12 Unique Accents And Dialects You Can Only Find In Specific Places In the United States
The United States is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world; as of 2020, it was estimated that between 350 and 430 different languages are spoken in the nation. English is the most widely spoken, followed by Spanish.
But there are also dialects that are spoken by a much smaller number of people who reside in specific parts of the US. These lesser-known dialects include the brogue spoken by the residents of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks region, the Cajun French of Louisiana, and the pidgin that was developed by people who came to the Hawaiian Islands to work on the sugar plantations.
Some of these dialects, like the mixture of colonial-era British English and Tidewater spoken by some of the residents of Tangier Island in Virginia or the Boontling heard in the Northern California community of Boonville, are in danger of dying off, as younger generations haven't been taught the language. But there is hope that these, as well as many of the other lesser-known dialects spoken by residents of the US, can be preserved - and possibly even revived - before it's too late.
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Tangier Island, VA, Residents Speak 'A Mixture Of Colonial-Era Brogue And Virginia Tidewater Twang'
Tangier Island is located in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, about 90 miles southeast of Washington, DC. As of 2018, the small (1.2-square-mile) island was home to fewer than 500 residents. It has only one road and the only way to get or from it is by boat.
The island was first settled by immigrants from Cornwall, England, in the 1770s. Although those first settlers were mainly farmers, in the 21st century, the primary industries on the island revolve around commercial fishing and crabbing.
What does still remain from the earliest settlers is the unique dialect spoken by Tangier Island's residents - which can be described as colonial British English with a Virginia Tidewater accent. As David Shores, author of Tangier Island: Place, People and Talk, explained to the BBC in 2018:
This island has been so geographically isolated for all these years that it’s kept relics of its earliest settlers’ speech - likely lower-class British men. Then instead of absorbing linguistic patterns from the mainland, it developed its own colourful characteristics independently.
The dialect is so unique that some visitors have complained that they couldn't understand the residents when they visited the island. So one local, Bruce Gordy, decided back in the early 2000s to put together a list of expressions that are only used on Tangier Island. He shared sone of these with the reporter from the BBC:
If you smell, you "have the meebs." If it’s cold, "Hawkins is here." If you’re asleep, you’re "in the sweet peas." Want something to eat? Then you "mug up." But if you only want crackers or sweets, then you need to specify "nabs" or "nugs." And if someone says you’re "selling cakes," it has nothing to do with food. And "No boy" means your fly is down.
But as the island has gotten more modern conveniences and the outside world has become easier for the residents to access, older residents like Gordy have begun to worry that this unique dialect may be disappearing. He related:
My grandsons have satellite TV and don’t understand a lot of the phrases anymore. I hate to see unique things that have worked so well for us coalesce into a bland way of speaking.
And it's not just the language that is in danger of disappearing. Due to rising water levels caused by climate change, about 9 acres of the island erode into Chesapeake Bay every year. Unless a sea wall is built to protect the island, it is feared that residents may have to evacuate by 2037, and that the island could be completely underwater by 2050.
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Once A Banned Language, Cajun French Has Seen A Revival In Louisiana In Recent Years
In Louisiana, there are several types of French or French-based creole languages that are still spoken. The one spoken by the largest percentage of the population is Cajun French. It is estimated that as of 2018, approximately 150,000 to 200,000 people in the state could speak the language.
Cajun French is a mixture of colonial French, Acadian French - which was introduced to Louisiana by settlers from French-speaking parts of Canada (who were driven out of the country by the British) - English, and the languages of local Native Americans.
Cajun French was considered by some as being outdated and vulgar. In 1921, the Louisiana Constitution was changed to make sure that all school activities were conducted in English. Much of the Acadian population at the time was illiterate, yet not only were their children forced to attend schools where they didn't know the language used to teach the subjects, but they would also be punished if they spoke French at school.
As Earlene Broussard Echeverria, a teacher of Cajun French at Louisiana State University (LSU), told television station WAFB in 2009:
It was a sense of [powerlessness] and frustration. You can't even ask how to go to the bathroom without being punished.
Echeverria added that, when parents saw how their children were being treated in school, they stopped teaching them Cajun French:
There was a stigma attached to speaking French since 1910. This is America - the land of assimilation.
But in the late 1960s, a push to not only preserve but also revive the language emerged. In 1968, a legislative act created the Counsel for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), whose purpose is to teach the French population in the state how to read and write Cajun French while also promoting teaching it in English schools.
In 1998, LSU created a Cajun French program. In 2018, a man named Luke Romero launched an app called LearnCajun in an attempt to preserve the language and culture of his ancestors and make it accessible to more people. Upon its launch, the app consisted of a database of around 90 words and phrases, such as "pas bon petit" ("bad boy") and "canaille" ("mischievous").
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As Of 2008, Less Than Five People Were Thought To Be Fluent In Chemehuevi
If someone said "Nük Nuw" to you, they would be telling you that they are Chemehuevi.
