1. We all have an accent
“Khakis,” “kah-keys” or “car keys?” Depending on where you’re from, you most likely have an accent. Don’t cha know? You betcha — most people sincerely believe they do not have an accent. Alas, everyone has an accent. Whether you live, north, south, east, west, or northeast, you undoubtedly sound different to your nation’s counterparts.
It’s the same in foreign countries. If your an American visiting a foreign country, you might as well sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator. The beautiful part about the origin of your speech patterns is that they can be linked to the first settlers in your hometown. So where does your accent come from?
2. The first European settlers
It’s a given. America isn’t called the “melting pot” for nothing. We live in a rich environment made up of various different traditions and cultures. Even though we ourselves might not be directly linked to all multi-cultural traditions, they still resonate in the way we speak. Accents have a funny way of transferring through generations and researchers traced those lingual connections from places all around the world.
This includes Europe, Asia, Mexico, and South America. So, how did accents first come about? Weren’t the first European settlers mostly English? Yes and no. They were also Dutch, Irish, and Scandinavian. But, first thing’s first, let’s start with England.
3. “Better bang a ’uey”
Let’s go back in time and sit in one of America’s first settlements: Jamestown. Established in 1607 through The Virginia Company of London by King James, the English settlers not only put down their familial roots but also their dialects and intonations while speaking as well. New England became the first region to develop an American accent and develop it organically without further British influence.
As time went on in England, their language naturally evolved and developed new consonants, phrases, and words to their lexicon repertoire. So did New England. So what does a New England accent sound like? Just drop the “r’s” and add an “h.” Think Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and you’ll get the idea.
4. Wadaya tawlkin’ aboud?
Now if we move just a little further south and land in New York, things get a little blurry. Who doesn’t think a New Yorker sounds like Dustin Hoffman from Midnight Cowboy? “Hey, I’m walkin’ here, I’m walkin’ here!” For those of us who don’t live in the heart of the Big Apple, we only get the metropolis accent fix through Hollywood movies.
But, if we dig a little deeper, we find that the New York accent has a lot of history. Before that heavy influx of immigration during the turn of the 19th century, majority of New Yorkers were a part of a Dutch settlement. As more immigrants came to the United States, countries such as Ireland, Germany, Eastern Europe, and Italy, it changed.
5. Heroes don’t wear capes, they’re eaten
Soon New York created its own dialect and so came the birth of the New York accent. You can tell a New Yorker’s accent by the way they replace “th” or “t” with “d.” Or emphasize an “o” and “uh” sound instead of a soft “ah.” You can hear it in words such as “water,” or “fall.” For some, it’s f-ah-ll or w-ah-ter, but in New York, it sounds more like “w-uh-der” or “foll.”
According to the Washington Post, a close representation of a New York accent resembles Marisa Tomei and Joe Pesci in the movie My Cousin Vinny. But if you think their accents were intriguing, you should hear New York slang. Accents don’t only influence the phonetics of language, but their lexicon too.
6. “It’s mad brick outside, bro”
On top of their accent, a New Yorker’s slang is just as noticeable. For instance, if you asked how cold it was outside, you’d most likely hear, “It’s brick.” In other words, it’s freezing. Put on your mitts, and ear muffs because the external parts of your body are about to be frostbitten. Also, if you think being thirsty pertains to quenching a parched throat, think again.
To be thirsty is the same as saying you’re desperate. For instance, if you’re just dying to get your hands on the new iPhone, then your acting thirsty, “why you acting so thirsty?” Because you want that new face recognition feature, that’s why. Thirsty.
7. Southern hospitality is a real thing
Y’all ready for this? It’s time to visit the southern portion of the US, right into the Heart of Dixie. We’d like to think of the South as having a scarlet, southern drawl, a la Reba McEntire. But where did the Southern drawl come from? (Anyone else’s knees buckle when hearing a southern accent?) Again, it steams back to the original colonizers of the Southern states.
While most people hugged the coast, an influx of English and Irish settlers pushed westward, bringing their language with them. European influences who “owned” the land prior to the United States government, such as France and Spain, also had their hands dipped into regional accents. But the secret ingredient of the South’s unique sounds is are the influence of African languages and dialects.
8. Tea is always cold and sweet
When Europeans navigated toward the New World they also brought slaves to work as laborers. Once brought to the US, West African languages and dialects blended with the European American accents and the product became the southern drawl as we know it today. How long has that been around? Since early American settlements and beyond.
