Say What? | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Say What?

In an era of global communications, regional dialects are hanging in there, y'all.

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Experts have been predicting the imminent demise of American dialects for decades, arguing that universal literacy and mass media would deaden local speech patterns. No more "Hahvahd Yahd" in Boston or "goin' for a raad" in Birmingham. Everyone would sound as distinctly indistinct as a television newscaster.

But The Atlas of North American English, the first work to plot all the major speech patterns in the continental United States and Canada, has found the opposite: regional dialects are actually becoming more pronounced. In the Great Lakes region, "that" sounds more like "theeaht." Around New York City, people continue to drop their "r"s in everyday speech, saying "watta" instead of "water." Canadians are still apt to say "aboot" for "about."

North American English is a language of dialects because so many distinct groups settled the continent. Once an accented vowel is incorporated into a dialect, it typically strengthens over time. "It's a lot like a game of musical chairs—if you are going to the right, you keep on going to your right. If a dialect has a vowel that changes in one direction, it tends to keep on going in that direction," says University of Pennsylvania linguist Bill Labov, who compiled the new atlas with Charles Boberg and Sharon Ash.

Yet social forces may be even more important: people get their accents from friends and family and use them to help express their identity. While Canadians and Americans live within spitting distance of each other along the Michigan border, the word "stock" in Detroit sounds like "stack" in Windsor, Ontario. "Radio and television don't seem to have much impact on how people talk," Labov says. "People want to sound like their friends, their boss."

Labov and his team have amassed mountains of data on how dialects are changing, but a theory on why they change remains a challenge. "We develop these big trees that look like biological evolution, that show how one dialect died and another developed," says Labov. "But it's not really like biological evolution. No linguist believes that language gets better as it changes."

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