Sep. 9, 2011 at 9:16 AM ET
Although the United States is an international melting pot and the average American makes a dozen moves in a lifetime, regional accents are alive and well. In fact, regional accents are becoming stronger and more different from each other, says William Labov, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, although it's not entirely clear why.
One possibility, says Labov, is that these original sound differences are being exaggerated, like trains moving in opposite directions on two railroad tracks. "The other is that dialect differences have become associated with political differences, so that the Blue States/Red States division comes close to the boundary between the Northern and Midland dialects," he explains.
Labov says that our dialects change little after age 18 and we tend to retain the accent we grew up with. Young people first match the dialects of their parents, but then they often change to match their peers. These changes, though, are unconscious, he explains.
Linguists say there are about ten major regional accents in the US, such as New England, mid-Atlantic, Inland North, for the cities surrounding the Great Lakes, and the West, the country's newest dialect. While some people sound more regional than others, everyone has an accent to some degree.
Some people are simply better at repressing some aspects of their local speech. The way they talk -- their pronounciation of words (some "r-less" dialects on the East Coast may say "cah" rather than "car") or choice of words ("pail" in the North versus "bucket" in the Midwest) -- adds a local flavor and diversity to speech. But it can also contribute to misunderstandings and confusion (hearing the word "buses" as "bosses").
While some people keep their regional speech styles because it's the hallmark of who they are and a tie to their communities, certain accents may have negative stereotypes or societal prejudices associated with them, says Amee Shah, director of the Research Laboratory in Speech Acoustics & Perception at Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Although there's nothing wrong with a regional accent, some people become ashamed or self-conscious of them for either personal or professional reasons and they want to tone them down.
Shah, who has training as a speech-language pathologist and has designed an assessment tool to measure the severity of accented speech, offers "accent modification therapy" to clients. Shah says a strong accent might take six to eight months to modify, a moderate one three or four months, and a light accent a month or two.
"My goal is to help a client modify an accent, not to correct or reduce it," says Shah.
Have you ever misunderstood a regional accent (with humorous results)? Or do you lapse into regional speech patterns when home?