However, as time passed and slavery was abolished, African American communities traveled northward toward urban cities, adding their cultural touch to the American accent. What’s startling, however, if we go toward, say, West Virginia, the accent is drastically different as compared to a Louisiana or Georgia accent. Why’s that? Scotland.
9. “He’s madder than a wet hen”
In the early 18th century, Ulster-Scots (or Scotch-Irish) emigrated toward the US and settled in the southern Appalachian region (Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia). As generations passed, the accent mingled with the Georgian and Pennsylvanian accent, creating the Southern accent we know and love today.
If you listen to the way Dolly Parton speaks, that’s a prime example of the southern drawl from Tennessee. The accent is drawn out (depending on where you’re from) and slow when sounding out the vowels. For instance, “o” will sound like “aw” and “ou” may have a have a sharp “ew.” So, “you all” turns to “Y’all” and “nice,” turns to “n-aw-ice.”
10. “Bless your heart” is not a compliment
So we all know France had claim over Louisiana, right? The Louisiana Purchase and all that jazz. France has a tumultuous history when it comes to their previous ownership over American soil. They originally claimed land starting from Canada and bee-lined their way toward the Gulf of Mexico between the mid-1500s through the late 1700s, carving through the Mississippi River Valley.
Between England and France, France had a bigger chunk of what would become US soil. France actually laid claim to much more territory in the US than England did. However, that of course, did not last long. Eventually, that huge chunk of land was sold to the US in 1803 through — you guessed it — the Louisiana Purchase. Look at that, you’re learning history!
11. Make sure your po’boy is dressed
What do the French have to do with this article? Everything (vive la révolucion!). No, seriously — the French had a lot of influence over American language development, accents, and locations. This is most notable in French Creole. For instance, did you know that Detroit is French (je ne sais what?). Once known as Fort Detroit by the French, it was named after the Detroit River, which connected to Lake Huron and Erie.
The river was called le detroit du Lac Erie meaning “The strait of Lake Erie.” The word “detroit” translates to “river strait.” Where are we going with this? The accents in both Louisiana and Canada are linked to the French language and therefore have French roots. However, it gets mixed.
12. Would you like mynez with that sandwich?
At some point in time, Spain purchased Louisiana (between the 1760s to 1801, for those of you dying to know). It then became known as Spanish Louisiana before it was given back to the French. Not only was the land made up of French settlers, but the area also received a huge influx of European Spanish speakers as well.
Now add the Native African dialect into the equation, sprinkly in a dash of Caribbean influence, and a twist of Cajun, and BAM! you have a nice gumbo of accents. Today there are three distinct accents categorized within the Louisiana accent: The north (twang) and south (Cajun) and finally the New Orleans (Yat) accent.
13. Want a coke? What kind?
For those of you who have no idea what the implications behind the parenthetical were in the Louisiana regions, fear not. The northern portion of Louisiana is Georgia and Alabama influenced, where you have a touch of southern twang. Now for the southern portion, you have the Acadian or Cajun accent, which is directly influenced by the French language.
You’d most likely be able to identify an Acadian or Cajun accent by how a speaker might drop the “er” for an “a.” Where did the Acadian or Cajun accent come from? Sometime in the late 1760s, the Acadians descended into the marshy state from Canada, speaking a language not quite Parisian French, but French nonetheless.
14. “Where y’at?”
For instance, Dr. Pepper becomes Docta Peppa. Finally, the New Orleans accent, also known as the yat accent, is the shortened version of “you at?” For instance, “where y’at?” would be equivalent to “where you at?” The boot portion of the Pelican State can be confusing at times. However, it’s not all completely foreign.
If you listen closely, you could argue that a New Orleans accent sounds might close to New Jersey or New York accent. For instance, “dese,” “dem,” “doze” would stand in for “these,” “them,” and “those.” You can thank Irish influence for that one (as stated in the North East coastal accent portion of this article). But what about our Western cousins?
15. “It would take about 30 minutes if you take the 5”
Ah, the golden coast. Endless sunshine, golden beaches, and rows of palm trees lining the entire state of California from San Diego to Sacramento (whether or not they pass the bay area is beyond us). It’s a Mediterraneanesque paradise where you can spot celebrities drinking six dollar signature coffees and munching Instagram-worthy avocado toast.
