Historical and present linguistic evidence does not support the notion of there being one single “mainstream” American accent. The sound of American English continues to evolve, with some local accents disappearing, but several larger regional accents having emerged in the 20th century.
Social scientists estimate the number of U.S. dialects range from a basic three – New England, Southern, and Western/General America – to 24 or more. Some researchers suggest it’s impossible to count the number of dialects in the United States because, under a loose definition of the term, thousands of cities, towns, and groups have their own varieties or dialects.
Discrete boundaries between dialects are often difficult to determine since dialects share many features with one another. Speakers use different language forms – or identical forms in different ways – based not only on where they live but also on such factors as their social class, ethnicity, and gender.
Here are three myths about dialects.
- MYTH: A dialect is something that SOMEONE ELSE speaks.
- REALITY: Everyone who speaks a language speaks some dialect of the language; it is not possible to speak a language without speaking a dialect of the language.
- MYTH: Dialects result from unsuccessful attempts to speak the “correct” form of a language.
- REALITY: Dialect speakers acquire their language by adopting the speech features of those around them, not by failing in their attempts to adopt standard language features.
- MYTH: Dialects inherently carry negative connotations.
- REALITY: Dialects are not necessarily positively or negatively valued; their social values are derived strictly from the social position of their community of speakers.
Take pleasure in the differences and marvel at the varied influences that make American English so dynamic. Listen to the people at work, in your neighborhood, or in social groups. Do you, as a group, use unique words or have a distinctive manner of speaking? Do you individually use language that sets you apart from those around you? Is there a region of the U.S. where you feel ‘home’ in your language? As Americans become increasingly mobile, often moving to different parts of the country over a lifetime, we never stop participating in the ever-evolving language around us.
You might also be interested in reading about English as the official language in the sea and air, why the U.S.A. doesn’t have an official language, or learn more about the history of the English language!
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