In general, those learning American English learn grammatically correct English. This makes understanding documents such as directions, books, and email easy. However American conversational English poses a number of problems for those who learn English online.
The differences in English usage, including idioms and terminology can vary greatly by region. They also apply to a wide range of items and activities in everyday life including food and drinks, social gatherings, and greetings. While every region of the US has regional language differences, the differences are the most apparent when comparing the southern and northern regions of the US.
It is important to note that regional differences seldom, if ever, make it impossible for someone who has just learned English to communicate. Many new English speakers will look for opportunities to interact with native English speakers by visiting coffee shops or joining clubs or social organisations. Most report that these activities increase their confidence and their use and understanding of spoken English.
The reasons behind America’s regional dialects
Every region of the US has regional language differences and every American speaks with a dialect. A few dialects are extreme, such as the “Ocracoke brogue” spoken on Ocracoke Island off the coast of North Carolina which is virtually unrecognisable as American English. New Orleans natives, who refer to their hometown as “Nawlins”, are instantly identifiable by their accent and phrasing. The regional differences in language are the most apparent between the northern and southern sections of the US. A number of factors are behind the regional differences.
One of the main factors in regional dialects is the settlement pattern of the area. For example, the New Orleans area was originally settled by French, Irish, Creole, and Spanish. All of these influences can be heard in the dialect.
The dialect found in Pennsylvania is a direct result of the large number of Irish settlers along with the subsequent influence of German, Slavic, and English settlers.
Isolation is another major factor in regional dialects. Ocracoke Island is the perfect example of this. The island is basically a large sand bar off the North Carolina coast which was settled by the English. The dialect can be traced directly to Elizabethan English.
It is interesting to note how the different dialects are viewed within the US. Stereotypes concerning the social standing, education, and intelligence are fairly common. Judging individuals by their accents is, unfortunately, a somewhat long-standing custom in the US.
Soft Drinks – In the northern states these are referred to as “pop”; this term is sometimes heard in the western states as well. The terminology in the south varies. In many parts of the south the term “coke” refers to all soft drinks. The other term used is “soda.”
Sugar – In the south “sugar” applies to the sweetener and can also refer to a kiss as in “give me some sugar.”
Fixing – In most parts of the US this means the act of repairing. In the south, it is common for the word to mean “preparing” as in “I’m fixing to go to the store.”
Tennis shoes and sneakers – The term most commonly used for what the English call “trainers” is “sneaker.” The term dates back to the late 1800s due to the fact that the shoes were virtually noiseless and allowed the wearer to “sneak” around. The term “tennis shoe” is used in various parts of the US and is a generic term for the shoes.
Bless your heart – This term can be potentially embarrassing for non-native English speakers depending on which part of the US they are in. In the north and most of the US, the term is basically a blessing or used to express empathy and sympathy. In most of the south the term is used to indicate that the person being referred to is basically an “idiot.”
Aren’t you precious – This is another example of disguised southern politeness. The term is typically used in a sarcastic manner and refers to someone who is misguided or offensive.
The evening meal – In most parts of the US the evening meal is “dinner.” In a large part of the south it is referred to as “supper.” The southern usage is technically the one most historically accurate; the use of “supper” for the last meal of the day dates back to the 1200s.
Long sandwich with cold cuts, lettuce, tomato, and other vegetables – There are over thirteen terms used in the US for these types of sandwiches. The most common are “subs”, “grinders,” and “hoagies.” In the New Orleans and around the Gulf Coast they are called “po-boys” and are generally made with shrimp, oysters, fish, or “crawfish.” (Crawfish is the southern term for small river crustaceans; in the north, they are called “crawdads” or “crayfish.”)
A group of people – This is one that is immediately noticeable, especially to new English speakers. When referring to a group of people (using the second person plural) the correct term is “you.” While most Americans know the rule, few use it in everyday conversation. In the north and parts of the mid-west and west the term most commonly used is “you guys” (regardless of gender). In the south, the most common term is “y’all” a contraction of “you all”. When a southern speaker wants to make sure that she is communicating to everyone in the group you may hear “all y’all.” You will occasionally also hear “youse guys” and “you’uns.”
Greens – In the north the term “greens” refers to a salad. If one orders “greens” in the south the odds are that they will be served a plate of cooked collard greens.
Mess of – Although the term is now predominately used by older southerners preparing a pot of collard greens or other food was often referred to as a “mess of” (“I’m fixin’ a mess of greens.)
Shopping cart – In the south a shopping cart is called a “buggy.”
“On” and “in” – The use of “on” and “in” varies not only by region but by age as well. Most northerners and most young people will say “on line”; southerners and many older speakers “in line.” The same generally apply to “on” and “by” such as in “on accident” or “by accident”. “By accident” is more southern.
Faucet and spigot – The term “faucet” is used in northern areas while “spigot” is common in the south.
Frying pan and skillet – In the north and south “frying pan” is the most common term. Frying pan is seldom used in middle-America, where “skillet” is the most commonly used. You will also hear “skillet” frequently in the south.
An egg cream – This is a beverage found primarily in New York and New Jersey. Despite its name, an egg cream contains no eggs and is made with flavoured syrup, milk, and seltzer.
Toboggan – In most parts of the US a “toboggan” is a woollen hat. In parts of the Midwest a “toboggan” is a sledge.
Tag sale – In many parts of the north “tag sale” is the term used for garage sales, yard sales, and estate sales.
Being Ugly – This term has nothing to do with appearances but is used in the south to refer to someone who is misbehaving.
Dressing – In most of the country dressing is something that is served with a salad. In the south this is the bread or rice stuffing used when making turkeys or other birds.