American Dialects

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(Host) Munch a hoagie by the bubbler? American English retains a surprising diversity, despite the influence of the mass media. Commentator Allen Gilbert reports on the findings of a Harvard linguist.

(Gilbert) We Americans love our English. We twist it, bend it, draw it out, and customize it. When I taught in Germany, students at my university specialized in American English or British English. If they wanted to learn “correct” English with only one proper pronunciation, they chose British English. If they wanted to learn a bouncy, vibrant, say-it-how-you-want it (within boundaries, of course), they learned American English.

My British teaching colleague carried around a “pronouncing dictionary” that gave the “R.P.” form for every common English word — “R.P.” meaning “received pronunciation,” or more colloquially, “the queen’s English.” When students had to do phonetic transcriptions, there was no doubt what was right and what was wrong.

I carried around an American English dictionary that basically gave license to almost any reasonable pronunciation of a word. I remember at least four different acceptable pronunciations for the word “water.”

It’s the American melting pot that has transformed our country’s English — along with wide regional variations that often reflect the ethnic or racial heritage of the people within those regions.

Some argue that in the 20th century, mass broadcast media homogenized our American English. Radio and television made us all talk the same.

Not so, says a Harvard linguist.

Professor Bert Vaux has been using a unique approach to track regional language differences. He posted a language survey on the Web. He asked people whether they said “aunt” or “ant” for your mother’s sister, “PEE-can” or “Pee-CAN” for the nut, and whether “Are you coming with?” is acceptable as a full sentence. His survey contained 122 questions. More than 30,000 people filled it out.

The results have been tabulated so you can see whether it’s just people in the South who think double modals are OK — as in “I might could do that” to mean “I might be able to do that.”

You can even see results by state. So you can find out if Vermonters say “soda,” “tonic,” or “pop” for carbonated drinks. Vaux plans to publish all this information in a new book, “An Atlas of North American English Dialects.”

Vaux’s main point is that our English is far from homogenized. “Bubbler” is quite commonly used in Boston and Milwaukee to mean “water fountain.” People up North tend to say “frosting,” people in the South say “icing” for the topping on a cake. A “sub” in New England is a “hoagie” in Pennsylvania.

Vaux thinks the variations are just fine. He says, “Seeing this information can help break down prejudices about what is the norm, to help people be more open-minded and egalitarian about language.”

And is it okay to pronounce the “t” in the word spelled o-f-t-e-n?

“Often” or “ofen” — either way will do, Vaux says.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Professor Bert Vaux’s Dialect Survey can be found online.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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