The Other American Dialects

The Amish

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When we discuss ‘American dialects,’ we usually focus on English. And yet there are many other languages that have taken up root in the United States, a country with no real official tongue. Have non-English languages exhibited the same variety?

The question was on my mind while reading Steven Hartman Keiser’s recent Pennsylvania German in the American Midwest*, published by The American Dialect Society. Most people, when they think of Pennsylvania German, think of it as being native to the Amish in Lancaster County.  Yet the majority of its speakers live in small mid-Midwestern communities in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa. And like English, an East/West divide has developed, with Pennsylvania on one side and the Midwest on the other.

One of the most striking differences between these two dialects slightly resembles the difference between Northern and Southern American English: the [aɪ] diphthong becomes a monophthong in Midwestern Pennsylvania German. The vowel is also often fronted and raised, so where a PG speaker from Lancaster County might pronounce the name of his own language, Deitsch, as [daɪʧ], a speaker from Ohio might pronounce this same word as [dæ:ʧ]. (For the phonetically uninclined, the Pennsylvania pronunciation uses the vowel in English ‘kite,’ while the the Midwestern pronunciation nearly rhymes with English ‘batch‘).

Many of the other differences relate to the degree to which dialects have (or have not) been influenced by English. For example, Pennsylvania German has adopted the norms of Pennsylvania English /r/ and /l/.  For the former, /r/ is often pronounced with the English approximant [ɹ] (this occurs in Midwestern PG as well, but less frequently). Pennsylvania PG also uses a ‘dark’ /l/ at the end of words, as in English, and in some cases has the tendency to turn /l/ into a vowel the way Mid-Atlantic English speakers do (for example, the word elsht, meaning ‘oldest,’ is sometimes pronounced as [ɛʊʃt]).

As this suggests, assessing differences in non-English American languages often involves the degree to which English interferes. I would suspect that different communities of Spanish speakers in America, for example, incorporate English loan words at different rates. But there is probably as much variation within communities in this regard as between them.

Keiser finds this to be the case when he studies rates of loan-word acquisition. While he suggests that the Lancaster Amish may use more English loans than other communities, the East-West chasm is less salient than differences between smaller enclaves (The Pennsylvania Amish seem to borrow English words more frequently than, say, Pennsylvania Mennonites).

Conversely, it’s difficult to discuss non-English American dialects without discussing the countries whence they came.  The Spanish spoken in a community of predominantly Dominican immigrants is obviously going to be very different from a Mexican-American community. The question is whether non-English languages are actually splitting into distinctive dialects within the US.

As Keiser’s study shows, this is quite possible. Yet English will perhaps always dominate such discussions. Are there other examples of dialect evolution in America that don’t involve interference from English?

*Keiser, S. H. (2012). Pennsylvania German in the American Midwest. Durham, NC: The American Dialect Society.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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5 Responses to The Other American Dialects

  1. CC says:

    What about Native American languages?

    I myself actually haven’t looked much the subject myself, but off the top of my head I can think of one example. Cherokee has developed into a east vs. west branch fairly recently, mainly because of one group being in Oklahoma and another being in North Carolina.

    Then of course there is the same issues of English loans and the like that you mentioned going on with many European languages here. Heavy second language learning of Native American languages is certainly another factor that comes into play for them.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a very good point, CC. Many Amerindian languages in the US are nearly moribund. But I believe I read at one point (can’t remember where) that Navajo has seen quite a large increase in the number of English borrowings over the past few decades. I would not be surprised if the same were true of other languages, such as Inuktitut.

  2. I have been wondering if Mike Bloomberg’s Spanish sounds so odd (including to native and at-home speakers of various Spanish dialects in NY) is because he’s speaking in Bostonense (or Bostoñol).

  3. Katie Regan says:

    Late comment, but this post got me thinking. The Pennsylvania Dutch don’t just live in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. The community that my paternal grandparents live in (around Lexington, NC) was traditionally split between the Anglophone settlers of English/Irish/Scotch-Irish heritage and German speaking settlers from Pennsylvania German country, mostly around Lancaster County and the old Germantown area of Philadelphia. From what I understand, the English settlers came only slightly before the PG ones, who mostly came in the 1760′s-70′s. My direct paternal line is mostly English – these English ancestors came from the Virginia coast in a second wave of migration in the 1770′s-90′s. My grandma’s line is almost entirely PG.

    Anyway, what I find interesting is that there are a few traces of the PG accent still left in the way my grandparents speak, especially my grandma, which could possibly be attributed to the fact that their community was traditionally quite isolated and few moved in or out. They sound Southern for the most part, but there’s always been something I felt was different about their speech as opposed to the rest of that part of the state. The culture was certainly still present, though disappearing, when they were young: My grandpa (who is 89 years old) even remembers the older members of his mother’s family speaking what he described as “German” to each other.

    But then, I’m just about the furthest thing from a professional linguist, so this could just be wishful thinking on my part. Still, it would be very interesting to study what remains of PG speech and culture in North Carolina. For a language which was brought to the area in the 1760′s to survive until at least the 1930′s is pretty impressive.

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