Modern America, 1914-Present
American Dialects 

By Jamie Burney, Jennifer Pittman, Rebekah Revels, Marisa Suggs,   
Jared West, Andrea Wright 
Students, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke 


Dialect is defined, by Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, as a “version of language differing in some aspects of grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary from other forms of the same language." Dialect includes various terms that as a whole define the meaning. Dialectology, dialect geography and linguistic geography are three components that correlate with dialect. The traditional study of dialectology has focused on regional dialects but has evolved to include social and geographical placement.  

Dialect often answers the question, “Where are they from?” Because of the different areas and locales, the answer could begin as broad as "America" and filter down to be as specific as "The United States," the "South," "Georgia," and "Macon." Dialects can convey geographical information about the speaker, but can go further when describing what language is being studied. 

American English-Regional Variation 

Three Major Dialect Regions: 

1. Northern Region: This region consists of New England, from Vermont to New York and all the states between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean. 

2. Southern Region: This region includes Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and all of the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, including Texas. 

3. Midland Region: This is the largest region, consisting of most of the United States. It extends from Pennsylvania and New Jersey west into Ohio and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia into the Carolinas. 

Relevant Terms 

  • Regional accent refers to features of pronunciation that convey information about a person's geographical origin.
  • Regional dialect refers to features of grammar and vocabulary that convey information about a person's geographical origin.
  • Accommodation refers to the act of unconsciously picking up the accent of the person one is addressing.
  • One's dialect is said to diverge when it becomes distant from another language.
  • Slang is a term for a certain word or phrase used with a strong connotation of informality, particularly compared with words they replace.
  • Jargon refers to the language used by a specific group.
  • Bidialectism is the ability to use more than one dialect, especially Standard English and a native dialect.
  • Language acquisition is the tacit and unknowing absorption of language rules that takes place through simple exposure to a language.
  • Language learning derives from the overt teaching of particular structures of languages.
  • Hypercorrection refers to making errors to avoid certain usage in one's spoken dialect.
  • Vernacular dialect is a non-standard dialect.

  • Black Vernacular English or African American Vernacular English is a term originally coined in the late 1960s by linguists who wanted to avoid the negative connotations of previous labels such as "Negro dialect" or "Nonstandard Negro English." The black working class is more likely to use these forms than the black middle class is.  
Issues in American Dialect 

Issues in dialect usually stem from the debate over what people view as Standard American English and what they do not view as Standard American English.  Because people come from different backgrounds and have had different experiences, this becomes a particular problem for communication.  Issues arise that confront people everyday in all jobs and in most dealings with other people. 

According to Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian’s Dialects and Education, the term dialect itself has several “popular” meanings that stem from the technical definition of dialect.  Often people refer to dialect when talking about the way people from certain regions or certain social groups speak.  While this is part of it, it is not the entire definition.  Other times people refer to people who are speaking different languages as speaking dialects.  For example, someone may say, “The Native Americans from North and South America speak many different dialects,” when in fact, they are speaking different languages (4). 

No matter what job you have, dealing with dialectal differences is something that you will face.  Working at McDonalds presents a cashier with several problems during any given shift.  McDonald's cashiers, educators, adn TV and newspaper reporters all encounter dialect.  Similarly, the rest of the country has to deal with the cashier, the teacher, and the reporters. 

AAVE (African American Vernacular English) 

Some people call this dialect  "Ebonics," a blend of the word "ebony," meaning black, and "phonics."  However, many people find this term to be altogether offensive.  AAVE is a form of English that has been strongly influenced by the morphology and lexical patterns of some African languages.  An example of AAVE is a sentence such as  "I be tired."  This example illustrates a phenomenon called the "habitual 'be.'" Not merely an error, the "be" in this sentence has particular semantic content.  As Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman explain in An Introduction to Language, the use of "be" indicates that the speaker is habitually tired, whereas someone who says "Mary tired" is noting that a Mary is tired today.  

Similar vernacular variations of the English language also exist with many Native American tribes and among immigrants who may add some their own language to English.  Many people would argue that these vernacular forms of the language are separate languages and should be treated as such in the United States 

World English in America 

As many Europeans immigrate or have immigrated, it is important to remember that just as English stemmed from Proto-Indo-European and that English, French, Spanish, etc. developed along different lines, so did American English, Australian English, and British English and that there will be different accents, connotations, etc. that make it hard for speakers of each language to understand one another. Regional dialect differences contribute to a lack of understanding between many people across the United States.  Although regional variation in language is not the definition of dialect, it is definitely a characteristic of dialect. Dialect is a complicated issue with many different components; however, understanding it is key to effective communication, no matter what the occupation or social role. 

Annotated Bibliography 

Crystal, David.  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.  

This book, written by David Crystal of Cambridge University, handles the English language in a comprehensive manner, but approaches the topics ins such as way that they can be studied individually.  There are convenient cross-references for different topics within the lessons.  Crystal starts with a study of the history of the English language from its Old English roots through Modern English.  Then he moves into English lexicon, grammar, sound systems, writing systems, and regional and social variation.  Crystal finishes by talking about new ways to study English.  A table of contents and a specific index help make this book easy to follow.  Sidebars, charts, and pictures make the topics easier to understand and visualize. 
Wolfram, Walt and Donna Christian. Dialects and Education:  Issues and Answers.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1989.  
This book, written by experts from the Center for Applied Linguistics, takes a look at many questions people pose about dialect.  The question and answer format makes it clear and straightforward.  While most of the issues that are addressed center around education, the questions can be applied to different areas as well. 
  1. Compare and contrast the terms dialect and accent.  Why are these two terms often confused? 
  2. Why is the study of dialect important in stopping the spread of stereotypes? 
  3. Explain the terms British English, American English, and Standard English.  
  4. How does accommodation affect changes in accent? 
  5. Define invariant and variant tags and give examples of both. 
  6. What has changed in society that has brought about more awareness of the differences and similarities of the English dialect? 
  7. What are the two main reasons that it is difficult to show differences between British English and American English? 
  8. The Linguistic Atlas of New England one of a series began by the American Dialect Society studied three broad dialect areas.  What were these areas and the main differences that were found between them? 
  9. Describe the formation and contents of The Dictionary of American Regional English? 
  10. What information regarding double modals did The Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States project discover?  
  11. Briefly describe the scientific study of dialect in England?  
  12. Explain some of the pros and cons of having a World Standard English.  
Relevant people 
  • Frederic G. Cassidy 
  • Georg Wenker 
  • Mark Twain
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
Relevant Events 
  • Geoffrey Chaucer's poetry influenced the dialect that became the basis of the English language. 
  • 1969: Teaching Black Children to Read 
  • 1996: Oakland Unified School District passes a resolution that says that 28,000 black students are bilingual, stating that the students know both English and Ebonics.
Relevant Resources 
  • American Dialect Society 
  • Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) 
  • The Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States  (LAGS) 
  • English Dialect Dictionary

Nine Ideas About Language  

Dialect: Funk and Wagnall's  

American Dialect Society  

Duke University's The Chronicle Online article (February 20, 1997) about Ebonics forum    

Dialect Readers Revisited