Just as there’s no such thing as the Irish accent, the American accent does not exist. Instead, there’s an immense diversity of American accents, and their variations don’t necessarily follow state lines. Numerous American accents have developed due to the movements of people internationally and throughout the country, the ethnicities of these populations, and the level of interaction different communities have with one another, among other factors. These 10 American accents are among the most prominent, but they’re only a small percentage of the total number of American accents out there. Take a listen and see if you recognize yours.
The Northeastern accent
Where: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont
The Northeastern US is characterized by a distinctive accent in which speakers drop the letter “r” and use nasal “a” sounds. This accent does not distinguish between the “ah” sound in the words “cot” and “caught.” This pattern is thought to have been brought over by the Northern English, Irish, and Scottish, and it’s also common in other US dialects. Interestingly enough, in this region of the US, the words “merry,” “Mary,” and “marry” have distinct pronunciations — as do the words “horse” and “hoarse” — which isn’t common in the rest of the nation. Most people in the US pronounce broccoli’s cousin as “kaw-lih-flower” whereas most who pronounce it as “kaw-lee-flower” come from the Northeastern US. If you’re agreeing with someone, say “aye” instead of “yes,” and if you want sprinkles on your ice cream, ask for “jimmies.”
The New England accent
Where: New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania
Everyone’s familiar with the phrase “park the car in Harvard yard” that’s used to imitate the Boston accent, or the local pronunciation of New York as “Noo Yawk.” New England was a melting pot of immigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries when English, Irish, Scottish, Italian, and Yiddish populations influenced the ways that English was being spoken. For example, saying “Lawn-Guy-Land” for Long Island can be traced back to Yiddish and Italian origins, and the use of “youse” to mean “you all” can be traced back to Irish Gaelic roots. The dropped “r” sound is one of the most prominent characteristics of the New England accent. If you want to order a sub sandwich and sound like a local, be sure to order a “hoagie” in Philadelphia and South Jersey, a “hero” in New York City, and a “wedge” in Yonkers or Westchester, New York — or just say “grinder” or “sub” which work across most of New England.
The AAVE (African American Vernacular English) accent
African American Vernacular English, formerly known as Black English Vernacular or Ebonics, is a dialect that developed due to the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved people spoke a variety West African languages, which came into contact with one another as well as the English spoken by the English colonists. Due to forced segregation, a distinct dialect continued to persist, even during the Great Northern Migration, and it’s a prevalent dialect today. A few distinctive features of AAVE are the “th” sound being pronounced as a “d” sound, the “l” sound dropping at the end of words like “cool” and “pull,” and questions ending in a falling tone rather than a rising tone. Examples of words used in AAVE are “ax” for “ask” and “cuz” for “because.”
The Southern accent
Where: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas
Of all the US regions, the South might have the most varied accents. Anyone listening to Tennessee-born Dolly Parton can identify her Southern drawl as one accent of the Deep South. The dialect is spoken slowly and with drawn-out vowels. Instead of pronouncing the “i” sound as “aye” — as in the word “nice” — it’s pronounced as “aah.” The word “alright” is pronounced as “al-raaht” rather than “al-raye-t.” This dialect is known for its quirky sayings and terminology, such as “having a hankering for” (having a craving for) or “cattywampus” (something that is askew). Famously, Southerners call their fizzy drinks “coke” no matter what the flavor.
Listen to Matthew McConaughey, on the other hand, and you’ll be able to identify his iconic Texan accent. Texas is also known for its Southern accent, but it differs from the other parts of the South. Settlers from southern Appalachia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and other Southern states migrated to Texas, bringing their accents with them. Over time, it’s evolved into a different dialect where “loose goose” is pronounced with a little less of a twang.
The New Orleans and Louisiana accents
French, Spanish, Cajun English, Louisiana Creole, and Native American languages have historically had the biggest influence on Louisiana’s dialects. Irish, Italian, and German immigrants also came to Louisiana, developing dialects that sounded similar to the dialects spoken in 19th-century melting pot centers such as New York City. You’ll notice this in the shared soft “r” sound. Someone who speaks New Orleans English is called a Yat, as in “where y’at?” An interesting feature of this dialect is the obviously pronounced “wh” sound in words like “white,” “where,” and “what.”
