NOTE: This guide uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For information about this notation, please visit my page of International Phonetic Alphabet Resources.
There are obviously many North American accents. For reference, here is a list of only the most common classifications in the United States and Canada.
This refers to the spectrum of ‘standard’ English spoken by newscasters, TV actors, and a large percentage of middle-class Americans.
- The short-a (as in cat) is raised and diphthongized before nasal consonants. Hence man and can’t are pronounced something like IPA meən and keənt (“meh-uhn” and “keh-uhnt.”)
- Rhotic, meaning the r is pronounced at the end of words like car and mother.
- Words like lot and rod are pronounced with an unrounded vowel, as lɑt and ɹɑd (“laht” and “rahd”).
- The diphthong in words like boat and rode is pronounced relatively back: i.e. IPA boʊt and roʊd
- Actor Topher Grace (wait till after the ad at the beginning).
- News Anchor Brian Williams.
- Doctor and writer Atul Gawande.
Eastern New England English
This describes the classic “Boston Accent.” It also refers to related accents in Eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Eastern New Hampshire and Eastern Connecticut. The most important feature of this is non-rhoticity: unlike other American accents, New Englanders drop the “r” at the end of syllables. Hence the famous phrase “pahk yuh cahr in hahvuhd yahd” (Park your car in Harvard Yard).
- Non-rhoticity, as mentioned above.
- Fronted pronunciation of words like father and palm, so these are pronounced IPA faðə and pa:m (i.e. this vowel is close to the vowel in words like “cat” and “mad” in General American).
- Unlike most other American accents, the vowel in lot and rod is rounded as in most British dialects, pronounced IPA lɒt and ɹɒd (“lawt” and “rawd”). Note that this feature is less prevalent in some sub-dialects, such as Rhode Island.
- Survivor contestant Rob Mariano (again, wait till the ad ends).
- Boston Mayor Thomas Menino
- Maine Governor Paul LePage.
New York City English
One of the more famous American accents, the classic “New Yorkese” has been immortalized by films (“Goodfellas,” “Marty,” and “Manhattan,” among countless others), TV shows (“All in the Family,” “Seinfeld,” “King of Queens”) and plays (“A View from the Bridge,” “Lost in Yonkers,” “Guys and Dolls”).
- Non-rhoticity: see explanation above.
- Tense-lax split: this is a bit hard to explain. In New York City the short-a in words like cat, mad, can’t and last follows a complex set of rules whereby some words are pronounced tensely (slightly higher in the mouth) while other words are pronounced laxly (lower in the mouth).
- The long-a in words like father and cart is often pronounced back and sometimes rounded: i.e. IPA fɒ:ðə and kɒ:t (“fawthuh” and “kawt”).
- The vowel in words like thought, north and dog are pronounced is high and diphthongized, pronounced IPA θʊət, nʊəθ, and dʊəg (“thaw-uht,” “naw-uht” and “daw-uhg”).
Not to be confused with another meaning of “mid-Atlantic English” that describes the old-fashioned British-sounding accents you hear in movies from the 1930s. This “Mid-Atlantic” refers to the American accents spoken along the urban corridor from the Philadelphia area to Baltimore. It sounds slightly similar to New York City, but with a few major differences.
- Tense-lax split, similar to New York City (see explanation above).
- Rhotic: unlike New York City, the r is pronounced at the end of car, mother, fur, etc.
- The vowel in long-a words like father and palm is often back and rounded (i.e. “fawther,” “pawm,” etc.) as in New York City.
- As in New York City, the vowel in thought and dog is pronounced with a high vowel. In the Mid-Atlantic, this tends to be further back: IPA θoət and doəg (“thoh-ut” and “doh-ug”).
- The diphthong in words like right and kite is raised before voiceless consonants so that kite is pronounced something like IPA kəit (that is, “kuh-eet”).
- The diphthong in words like goat and road is pronounced fronter in the mouth than in General American accents: hence coat becomes IPA kəʊt.
- The “oo” sounds in words like goose and food is pronounced more forward in the mouth than in General American: IPA gʉs and fʉd.
Coastal/Lowland Southern English
This is the “classic southern” accent that you typically see in films about Civil War or Plantation life. In contemporary times, the accent is arguably dying out.
- Non-rhotic. Unlike most non-rhotic dialects however, there is often no linking r between a final r and a vowel sound. So, for example, “better idea” would be pronounced “bettuh idea”
- Vowel breaking. This means that in words with short vowels like cat and dress, these vowels can turn into diphthongs (or even triphthongs). So cat can become IPA kæjət for example (i.e. “ka-jut”).
- The diphthong in words like ride and lime tends to be pronounced as a monopthong: i.e. IPA ɹa:d and la:m. Note that in lowland southern accents, unlike the inland south, this is still usually a diphthong before unvoiced consonants.
