Wednesday, February 6, 2013

United States of Languages: South Atlantic

The last couple of weeks we've done a regular series on the linguistic diversity of the United States. We started in New England before heading down to the Mid-Atlantic. In the second week we covered the Midwest in two parts, first the East, then the West. Now we're heading south to the South Atlantic.


The first to ratify the Constitution, Delaware was the first U.S. state. Technically, Delaware was the whole United States for five days while it waited for Pennsylvania to sign up.

Delaware has a largely English-speaking population and has even tried to adopt English as the official language, though this legislation failed. Roughly one in twenty Delawareans speak Spanish in the home. Around 0.7% of the population speaks French and one out of one hundred Delawareans speak Chinese or German, with each accounting for 0.5% of the population.

Cardinal Cove, Patuxent River, Maryland

As Maryland boasts the current Super Bowl champions, we reckon most of the state is only "talking football" at the minute. Outside of celebrating sporting victories, most Marylanders speak English. 4.7% of the population speaks Spanish, while nearly 1% speak French, Chinese, and Korean. Several African languages have large numbers of speakers as well, including Swahili and Somali.

District of Columbia

We know it's not a state, but Washington, D.C. has to be included somewhere since it is the capital. We're not going to get into why the capital of the United States isn't actually in a state. Just think of it like a manager that's never willing to get their hands dirty. Named after George Washington, the federal district is home to over 600,000 people. The majority of Washingtonians (those from the northwestern state of Washington go by the same name) speak English, though nearly 10% speak Spanish and 1.7% speak French. 


The Commonwealth of Virginia is the birthplace of eight U.S. presidents including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, earning it the moniker "Mother of Presidents". Most states would consider themselves lucky to be able to claim just one president as their own. English has been the official language of the state since 1981, though other languages still have large numbers of speakers. Spanish ranks second, but Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino are also well-represented in Virginia. 

The New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville, West Virginia
was once the world's longest steel single-span arch bridge.
West Virginia

This small state nestled in the Appalachian Mountains was originally part of Virginia, but broke off to create its own state during the Civil War. Virginia had joined the Confederacy, but West Virginians disagreed with secession from the Union, so they formed their own state in 1863 and abolished slavery in the area soon after. 

It's hard to know why, but West Virginia has the smallest number of foreign-born residents. It also has the lowest percentage of citizens that speak a language besides English at home, with 2.7%. Perhaps the mountainous terrain just wasn't as appealing to immigrants as the farmlands of the Midwest.

North Carolina

The "Tar Heel State" likely got its nickname due to fact that tar made from pine forests was a major part of the state's economy early in its history, though the origins of the term have never been confirmed. The English spoken in North Carolina usually involves a typically Southern accent, such as pronouncing "can't" as if it rhymes with "paint". Most North Carolinians speak English, the official language since 1987, but 5% speak Spanish at home, and some Chinese and Arabic speakers can also be found in the state.

Millford Plantation, used as the South Carolina
governor's mansion in the 1850s.
South Carolina

Shockingly, South Carolina can be found just below North Carolina on the map. Historically speaking, South Carolinians have been quite the revolutionary group. South Carolina was the first of the original 13 colonies to declare independence from the British Crown, as well as the first to vote to secede from the Union during the Civil War. Clearly South Carolinians like their independence. 

The colony was originally named in honor of King Charles I of England, with Carolina coming from the Latin Carolus, meaning "Charles". Most residents speak English with a Southern accent, which in the city of Charleston may involve adding a glide after a long vowel, such as pronouncing "eight" ay-uht. Spanish, French, German, and Chinese are also spoken by small groups in the state. 


The state of Georgia (not to be confused with the Eastern European country of the same name) was named for King George II of Great Britain. English has been the official language of the state since 1996, though a good number of Georgians speak Spanish, French, German, Vietnamese, and Korean at home. 

There are also a number of speakers of the Gullah language living in the state. It is most often used on the Sea Islands, a chain of barrier islands on the Atlantic coast along South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Gullah is an English-based creole that is heavily influenced by various African languages and is spoken by the Gullah people, who are mainly descendants of slaves brought to America from Africa. Today, the language has about 250,000 speakers.

Florida's also home to plenty of American alligators. 

Throughout our journey, we've encountered the British states around New England and the French states of the Midwest. Now, we're finally at one of the Spanish states, the Sunshine State. Expect a lot of Spanish! In fact, almost twenty percent of Floridians speak Spanish. There's also a large presence of Haitian Creole, with nearly two percent of Floridians speaking the language.

Florida is one of the states with the largest number of speakers of a language other than English. More than a quarter of Floridians speak a language other than the state's official language, which was adopted as English in 1988. There have been found to be over 150 languages spoken in Florida, making it one of the most multilingual states in the country.

Tomorrow we'll continue our exploration of the Southern states, including Tennessee and Alabama.