It’s a place where people bleach their hair blonde and speak in that, like, gnarly surfer lingo. Choice vocab, bro. The traffic is hella bad, but the bars are clutch. Of course, you can guess that most of them are basically true, however, not at the same time. Hate to break it to ya, but not everyone sounds like Kim K.
16. “I’m totally stoked, dude”
So what is the California accent and where does it come from? If you want to know the honest to goodness truth? Not even linguists know what a true California accent is. Why is that? You have to remember that California is a fairly new state (est. 1850) and because it takes a few generations to create a unique pattern of speech, the California accent is still under development.
Hard to believe considering the stereotype! And if you think about it, the stereotype for the most part characterizes youth culture, not the entire state a whole, unlike the accents of the Northeast and South. And because it’s a part of the youth culture, the accent and the slang associated with it is constantly changing.
17. It’s hella hot outside
However, though the manner in which Californians speak tends to change over time, it doesn’t mean they don’t have an accent. If we were to look at it analytically, we can separate three types of California accents: The Bay Area, the Valley Girl, and the Chicano English accent, or formally, Pacific Southwest, San Francisco Urban, and Southwestern accent.
The Bay Area mingles with the northwestern part of the United States, and if we remember our migration toward the west in the 19th century, then it makes sense. The moment the Louisiana Purchase was completed, a large migration of people from the East began moving west toward Oregon (thus the Oregon Trail). But who were the Americans settling the west?
18. “I’ll take a double-double, animal style”
By the time America took Texas, there was a collective feeling and mindset that European Americans had a divine right to move westward, from sea to shining sea, which became known as the Manifest Destiny. As urban east coast cities’ populations swelled, the US government pushed for Americans to move westward, promising land and opportunity. People bought into the idea in droves and packed their bags.
European settlers from Scandinavia and Germany, along with generational US natives (Appalachia and New England), began making the perilous journey toward the Pacific Northwest. This contributed to the development of the California accent. Once settlers arrived in the West Coast, they set up camp alongside what was then known as Mexico’s California.
19. “My significant other works in ‘the industry'”
Once the US incorporated the Golden State, (other) European and Spanish influences and dialects collided. To add a little more flavor into the mix, as the century progressed, a number of Japanese and Chinese immigrants ventured to California seeking the their version of the American Dream. What was glittering at the time really was gold, and gold meant financial security.
A diverse state was forming from the get go. Each cultural group established communities that preserved their traditions, customs, and language. Sure, the history lesson is nice, but how did that establish current west coast accents? The same rules of pronunciation evolution apply. As generations passed, the custom of language passed with each successor.
20. “This pizza is dank”
European influenced consonance was dramatized and soon what would be “oa” in boat, turned to “oo” as in “boot,” and the second syllable in “nothing” turned to “noth-eeng.” The pronunciation mingled with the Chicano English groups of the region. Over time, the different languages diverged from their parent language.
As each generation separated from the first, accents transformed into the Valley Girl accent or surfer speak (you can thank those valley girls at the Galleria). It all changes when your proximity to Mexico gives way to the Chicano English accent. Though there isn’t a distinct Spanish accent tied with the English language, traces of it weaved it way into the dialects of the West Coast settlers.
21. “Like, yeah no, no yeah…”
Okay, but what about Asian-American influences? Sure there was a population of Mexican-Americans and European settlements, but what about the Chinese and Japanese community? According to PBS, there has been a record of turbulent history associated with Asian communities, especially for Japanese American citizens.
There is evidence of Japanese American consonance contributing to the California accent, however the rest had been nearly erased during WWII when a majority of the Japanese American community was placed in internment camps. Upon the end of the war and release of Japanese Americans into the general population, their manner of speaking was fractured and disrupted “social networks and preventing the entrenchment of their nascent variety of English.” But sadly, that wasn’t all.
22. Please don’t call it Cali…just don’t.
Because there was pressure to conform to the English language, Japanese Americans’ actively and aggressively adopted European English. One of their main motivations was the generally negatively and suspicious social sentiments against them. However, as a new generation of immigrants settled in California, their linguistic culture is contributing to a new American cadence.
Who knows, maybe in the next century, West Coast accents will change and dramatically and twist away from the “Valley Girl” stereotype. But what about Southwestern accents? And we’re not talking Southern California anymore — we’re talking about the great state of Texas. That’s right boys and gals, saddle up, because this one’s going to be a doozy.
