Choosing a Dialect of North American English


Sherry Ash (Philadelphia)


English-speaking North America is divided into a number of dialect areas, with subdivisions within the larger regions.  Discovering the processes that determine these regions and defining their extent has been the focus of research designed to create the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash, and Boberg, to appear) for the last several years.  The dialect variants stem from sound changes which are robust in North America today.  Some of these sound changes involve sets of elements, such as the Northern Cities Shift and the Southern Shift; others are more limited in scope but nonetheless have major phonological consequences, such as the unconditioned merger of /o/ and /oh/, as in cot and caught.  Still others have little effect on the system as a whole but affect the phonetics of certain elements, such as the widespread fronting of /uw/, as in food, and the less prevalent fronting of /ow/, as in go.


The notion of General American is misleading, and it is not used by researchers in North America who study North American dialects.  There is no dialect that constitutes General American; rather, there are many varieties that are accepted as sounding educated and appropriate in any setting.  Speakers from New York City, from Philadelphia, from Chicago, from Charlotte, North Carolina, from Salt Lake City, and from Toronto (to name only a few cities representative of different dialect regions) have profound differences in their phonological systems.  However, native North American listeners are generally deaf to most of these differences.  There are a few features that are known to characterize some dialects: /r/-vocalization in New York City and Eastern New England and conditioned /ay/-monophthongization in the South, to name the two of the features that are most often the subject of public comment.  But in general, Americans have little awareness of the specifics of dialect differences, and most such differences have little influence on the social evaluation of a speaker. 


Thus, a second language learner of North American English who wishes to speak like a true native North American would, in principle, have to choose one dialect and slavishly learn every detail of it; there is no one "General American" dialect to look to.  A second language learner who merely wants to sound educated and to be readily accepted as a skilled speaker of American English would have additional latitude in the selection of phonological and phonetic features to acquire.


The dialect regions that have been defined for the Atlas will be described, and their principal defining features will be presented.  Some of the choices that are required of a second language learner of North American English will be highlighted.