Friday, August 1, 2014

The Homogeneity of American English

As an American living in the UK over the past year, I've been constantly reminded of just how homogeneous American English is. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked what "type of accent" I have, and how it differs from other accents spoken in my part of the United States. As I love talking about language, the question doesn't bother me. It just feels like an odd question, because American English is so incredibly similar across the vast expanse of land that makes up the United States.

The UK is quite small compared to the United States. It's about the size of Oregon. Yet linguistically, it is incredibly diverse. I certainly can't name all of the accents, or dialects if you prefer, of British English, but there are tons of them. In the area around Newcastle upon Tyne, people speak with a Geordie accent, which is distinguishable from the Mackem accent spoken by people from Sunderland. These two cities are 15 miles apart. 

The Old Capitol in Iowa City, Iowa
To an American, this seems completely ridiculous. It takes half an hour to reach a different dialect area in the UK. To do the same from my home in Iowa, I'd probably have to drive for closer to half a day. Sure, there are some small regional vocabulary and pronunciation differences in the United States, but nothing on the scale of accents in the UK. The UK varieties are so different that they have commonly-used names, like Geordie, Mackem, Brummie, Cockney, Scouse, Yorkshire, Manc, and on and on.

In the United States, I can discern a Southern accent from a New England accent, but that doesn't really provide much geographic information as to where the speaker is from. I doubt most Americans could discern the difference between a Southern accent from South Carolina and one from Texas, even though they're separated by over 1,000 miles. Yet in Britain, many people can tell, with quite good accuracy, what small geographic area a person is from.

I speak with what has been dubbed the "General American" accent due to its lack of regional characteristics, which is heard across the world in American television and film. When people ask me what accent I speak with, I never know how to respond. I usually end up having to explain that I sound like pretty much everyone else in the United States. 

It's almost a game in Britain when you meet someone to see if you can figure out where they're from based on their accent. I am absolutely fascinated by the immense diversity of dialects in the UK, but at the same time, I can't help but think that it's also kind of nice that my accent is so "boring" and widespread. It makes life just a tiny bit more exciting, to know that the person I've just met has no idea where I'm from based on how I speak. Instead of playing the British dialect game, Americans just have to ask "Where are you from?", and only then do I get to enjoy the endless jokes about potatoes (that's Idaho) and living in a "flyover state"...