Ten Fun Things About Accents and Dialects


In the movie Fargo, Frances McDormand played Marge Gunderson, a character known for her distinctive accent. Source: Universal Studios

Each week I set out to research and document ten "fun facts" on a topic loosely based on the two books I've reviewed that week.  "Loosely" being the operative word. 

This week I reviewed The Sprawl, Jason Diamond's book on American suburbia - part memoir, part history and part social commentary; and Katherine Kinzler's How You Say It, a book on accents and dialects and our perceptions and biases about them.

Jason Diamond grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and Katherine Kinzler is a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. For many Americans not familiar with Chicago, the South Side accent of Saturday Night Live fame (Da Bears!) may be one of the first things they think of. Having myself spent several years in "Chicagoland" (Chicago and it's suburbs for the uninitiated) I can testify that not all Chicagoans talk like that.

Depending on what authority you consult, and what grouping or methodology that expert uses, you'll find that there are anywhere from 10 to 50 accents / dialects in the United States, including the "General American Accent". 

No matter how you count them, conveying any accent in writing can be difficult. Merely putting words down on paper doesn't do it. There are ways to try to convey accents in writing - think of Mark Twain's use of spelling to invoke the slave patois of  the runaway Jim in Huckleberry Finn for example. 

You might think that it's easier to convey accents in film or video. The movie Fargo made a northern Midwest dialect famous, for example, and the use of Bostonian accented dialogue is a large part of the ambiance of the film The Departed. However, Minnesotans and North Dakotans will tell you that the accent in Fargo is overly exaggerated, and there have been lively debates about how well the actors of The Departed carried off their attempts at Boston accents (except for native Bostonian Mark Wahlberg of course).  

Ah, accents. We all have them. So rather than stay with the serious themes of my two books, I've taken a light hearted turn. I've gathered together a bunch of videos on various accents or dialects, many of them humorous. Make sure you click through the links. 

Here then, are Ten Fun Things About Accents and Dialect:

Accents and Dialects

  1. What is that Fargo accent? - I grew up in Lower Michigan, where people speak a twangy-er version of the "General American Accent". But now  I live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (aka "the U.P."),  and here folks just don't speak the same way. Instead they speak with a version of the North Central dialect spoken in the movie Fargo. This way of speaking American English was influenced by the Scandinavian and German immigrants who settled the U.P, Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. But even though they speak the same dialect across all those areas, I personally can still detect differences between, say a Wisconsinite, and a Yooper (a native of the U.P.). 
  2. At Camp with the Cabin Masters - Here in the U.P. we refer to summer places on the lake as "camps", which is also the term used by the DIY Network's Cabin Masters of Maine. (I love that show!) Chase doesn't really seem to have a Maine accent, but Ryan definitely does. If you want to learn how to talk like a Mainer, Troy and Mark have some pointers for you. Or you could take a lesson from Saturday Night Live's "Gay Couple from Maine".
  3. #BestNYAccent - Last year on Instagram film director Nicolas Heller initiated a challenge to find the best New York accent. The results are hilarious.
  4. Pahk Yah Cah in Havahd Yahd - The Boston accent can be hard to learn for a non-Bostonian. Just listen to James Cordon getting coached by Matt Damon. Or John Krasinski trying to teach Steven Colbert the perfect Boston accent.
  5. The Immigrant Experience - Newly arrived immigrants to America tend to speak English with the accent of their home country. Greek American immigrants in Chicago were famously satirized on SNL with the Cheezborger skit.
  6. Da Bears - Yet another group of SNL actors gave us the Super Fans skits, where Chicago sports fans with strong South Side accents cheered on the home team.
  7. Totally Tubular - The 1980s gave us many amazing things, including Moon and Frank Zappa's recording of Valley Girl. Was it an accent? Was it a dialect? Was it teenagers being teenagers? Whatever it was it swept the nation.
  8. Fifty Accents? - Here's 50 people supporting the idea that there are 50 accents in the US. Sadly, the Michigan accent in this video is very much from Southeastern Lower Michigan, and not a Yooper accent.
  9. My Dogs are Barkin' - Slang is not quite the same as an accent /dialect, but like them it can be regional. Vanity Fair has a whole series of videos where celebrities teach you the slang terms they grew up with in their state or region. In one VF video actress Chloe Grace Moretz tells us about Georgia slang.
  10. The Accent Game - We tend to think that actors have a facility with accents that "normal people" don't have. But that's not always the case. Ellen DeGeneres has played an "accent game" with guests on her show more than once. What I find interesting in this clip with Ben Affleck is that it's not the accents they use, which are mostly not that good, but the stereotypical words or slang they employ that helps them figure out the clue.
So there you have it. What accent do you speak with? Do you have any fun accent stories? Leave a comment below.