Linguistic variation in the United States

Today in Everyday Grammar we are going to explore some differences in American English spoken in different regions or parts of the country.

The United States is a big country, and there are areas where people use different words for the same thing or say the same words differently.

Although school systems across the country teach Standard American English, many Americans grow up speaking non-standard American English. these varieties are also called dialects. People may not even realize they are speaking a non-standard form of the language.

let’s look at some vocabulary and pronunciation differences between different regions of the United States.

Men walk on a colorful map of the United States in a park in Hoboken, New Jersey, October 31, 2012. (REUTERS/Adrees Latif)

Vocabulary

One of the main features of the different regional varieties of American English is vocabulary. Different words can be used for the same idea or concept, depending on the region of the United States, such as Northeast, South, Midwest, or West.

Take for example a kind of cloth shoe that is worn for informal times or for sports. What would you call that?

Many Americans in the South, Midwest, and West Coast refer to athletic shoes as “tennis shoes.” It doesn’t matter that they practice the sport of tennis. The shoes might just be their everyday shoes. They call them “tennis shoes” anyway. In parts of the Northeast and parts of South Florida they use the word “sneakers”.

Sneakers or sneakers?

Sneakers or sneakers?

Sugary and carbonated drinks have different names depending on where you are from.

In the Midwest, western Pennsylvania and parts of Appalachians In the mountains, especially in the state of West Virginia, people call drinks “pop.”

In parts of the Northeast and West Coast, they are called “soda.” Also, people in some southern states use one name for all of these types of sugary drinks. They call it “Coke”, which is short for Coca Cola.

FILE - Soda, soda or coke?  Regular cans and mini cans of Coke and Pepsi are pictured in this photo illustration in New York, Aug. 5, 2014. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegro/File Photo)

FILE – Soda, soda or coke? Regular cans and mini cans of Coke and Pepsi are pictured in this photo illustration in New York, Aug. 5, 2014. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegro/File Photo)

For our last vocabulary word, we have the insect that flies at night in summer and lights up. In parts of the northeast and west coast, the word “firefly” is commonly used. In parts of Appalachia, the Midwest, and the South, the “lightning bug” is probably the most common. Sometimes people in the United States use both words.

Firefly or lightning bug?  Photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu combined slow shutter speed photos to produce stunning images of firefly signals.  This image was photographed in Okayama Prefecture, Japan.

Firefly or lightning bug? Photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu combined slow shutter speed photos to produce stunning images of firefly signals. This image was photographed in Okayama Prefecture, Japan.

Pronunciation

In the United States, people say some of the same words in different ways, depending on where they grew up.

Take for example a small stream that flows into a river. Most Americans pronounce this word as “creek” with a long /ee/ sound, as in the word “beet.”

But in parts of Appalachia like western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the Ohio Valley, you might hear that word with a /i/ sound, like in “creek,” like in the word “point.”

FILE – A portion of South Fork Peachtree Creek is shown Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Decatur, Georgia.  Jonathon Keats, an American conceptual artist, is designing a city clock located in Atlanta that would display the time based on the flow of local rivers and waterways.  (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

FILE – A portion of South Fork Peachtree Creek is shown Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Decatur, Georgia. Jonathon Keats, an American conceptual artist, is designing a city clock located in Atlanta that would display the time based on the flow of local rivers and waterways. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

Our next pronunciation variation is a merger of two vowels, the / ɒ / as in the vowel of “disturb” and the / ɔ /vowel as in “saw”.

In most variants of American English, these two vowels are separate and different. You can hear this difference in the words “caught” and “baby cot.”

In some varieties of American English, especially in the eastern Appalachian Mountains, these two vowels have merged into one, as in the word “cot”. These two separate words, catch and cot, sound the same in this pronunciation.

Our final pronunciation variation is a difference in the number of syllables that make up the word “caramel”. Syllables are the parts into which a word is naturally divided when pronounced.

“Caramel” (two syllables) or “caramel” (three syllables) is a light brown candy made from butter, sugar and milk. In much of the Northeast and parts of the South, this word is pronounced with three syllables, /CA-ra-mel/. In parts of Appalachia and much of the Midwest, many Americans pronounce this word with two syllables, as in /CAR-mel/.

This photo from October 2016 shows salted caramel sauce in New York City.  This dish is from a recipe by Katie Workman (Katie Workman via AP)

This photo from October 2016 shows salted caramel sauce in New York City. This dish is from a recipe by Katie Workman (Katie Workman via AP)

These two pronunciations can have different meanings depending on the speaker or region. Caramel (two syllables) can mean a mixture of sugar and water that turns brown when boiled. Caramel (three syllables) can mean light brown candy.

Final Thoughts

Today we looked at some differences in vocabulary and pronunciation across regions of the United States. There are several varieties of American English, including cultural and ethnic varieties, which we haven’t covered. If you enjoyed learning these variations in American English, write us in the comments. We would love to share more on this topic!

Finally, let’s end this report with some homework. Do you know any variations or dialects in your native language? Or have you heard of other variants of American English? Write to us at [email protected] or in the comments and share what you know about language variations!

I am Faith Pirlo.

And I’m Jill Robbins.

Faith Pirlo wrote this report for VOA Learning English.

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words in this story

Region nm a part of a country or the world that is different or separate from other parts

Standard nm a level of quality, achievement, etc., considered acceptable or desirable

varieties not. many different things

dialects – nm a form of language that people speak in a particular part of a country

vocabulary -not. the words that make up a language

pronunciation -not. how a word is said normally or correctly

features – nm usual qualities or important parts of something

concept – nm an idea of ​​what something is or how it works

beet – nm a garden plant with thick leaves and a rounded red root point – nm a useful tip

merger – nm the combing of two things into one

baby cotnot. fabric folding bed

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