Everyone has an accent, whether we believe it or not. An accent is one of a person’s prime identifiers. People subconsciously make judgments based on someone’s accent, even using it to make assumptions regarding their intelligence, which is unfortunate. However, accents are also another thing that makes people different. One of my favorite short YouTube videos is of a woman having her husband read a phrase in his Southern accent, then trying to say it “without an accent” — even though it is impossible. This led me to do some more research about the history of American accents. There are a lot of factors that go into regional accents, but the biggest one has to do with historical immigration patterns.
Of course, not everyone has a strong or noticeable regional accent. In fact, a lot of people speak what is known as “General American” where their accent does not have any regionally distinctive features. People who live in urban areas are more likely to have one of these American accents.
We all definitely shape our pronunciations based on how the people talk where we are from. For a long time, I thought that I didn’t have an accent despite being from Boston. It was when I got to college that I saw the juxtaposition of my accent in comparison to other people. Although it’s mild, I drop a couple of “r’s” here and there compared to my friends. Working in a warehouse this summer made it even stronger. I had to yell a lot, and it is much easier to yell words that end with a vowel instead of a consonant. So instead of “water,” I would often yell, “Gimme a bottle o wah-dah!” It was then that I realized, “Oh, so this is where my Boston accent has been hiding.”
The Northeast is home to many loud, urban accents. Think Danny Devito or Sylvester Stallone. The Northeast accent is derived from each city’s long history of immigration. Northeastern port cities like Boston, New York City and Philadelphia were the destinations of many immigrants, which made each respective city’s accent a fusion of different foreign tongues. A lot of immigrants that went to New York City and Boston were from southern England. This region’s population naturally drops the “r” in a lot of their pronunciations, which resulted in the populace having similar speaking patterns.
If you go a little south to Philadelphia, you will find a slightly different accent. This different accent is due to the fact that most incoming immigrants to Philadelphia came from northern England and Scotland and pronounced their “r’s” more clearly. Hence, Philadelphians are known to pronounce “water” as “wooder” with a strong emphasis on that “r.” Although these Northeast urban accents are a little different, they still share the common trait of loud vowels. Odds are that you can probably tell if someone is from an urban area in the Northeast just from their accent alone.
The next region is the Midwest, which is home to many states and many accents. The Midwest accent kind of has the reputation of being the most typically “American” accent (here’s a video of that accent). However, the Midwest is also home to states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and those states definitely have an accent. Think Frances McDormand in “Fargo.”
Like Northeastern cities, this accent is derived from the immigrants who settled here. Minnesota became home to many Norwegians, Swedes and Germans. Because 67% of Minnesotans can trace their ancestry back to these three countries, we can infer that the Minnesotan accent is derived from a combination of these three foreign accents.
Going south, we run into the Southern accent, which I’m sure every non-Southerner has tried to imitate at least once in their life — myself included. The Southern accent speaks with a much rounder tone and emphasizes the vowels a lot more. Think Dolly Parton or Tommy Lee Jones. People with a Southern accent are also known to speak slower than those with different accents. This is called the Southern drawl. The Southern accent used to be more like a British accent, but the significant slave population from various African countries in the South shaped the Southern accent into what it is now today.
Louisiana has an interesting history regarding its accent. Instead of getting just British settlers, Louisiana was home to settlements of French-speaking people as well. Additionally, New Orleans was a major port city that received a lot of African slave traffic. All these different native tongues contributed to a very unique regional accent for Louisiana known as Cajun English. If you listen to someone with a Louisiana accent, you may detect a hint of a French accent as well.
Then the last big accent is the West Coast California accent. The inland California accent features some mild Southern elements in its pronunciation and grammar, like saying “you was going” instead of “you were going.” Research shows that many Southern and Midwest farmers migrated to California during the Great Depression. But the infamous California accent is still the Valley Girl accent.
Everyone knows this accent where people say “like” every four words. Oddly enough, this accent emerged less from immigration, but rather from pop culture. A movie called “Valley Girl” came out in 1983 in which the characters spoke in the quick, high-pitched accent that we are all familiar with today. In the following decades, more movies came out where the characters spoke that way, including “Clueless” and “Legally Blonde.” Initially, the accent was supposed to depict materialistic, entitled people in media, but people started imitating it in real life.
American accents are incredibly varied across the U.S. Even the depth that I went into isn’t nearly enough to recognize a quarter of the accents. Nevertheless, you now have a greater understanding of how each region’s accent came to be, and you understand what generally goes into the creation of an accent. Until the late 20th century, it was largely immigration, but we are now seeing pop culture become a factor in the creation of accents. Who knows what other factors there will be in the future?