23. “Git r done”
Okay, that was just completely inaccurate — native Texan speakers don’t say “doozy” any more than the rest of us. Like California, the Southern drawl of the Texas accent is nothing more than a stereotype. Although, like the California accent, it was very much alive, but is slowly dwindling and isn’t as distinct as it was before. But to understand Texas accents, we have to understand Texas as a whole.
For instance, we bet you didn’t know Texas was an independent nation before becoming a state. Well, Google it, because it was. Does it really surprise you? Everyone always jokes that Texas could be its own country, and Texans pride themselves on rugged independence (as represented by their Lone Star flag) so its not that surprising.
24. It ain’t Tex-Mex if it’s not from Texas
Texas even had its own Revolutionary War (Remember the Alamo!). And that’s how Mex-Tex or Texas English was born. Once Texas became a state in 1845, many settlers from the Lower South, states such as Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama, and from the Upper South, states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, quickly migrated to the new US state.
As they came in droves, they also brought their families and slaves along with them. However, things took a turn when immigrants from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland ventured to the southwest during the 19th century. As they adapted to their new home, the languages they brought with them followed suite.
25. Whataburger is where it’s at
Immigrants began to drop their native tongues all together and soon adopted the English language — but not without contributing to some flourish. Depending on which part of Texas you visit, you’ll hear a range of accents. For example, in the midland and southern portion of Texas, a seemingly rouge “r” would be included in words such as “wash,” which turns to “warsh.”
And by incorporating the “ai” consonant to words such as “right” and “ride,” which turns to “rahd” and “raht.” Texan lexicon also changed over time, and soon Mexican words such as “plaza,” “patio,” and “mesa” were incorporated to the Texan English language, solidifying the southwestern accent we know today.
26. “You betcha!”
War is a good enough reason to move from your native home country. During the turn of the 19th century, many immigrants escaped their home countries to flee from the horrible conditions of war and famine in hopes of a better life. This was no exception for Western Europe as Germany entered a tumultuous period of warfare.
The German Revolution of 1848-49, or also known as the March Revolution, caused a large migration to the promise of America. Many refugees scrambled as they tried to flee from a war-torn Europe and followed rumors of a country overflowing with an abundance of wealth. Once they arrived and the Homestead Act of 1862 was signed, many German Americans ventured west.
27. Take a sip from the bubbler
For those of you who weren’t paying attention during your high school history class, the Homestead Act was signed by Abraham Lincoln to encourage Americans to settle the west by providing settlers over 160 acres of land. People were sold, and it was a perfect time for German refugees to lay their claim in the American landscape.
They settled, established a community, and learned the English language. If you ever have the privilege in visiting the upper Midwest, then you would have the opportunity to hear the distinct phonetics. One hallmark of Mideastern dialect: Word merging. For instance, “did you eat?” turns to “j’eet?” and “don’t you” turns to “dontcha.”
28. The ultimate American accent
Congratulations, you now know where your accent comes from! As you can see, the US is a rich fabric, each string a different accent that makes up who we are as a county. They tell a story and they build community. But, there’s something that may be plaguing your mind. Is there a true American accent?
For those of you who’ve ventured outside of the United States, you might have been labeled as the American foreigner. But how do they know? Is it the way we dress or behave, or is the manner in which we speak? It’s probably both. But how do Americans speak? Is there a universal accent that we’re missing here? Why, yes we do.
29. “Breaking news just in!”
According to The Washington City Paper, Americans have an accent known as the General American accent. What does it sounds like to people from other countries? Well, if you turn on your television to your local news station, then you’d get a clear idea. The General American accent or the “newscaster voice,” is the closest thing to what we consider to be a General American accent.
It’s characterized by the need to carefully enunciate the words that is especially necessary in a news broadcasting world. However, 75 plus years ago, it was a totally different story and it related to upper-class society. If you listen to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts, you’d hear an airy accent that closely resembles the European English accent.
30. “The only thing we have to feeah, is feeah itself”
That was because during the 19th century, to imitate the European English language was to showcase sophistication and elitism. Thus the Mid-Atlantic accent was born, also known as “Oxford English.” Basically, Americans dropped the letter “r” for a few decades. Example? Instead of saying “fear” it’s “feeah,” or “card” to “cahd.”
However, once WWII came along, that all changed. We saw European culture in a new light, and instead of adopting the European English accent, we turned to a mid-century, Midwestern accent, championed by the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Over time, the accent transformed to one we can all understand and process. But as history has shown, language and accents are always a work in progress.