Lexical and Phonetic Variation in English Dialects
Updated: Apr 14
This blog is based on the "Pop or Soda" project on LanguageARC. To participate, click here.
Pronunciation and Phonetic Differences Across English Speaking Regions
Different English speaking regions have their own unique lexical and phonetic characteristics. The Pop or Soda project on LanguageARC aims to elicit a corpus that represents the diversity of regional vocabulary, mainly focusing on English spoken in the United States.
The Atlas of North American English was created to study pronunciation or phonetic differences of dialects of English in North America. Linguists Labov, Ash, and Boberg made several observations including defining different dialect regions in North America and noting their most distinctive pronunciation aspects. The data was collected through informal phone interviews. Below are some of the many observations made about phonetic differences in the various regions of North America (Canada and the United States).
The North, or upper Midwest and western New England has a distinctive vowel shift that this group of linguists called the “Northern Cities Vowel Shift”. One of the features included in this vowel shift is /æ/ raising (or short-a raising). This gives distinct pronunciation differences from other areas, and can almost create a diphthong in certain words. An example would be pronouncing the word trap [træp] more like tray-up [treɪʌp]. Canada also has its own form of a vowel shift, and some features include the lowering and backing of front vowels. Some examples would be pronouncing think [θɪŋk] like thenk [θɛŋk] and slept [slɛpt] like slapped [slæpt]. New England English sometimes features non-rhoticity (or not pronouncing r’s at the end of words). This feature is also found frequently in New York City English, along with the same /æ/ raising the North has. The Mid-Atlantic dialect, especially in Philadelphia and Baltimore, features rhoticity (pronununciation of the r at the end of words) and fronting of back vowels especially when pronouncing words with -aw [ɔː], ow [aʊ] and oo [uː] sounds at the end. In Southern dialects, the diphthong /ai/ often turns into the monophthong /a/. So, the word ride [raɪd] might be pronounced like rad [rad] or rod [rɒd]. There’s also a phenomenon called Southern vowel breaking where the opposite happens: a monophthong becomes a diphthong. For example, yap [jæp] might be pronounced like yeah-up [jeə ʌp].
Of course, the above list is not expansive, and does not represent every speaker living in a certain area; there are always exceptions, especially when people move around and speak multiple languages.
Is a fizzy, bubbly drink called “pop" or "soda"? Well, as it turns out, both (and other words) are used in different parts of the United States and beyond. Many words and expressions we use daily in English vary depending on the region. These differences in dialect make for interesting variations in English and even confusion- a certain word used may not be recognized by speakers outside the region that uses it. Below are some words that vary throughout the United States, along with pictures of the entity for clarity.
New England: Grinder
Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire: Tonic (This name is gradually declining)
North Dakota, Minnesota: Pop
West Coast, New England, Mid Atlantic: Soda
Mountain West: Soda pop
You, plural, used to address a group
New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago: Yous/ Youse (More common among older generations)
West: You guys
Northeast, South, Lower Midwest: Water fountain
West, Parts of Upper Midwest: Drinking fountain
Northeast, South Florida: Sneakers
Rest of the United States: Tennis shoes
Lexical Variation in the Rest of the World
There are many countries that speak English as a majority language other than the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
Antigua and Barbuda
St Kitts and Nevis
St Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
Of course, other countries have speakers of English as well, but the countries listed below are where the percentage of English speakers is more than 50%.
These places also have their own unique lexical and phonetic characteristics in their variety of English. Sneakers or tennis shoes are called a variety of different names all around the world. Below are some examples.
sneakers/ tennis shoes
trainers/ running shoes
gym/ sport shoes
Head to LanguageARC to participate in "Pop" or "Soda"? and other citizen science language projects. Find LanguageARC on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, or heard directly to the LanguageARC website to contribute. Look forward to more blog updates in the future.
Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change. Walter de Gruyter, 2008.