Accented English

Here's a book I'll almost certainly buy: The Atlas of North American English , which includes software that maps various dialects across the U.S. and even allows you to click on various geographical points and listen in on locally inflected speech.

I'm fascinated by accents. Maybe partially because I don't really have one to speak of. But also because I've lived in a bunch of interesting accent pockets. I spent most of my childhood (until I was 15) in Charleston, S.C., home to one of the most distinctive accents around. A place where the native speech has been cooked in a unique mixture of Elizabethan English and West African dialects, resulting in a sort of linguistic gumbo that's immediately recognizable to anyone who's spent a fair amount of time in the South Carolina lowcountry. It's a place where you pronounce Legare Street "luh-GREE" and Huger Street "YOU-gee." Weird, wild stuff.

Then we moved to Pensacola, Florida, where the accents are a little more like what people associate with the Old South, the kind of sing-songy Alabamaese where vowels get shaped into something like musical notes. But we were also close enough to New Orleans that some people had a bit of the French-inspired Creole mixed in there, too.

Now I'm living in the Midwest, where my students all claim they don't have accents -- and even get offended if you suggest that they do. To me, they sound like a weird mixture of my friends from Buffalo, NY and the characters in Fargo.

The sad part of all of this is that accents seem to be slowly disappearing. TV and the world getting smaller and all of that jive, I'm sure. When I was a kid in Charleston, older adults who'd grown up in the city had incredibly rich accents, but their kids' accents were less noticeable. I suspect this is a trend, and that some day we'll all be speaking the bland English of the seven o'clock news.

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