The Chemehuevi are Native Americans who can be found living in various Western and Rocky Mountain states. The name is thought to either be a Mohave term meaning "those who play with fish," or a Quechan term meaning "nose in the air like a road runner."
Their language is part of the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. But very few people can speak Chemehuevi; when filming interviews for the 2008 documentary The Linguists, K. David Harrison and Greg Anderson could only find three people who were fluent in the language.
In recent years, tribe members have taken steps to try and preserve the language. For example, in 2015, Siwavaats Junior College in Havasu Lake, CA, was established in order to try and help Chemehuevi children become fluent in the language. The driving force behind this educational push was June Leivas, who had spent several years teaching language classes and writing a dictionary consisting of approximately 2,500 words.
As she told The Havasu News:
We don’t have a written language so it wasn’t until about five years ago [c. 2010] that I came up with phonetics that I was happy with.
Leivas explained that the Chemehuevi language is difficult to learn because it has a different rhythm than English and, due to of cultural reasons, it doesn't have terms for some very common English words:
There are no words for please and thank you. It’s not considered rude to give orders. And there are no good byes, only see you later pikaiyumppu [because goodbyes imply you won’t be seeing that person again].
The consonants J, R, B, and L are also absent from the alphabet because the sounds made by those letters aren't used in the Chemehuevi language.
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Ocracoke Island In North Carolina Has Its Ocracoke Brogue
Located in the southernmost part of the Outer Banks region of North Carolina, Ocracoke Island is about 18 miles off the coast of the mainland. Pronounced "oh-crah-coke," the origin of the island's name is unclear; some believe it was named by the original Native American residents, while another legend claims the name was given to it by the pirate Blackbeard, who allegedly could be heard crying “Oh, Crow, Cock!” before the sun rose, in anticipation of an upcoming battle.
Regardless of how it got its name, the island was discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585 when he was exploring the North Carolina coast. It was permanently settled by English immigrants in the 1700s.
The dialect used by O'cockers - natives of the island - is called the Ocracoke brogue. It is similar to the dialects spoken in other parts of the Outer Banks, but has some aspects that are unique to the island.
Walt Wolfram, director of the Language and Life Project at North Carolina State University, explained a few of these unique expressions:
Only on Ocracoke do they play "meehonkey" (hide and seek) at night with a "buck" [a good (male) friend] and go "up the beach" (off the island) to shop.
Other examples of the Ocracoke brogue include:
dingbatter (n.): A nonnative of Ocracoke or the Outer Banks
mommuck (v.): To harass or bother
quamished (adj.): Sick to the stomach
O'cockers may also do things like substituting "to" for "at" or "on." So instead of saying "She's on (or at) the dock," a native of the island might say "She's to the dock."
Wolfram has debunked the theory that the Ocracoke brogue was derived from Shakespearean English. He claims, "That’s romantic, but not quite right."
The sociolinguist said the brogue is actually based on a variety of dialects from Ireland, eastern England, and southwestern England - all places that the island's earliest settlers were from.
Wolfram worries that, with Ocracoke's economy increasingly being based on the tourist trade, the unique dialect will soon disappear:
Unfortunately, the children of today’s generation will no longer speak the brogue, and it is now largely confined to people over 50 years old.
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Each Word In The Pawnee Language Has 10 Syllables
The language of the Native American tribe known as the Pawnee - who reside primarily in Nebraska and north-central Oklahoma - is endangered, as only the elders and chiefs of the tribe speak it fluently (younger generations prefer to use English as their native tongue). There are two major dialects of the language: Skiri and South Band.
Pawnee is an unusual language in that each word consists of 10 syllables. There are nine consonants and eight vowels used in the language. And while the consonants are pronounced in a similar manner to English, the vowels are drawn out and more similar to French. Also, different tones of voice are used to convey different meanings.
As with other lesser-known languages that are in danger of going extinct, there have been efforts to try and preserve and revive Pawnee. One of these efforts began in 1997, when the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and the American Indian Studies Research Institute of Indiana University joined forces to start a program to produce textbooks and other materials for learning and teaching Pawnee.
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Smith Island, MD, Natives Have Erroneously Been Said To Speak An Almost Elizabethan English
Smith Island, which was settled in the 17th century and is located 12 miles off the coast of Crisfield, MD, is the last remaining offshore community in the state. The local dialect, which is heavy on elongated vowels that change words like "down" to "dane" and "there" to "thaar," has erroneously been described as being rooted in Shakespearean or Elizabethan English.
But according to linguistic professor Natalie Schilling, the dialect "seems to have sprung up on the island itself, and it did not attain widespread usage until the mid-twentieth century."
The most unique aspect of the dialect is the habit of "talking backwards," which is to say the opposite of what one actually means; for example, "She ain’t pretty none" means the person in question actually is pretty.
According to Schilling, while some aspects of Smith Island's unique dialect are in danger of disappearing, "talking backwards" is still thriving.