- All vowels tend to be pronounced longer than in northern American accents.
- The vowel in words like thought and long tends to be a diphthong, traditionally IPA ɔo. (That is, caught in this dialect sounds nearly like “coat” as it is pronounced in General American accents).
- Author Shelby Foote(from Mississippi).
- South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond.
- Rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis (from Louisiana).
This is the other Southern dialect, sometimes perceived as more guttural. You hear this accent amongst Appalachian natives, Texans, Tennesseeans and many others.
- Pin-pen merger: This means that words ending in -in, -en, -im and -em are pronounced with the same vowel (this why when somebody from this region says “Ben” is sounds a bit like “bin” to a Northerner.)
- Vowel breaking: see explanation under Coastal/Lowland Southern above.
- The vowel in words like thought and dog is diphthongized, as in Coastal/Lowland Southern, although here it tends to be a lower: IPA ɑɒ.
- The oo sound in goose is more fronted than in General American accents: IPA gʉs.
- The long-o in words like goat is also more fronted than in General American (as in Midatlantic English, described above).
- The diphthong in words like ride and right tends to be a monophthong, as in Coastal/Lowland Southern. However, in this dialect this diphthong tends to be pronounced as a monophthong whether before an voiceless or voiced consonant.
- Country music great Loretta Lynn.
- TV personality Phil McGraw (from Texas).
- Tennessee governor Bill Haslam.
Great Lakes English
This is the accent usually associated with a phenomenon known as the “Northern Cities Vowel Shift.” You can hear this accent in Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester and Cleveland.
- The e in bet can be retracted, to something like IPA bɜt (hence bet can sound slightly like “but.”)
- The short a in cat and bad can be extremely raised and diphthongized, as far as IPA ɪə. To outsiders cat can sound like “kee-uht.”
- The o in lot is forward and unrounded, so top becomes IPA tap (that is, to outsiders this can sound like “tap.”)
- The u in but can is often back and rounded: i.e. cut becomes IPA kɔt. (But can sound to General American speakers like “bought.”)
Upper Midwestern English
This is the dialect that was made famous by the film “Fargo.” It is mostly heard in Minnesota, North Dakota and a few areas in Iowa. It is related to the Great Lakes dialect, although with some substantial differences.
- The vowel sound in goat is often a strong monopthong, becoming IPA go:t (i.e. “gawwwt”).
- The prosody (musicality) of the dialect is often influenced by the various Germanic languages that were spoken in the region well into the Twentieth-Century.
- Most other features are fairly similar to Great Lakes English, with some difference depending on the specific region.
Midland American Accents
This is a vague term that applies to the American accents that lie between North and South, in states like Missouri, Southern Indiana, Southern Illisnois, Southern Pennsylvania, Kansas, Oklahoma, and pockets of a few other states. Accents here vary a good deal, but can best be described as being a combination of Northern and Southern features.
Prominent Features:There’s enough variety here that it is hard to pin down widespread features of this dialect area.
- Singer Melissa Ethridge(from Kansas).
Western American Accents
This category covers the largest amount of territory, including most of the Mountain and Western states. Accents here can vary from sounding slightly Southern (as in parts of Colorado) to having a bit of a Canadian flavor (the Pacific Northwest).
Prominent Features: The one dominant feature here is something liguists call the Cot-Caught Merger meaning that words like thought, paw and caught are pronounced with the same vowel as not, cod and rock.
- Punk rocker Billie Joe Armstrong (from California).
- Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain (from Washington State).
- Tattoo artist Kat Von D (from Los Angeles).
Central Canadian English
We include Canadian accents in this American accents survey because they are part of the same dialect spectrum as the US. This accent is probably closest to English on the West Coast of the United States, which is rather remarkable in the case of cities like Toronto that are hundreds of miles away from the Pacific!
- Most features are fairly similar to General American accents, with slightly different placing of the vowels.
- Caught-Cot Merger, as in Western American accents (see explanation in that section, above).
- Canadian Raising: The diphthongs in words like about and right are raised before voiceless consonants. Hence about becomes something like IPA əbɐʊt and right becomes something like IPA ɹɐit (i.e. “uh-boat” and “ruh-eet”).
Eastern Canadian English
This curious dialect group can be found in the Provinces of the Atlantic Coast. Many of these dialects maintain some Scottish or Irish features, as they were first settled by these groups. The most notable of these accents is the Newfoundland Dialect, which in some cases sounds much more like an Irish accent than a North American one. Other areas in the region, however, sound more like Central/Western Canada.
Of course, there are many more American accents than this. These are just the largest groupings of accents. There are any number of sub-dialects that are quite unique (New Orleans, African American Vernacular English, Chicago, etc.). Hopefully this guide will serve as a good jumping off point.