Wednesday, January 23, 2013

United States of Languages: New England

While you may think of the United States of America as a country full of English speakers, there's actually quite a lot of linguistic diversity to be found. There are tons of little-known indigenous Native American languages, as well as the languages of all the various settlers who have come to the country over the past few hundred years. We'll be spending the next few weeks unearthing the linguistic secrets of the United States by region, starting with the Northeast. Our journey begins today with the New England states.

Acadia National Park, Maine

Right in the Northeast of the U.S. with Canada bordering to the north, Maine has the highest percentage of French speakers of any state. This is partly due to the large number of descendants of Quebecois immigrants who arrived towards the end of the 19th century. The French speakers are found in the north of the state and refer to themselves as Acadians. 5.28% of Maine residents speak French at home.

There were also large numbers of Irish, Italian and Polish settlers in the early part of the 20th century. However, less than a tenth of a percent speak the language of their ancestors rather than English.

The English found in Maine is considered a typical "Yankee" accent, and it is common that the final /r/ is absent from words, much like British English.

Maine also has a unique lexicon. What most Americans would call "pancakes" are referred to as "fritters" by the Mainers, which is what the people of Maine are called!

Fall colors in a New Hampshire forest.
New Hampshire

The linguistic diversity of the New Hampshire is quite similar to that of its northern neighbor, Maine. French is the second most-spoken language in the state, with 3.41% of New Hampshirites speaking it at home. Most of the French speakers are descendants of Québécois immigrants who worked in mills. The northernmost county in the state boasts one of the highest proportions of French speakers in the U.S., with 16% of its inhabitants speaking French at home.

The variety of English spoken in New Hampshire is a typically northern accent, with the same missing final /r/ as in Maine. Some New Hampshirites also use the term "eaves spouts" for "gutters".

Lake Champlain, Vermont

One of the least populous states (Washington, D.C. has a larger population!), Vermont is quite similar linguistically to Maine and New Hampshire, and similarly has one of the largest populations of people of French-Canadian ancestry. 2.54% of Vermonters speak French at home. Many of the state's inhabitants are of British ancestry as well, hence the large majority of English speakers. One lexical difference from its neighboring states is the tendency to refer to "gutters" as "eaves troughs". And no, our minds are not stuck in the gutter.

Massachusetts State House, Boston

Unlike Vermont, Massachusetts is full of people as the third most densely populated state. In 2008, the state had nearly one million foreign-born residents. The first large immigrant groups to settle in the state were the Irish in the 19th century. Québécois, Italian, and Polish settlers arrived later, and in the 20th century, most new immigrants came from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The state is also home to many descendants of Portuguese immigrants who came from the Azores to work in the whaling and textile industries. 2.7% of Bay Staters, as citizens of Massachusetts are called, speak Portuguese at home.

The state is also home to the second largest Cambodian community in the country, with .4% of the state speaking some variety from the Mon-Khmer language family. In addition, the Wampanoag and Nipmuck tribes have various reservations across the state. Both tribes historically spoke the Massachusett language, which is also known as Wampanoag and is currently in the process of a revival movement.

The English spoken in the state is usually considered a typical northern accent, though the pronunciation of vowels somewhat differs in the Boston area. The /r/ also disappears after vowels as in other New England states.

Claiborne Pell Bridge in Newport, Rhode Island
Rhode Island

Despite being the smallest state, Rhode Island has the second highest population density in the country. Rhode Islanders are fairly typical for New England. There are significant populations of French and Portuguese speakers, but the second most-spoken language in this state is Spanish. The majority of  the 8.1% of Rhode Islanders who speak Spanish at home are of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Guatemalan descent. Rhode Island is also home to large numbers of African immigrants, especially from Liberia, Cape Verde, Nigeria, and Ghana. Roughly half a percent of Rhode Islanders speak an African language at home.

Bear Mountain, Connecticut

If you guessed that the linguistic diversity of Connecticut is similar to that of its fellow New England states, you're right. However, as we've moved farther south, the number of French speakers has dropped dramatically. Only 1.3% of Connecticuters (don't ask us to pronounce that!) speak French at home. As in Rhode Island, Spanish is the second most-spoken language after English, with 8.4% speaking the language at home. English spoken in the state is once again considered a northern accent, though some speakers also use what is referred to as the "intrustive /r/", in which an /r/ is added as a link between two vowels, such as pronouncing swallow it as "swaller it".

We hope you've enjoyed our little linguistic tour of New England. We'll be covering the Mid-Atlantic region tomorrow!