The French-Canadian migration to Louisiana in the 17th century brought the French language that would impact the local dialect in unique ways. Evidence of this is found in Cajun English and Louisiana Creole. Cajun English sprinkles in French in conversation, such as “allons” for the phrase “let’s go” and “cher” for the word “dear.”
Native American English and the “Rez accent”
Native American English, known colloquially as the “Rez accent,” is present and consistent across various Native American and First Nations communities in the US and Canada. The exact origin of the accent is still unknown. It may be influenced by the patterns of heritage languages, and there are theories that the accent developed from the era of boarding and residential schools where Indigenous children were forced to speak English. However, the Indigneous community isn’t a monolith; there are differences in accents between tribal nations, and not all Indigenous peoples speak with a “Rez accent.”
Features of Native American English come from the rhythm, intonation, and pitch of the dialect. It creates a melodic effect, as demonstrated by Thomas in the 1998 film Smoke Signals. The accent also tends to have syllables that are universal in length. Slang is varied, depending on location, but there are some examples in this video by Raquel Quinones of the Dakota Nation.
The Midland and the Northern Midwest English accent
Where: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, regions in New York
The Upper Midwestern US was settled by German and Scandinavian immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The languages they spoke contributed to the accents associated with this part of the country. Noticeable elements are the elongated “ooh” and “eh” sounds, such as in the words “toast” and “bake.” You can hear both of these sounds when people from this part of the country say they are “a-ok” and pronounce it as “eh-oooh-keh.”
The Midland accent is present in what most people know as the Midwestern US. Pronunciation of “pin” and “pen” sound similar here, and the “r” is fully pronounced. Notable sayings of this area are “ope” used as a word of surprise and the word “hot dish” as an umbrella term for anything served in a casserole dish. If someone asks “jeet,” you’re being asked “did you eat?”
Near Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo, in the past century, there has been a shift in vowel pronunciation. “Cat” is now pronounced more like “ket,” and this vowel shift has caused other vowel shifts in the dialect, such as in the words “bed” and “next” being pronounced as “bud” and “nuxt.” You can hear an example of this accent here.
The Pacific Northwest accent
Where: Washington, Oregon
Most of the West Coast can be categorized as a single dialect region, but there are features that single out the PNW. The words “cot” and “caught” are pronounced the same, and the intrusive “r” is often added in words, pronouncing “Washington” as “Warshington” and “drawing” as “drawring.” Pacific Northwesterners also say they are headed “to the coast” rather than the beach. The way you refer to Interstate 5 can tell locals where you’re from. If you tell someone to head down I-5, you most likely live in the PNW. If you’re from out of state, or California, you’d probably say to head down the I-5.
The California accent
California, like most of the West Coast, has different influences than the East Coast. Only 40 percent of the state is white, so speakers of Chicano English, AAVE, and the languages of Asian-American populations make their impact in regions where they are most present. The accents on the West Coast are younger than those of the East Coast because they’ve had less time to develop and get established. Hollywood also has a unique influence on the California accent as it attracts people who are entering the entertainment industry, often trying to do so with a neutral accent. California is a very large state, and pinning one accent on the nation’s third largest state just isn’t practical. Features that are present in Southern California include the lengthening of “oo” in words like “dude.” “Surfer talk” sounds more laidback because of a vowel shift with the sound “ah” — “back” is pronounced more like “bock.” The parasite word “like” originates here, and slang words like “hella” and “rocking” come from this region as well.
The Hawaiian accent
The accent of the Hawaiian islands is unique due to the influences that are present in the isolated landmass. One-fourth of the Hawaiian population speaks a language other than English at home, and these languages contribute to the local dialect known as Hawaiian Pidgin. Historically, the Cantonese, Portuguese, Japanese, and Filipino languages were all spoken by plantation workers, which developed into Hawaiian Pidgin to facilitate communication, with Hawaiian as the base language. The grammar is simplified and words are borrowed from contributing languages.
Hawaiian Pidgin has characteristics similar to many familiar accents — the dropped “r” sound, the “th” sound pronounced as a “d” sound — but it also has some unique sounds. Like in the Hawaiian language, Hawaiian Pidgin speakers tend to pronounce the state as “hah-WAH-ee.” When there are multiple consonants in a row, they combine to a single sound. For example, the word “three” becomes “tree,” and the word “street” becomes “sch-treeet.”