When you’re in the U.S. South, don’t call the cops if you hear someone say, “Looks like the devil’s beating his wife.” Instead, look for a rainbow! Much like how Southerners coin a sun shower, I find it intriguing how many different words and pronunciations are used for the same thing. For instance, if you wanted to order a long sandwich, for most of the country you’d order a ‘sub’ short for submarine sandwich, but when you’re in Louisiana you’d ask for a ‘po’ boy’. If you’re visiting New York, ask for a ‘hero’, not to save the day, to eat! Next, hop over to Philadelphia for a ‘hoagie’, then take a train to Massachusetts and finish off with a ‘grinder’. In fact, one study published by the American Dialect Society, found 13 different names for the sandwich in the United States. This example just goes to show there’s several ways to talk “American”, and we may never know how many, because it all depends on what’s typical where you live.
The Atlantic Magazine did a great video on how Americans talk when they mapped the U.S. regions where different words were used. Of course, most of us have heard that generally Midwesterners call a sugary carbonated beverage ‘pop’, Southerners call it ‘Coke’, and people in the Northeast and on the West Coast call it ‘soda’. But would you know where to find a ‘bubbler’ in Wisconsin? And when you’re in the South, when someone asks you to get a ‘buggy’, they don’t want a baby carriage, they want a shopping cart! The unique words and sayings we use are termed as different dialects. And often times I hear dialect and accent being used interchangeably, when in fact, they are very different terms.
Whereas an accent relates only to the pronunciation of a language, dialect is the broader term to incorporate the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary that is unique to a particular region or social group. Such as, “Hey y’all”, as being part of a common Southern dialect, you would hear “Hey guys / you guys” more often in the rest of the U.S. When discussing grammar in different dialects, an example from the South is, “I’m fixin’ to buy a car”, whereas in the North you would hear something like, “I’m planning to buy a car.”
For professionals who are seeking accent modification to appear less "foreign" and become better understood, it’s important to understand what the company culture is, or what a potential employer is seeking, to determine the best dialect to use. For instance, if you work for a car dealership in Texas, your employer may favor you using more of a Texas dialect so that you may relate more to the local customers. Whereas, if you were a business owner who called upon clients all around the United States, using a standard American accent (what you hear on the national news), will help you be understood by most Americans, no matter the region they live in. Accent Savvy helps those seeking the standard American accent, however, if you would like to use more of a local flavor in your accent (ie Southern), it’s best to find an instructor in your area to assist you.
So whether you call that pie “pee-KAHN” or “PEE-can”, use a “COO-pon” or “Q-pon”, or put on your sneakers or tennis shoes, keep in mind, every American is made up of unique experiences, backgrounds, and origins that contribute to their own dialects. Becoming familiar with the dialect that a majority of people use in your working environment or your community, will help you improve your communication skills and relate better to them.
Tell me what interesting American terms or pronunciations you have discovered?