsin, and he replied "I am, but I really don't have any accent at all." I was sitting there thinking: "How did I know what state you were from?" An accent is the emphasis of certain syllables. If you don't accent certain syllables, you are a speak and spell machine from the 1980's. Hell, syri has an accent.


When I moved to Texas, I expected Southern accents with a cowboy twist. Boy did I get it wrong! Perhaps, in the remote reaches of East Texas they speak that way, but in the urban areas, I hear mostly Midwestern and California transplants. Indeed, finding a Native Texan who sounds like a Native Texan requires some detective work. And the Natives I do find sprinkle Spanish words and phrases into their American English, even if it is to say: Hola! I wonder if, in a generation, there will even be a "Texas" accent.


Actually, the English speak terrible English with large accents. Once west of the Mississippi River, English is spoken with less accent and west of the Rockies, it's spoken the way it is written, with no accents. I was born in the UK, by the way, and now live in Canada. I've lived and heard them all.


I live under a kilometer from DC and I can tell you that people in this area, rather than speaking with a southern or mid-atlantic accent speak with a midwestern accent. It may seem weird, but I'm almost sure that it is just a mix of several accents.

What is even stranger is, that if you drive north or south for an hour at the most (from the center of DC), you can end up hearing people who have a different accent. It seems that the flatness of the midwest and the DC metropolitan area accents are connected somehow.


I would disagree with people who say they have no accent. Everyone has an accent. A "standard" dialect is only considered standard because it may have dominant influence over the media, but if you have a "standard" accent and go to a place such as New England, people will laugh you out of town if you claim to have no accent. The truth is, everyone thinks they speak "normal" but nobody really does, because there is no normal. The beauty of linguistic diversity is everywhere.


Accents and dialects can vary not only by region, but by class. For instance, the upper class of California may sounds like the lower class of rural England, and vice versa. In Britain, it is considered outlandish to pronounce the final "r" as many still do in the countryside. The reverse of that is that here in the states, dropping the final "r" is considered Northeastern, along with all the stereotypes that come with that: rudeness, shrewdness, and sometimes obtuseness. It is hard and often silly to judge someones intelligence based on their accents, especially since hollywood loves to misconstrue accents and put them into categories.

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