American English from sea to shining sea

Sep 30, 2011 by

In a number of recent postings, I’ve discussed American English words that have penetrated into British English and vice versa. But it must be remembered that neither American English nor British English are uniform, but are rather conglomerates of various dialects. Let’s consider American English dialects a bit more closely.

The study of American English dialectology, nicely reviewed in an article by Michael Adams, an associate professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington, has a long history. The American Dialect Society (ADS) was founded at Harvard University in 1889; in 1912, Calvin Thomas, then president of ADS, wrote that the society

“was organized for the purpose of making a careful study of the characteristics of the spoken English of the United States and Canada, and incidentally of the other non-aboriginal dialects spoken in the same countries.”

But as Louise Pound, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska and later president of ADS, surmised in 1952, there was a more specific object:

“Running through the Proceedings of the Society from the beginning and throughout the whole of its existence, as a sort of theme song, is its yearning to publish a dialect dictionary.”

The first steps towards realizing that goal were made in 1962, when a plan and method to make such a dictionary were devised by Frederic G. Cassidy, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, who was appointed editor of the society’s dictionary. This dictionary became known as the Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE for short. According to Cassidy,

“The acronym ‘DARE’ was no accident. It expressed the hope that the long time goal of the Society would at last be reached. We toasted the new title and the project on the University’s Union Terrace in good Wisconsin beer.”

Cassidy saw the first three volumes of DARE into print: Volume I (introduction and A–C) in 1985; Volume II (D–H) in 1991; and Volume III (I–O) in 1996. After he died on June 14, 2000, Joan Houston Hall, named on the title pages of Volumes II and III as associate editor, took charge of the project, publishing Volume IV (P–Sk) in 2002.

The DARE lists words that are specific to some part of the U.S., such as battercake (for ‘pancake’) found chiefly in the South and South Midland, and words that have different meanings in different parts of the country, such as maybell, which in Wisconsin means ‘lily of the valley’, but in Michigan — ‘marsh marigold’.

(Interestingly, DARE maps visualize the United States as a single undivided land mass with individual states reshaped to reflect the relative size of their populations.)

Other words that are specific to certain regions of the U.S. include the generic terms for a sweet, carbonated beverage, such as pop, coke, soda and others. The use of these terms has been investigated within the Pop vs. Soda project. As you can see from their map, reposted below, coke is used chiefly in the South and to a lesser extent in the South Midlands, soda is found chiefly in California and the Southwest, as well as in parts of the Midwest and Northeast, while the North uses pop.

And what will you have to eat with your pop/soda/coke? If you decide to go for a long sandwich that contains cold cuts, lettuce and so on, what you will call it would dependent also on where you are from, as can be seen from the map below. While the most commonly found term (and one that is not geographically specific) is sub, if you are from Boston, you are likely to use grinder (as did 2.87% respondents U.S.-wide). Inhabitants of Philadelphia call it a hoagie (as do 6.98% respondents U.S.-wide), and New Yorkers order a hero (a term used by 5.18% respondents U.S.-wide). Other terms for this kind of sandwich include poor boy (chiefly in the South; 1.77% respondents U.S.-wide), bomber (0.01%), Italian sandwich (0.46%), baguette (0.25%) and sarney (0.03%).

And to get your sandwich and drink, you might need to stand in line, or on line — if you are from NYC, Long Island and other areas marked on the map below.

Finally, when addressing a group of friends sharing the meal with you, you might use you guys (42.53% respondents U.S.-wide), simply you (24.82%), y’all (13.99%, chiefly in the South), you all (12.63%), yous or youse (0.67%), yins (0.37%, chiefly in Appalachia), you ‘uns (0.20%, also chiefly in Appalachia), you lot (0.18%) or some other term (4.62%).

In the next posting, we will look at some other regional peculiarities of American English.

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