The empires of American English

By Razib Khan | January 6, 2011 1:03 am

Over the past few days a website which maps American English dialects has gone around the blogs (I found it via Kevin Zelnio). Michelle has some suggestions for improvements of the map in Ohio. Here’s a cropped and resized dialect map:

One thing that immediately stood out is the latitudinal banded pattern of the dialects. They seem to follow migrations from the east coast inland, and reflect sectional divisions which go back to the 19th century. Below is a county by county map of the results for the 1856 presidential election.

Notice how closely the votes for the Republican, John C. Frémont, align with the Northern dialects. In 1856 the Republicans lost the Lower North, and so the election, to the big-tent coalition of the Democrats who had been ascendant since Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Frémont’s core was “Greater New England,” which consisted of New England and the regions of the North settled from New England and its outriders, such as western New York. This cultural pattern dates to the first half of the 19th century, and to some extent it has persisted even after the massive waves of German and Scandinavian immigration transformed the western portion of Greater New England so that it has one of the lowest proportions of English Americans in the United States. This may be a reflection of the “First Settler Effect” at the heart of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. But it also may be due to the cultural affinities between Scandinavians and Germans and Puritan Yankees (this certainly manifested in the anti-slavery sympathies of German social liberals who arrived after 1848 and the Yankees).

Here’s a map of settlement from The Expansion of New England: The Spread of New England Settlement and Institutions to the Mississippi River, 1620-1865:

Here are some books on American sectionalism and history which I’ve found very useful:

Albion’s Seed
What Hath God Wrought
The Rise of American Democracy
Clash of Extremes
The Cousins’ Wars
The Age of Lincoln
Throes of Democracy
American Colonies
The Scotch-Irish

Any good books on the topic you’ve read?

  • Meng Bomin

    Interesting post timing. I’m currently in the process of reading Albion’s Seed. Quite a nice trove of material.

  • Danny

    Another interesting thing is that the north-south divergence stops when one hits the Rockies, and the entire West forms a single undifferentiated Western dialect. Maybe this has to do with the fact that the Mountain & Pacific West were settled in the post-Civil War period, after sectionalism was superseded, and thus do not belong to one section or another.

    In an alternate universe in which the Civil War is avoided and New Mexico and Arizona enter the union as slave states, people there would have spoken with a more pronounced southern accent.

    Kevin Phillips’ first book “The Emerging Republican Majority” although it is more immediately political than “The Cousins’ War” also has lots of historical sectional analysis: Comparing the political behavior of Yankee vs. German vs. Scandinavian counties in the Dakotas when William Jennings Bryan was running for president back in 1896. I found it very interesting.

  • Randy McDonald

    But is this necessarily accurate? Commenters at blogTO have questioned the map’s accuracy, originally in regards to the person selected as the exemplar of the Toronto accent (migratory resident of Colorado and Catalonia)

    There are also internal differences that don’t seem to be noted–the Ottawa Valley dialect is quite distinct from that of southern Ontario, for instance. This corresponds to long-standing patterns of migration and settlement, generally more Celtic and Francophone.

    (And speaking about Francophone, the borders of French Canada may be a bit off on the fringes, perhaps too broad in the west and too conservative in the east. Maybe.)

    Are these criticisms germane, or are the blogTO commenters–and me–making distinctions too fine-grained to be relevant to the map?

    As for Canadian English, Wikipedia has it.

    “The phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon for most of Canada are similar to that of the Western and Midland regions of the United States. The Canadian Great Lakes region has similarities to that of the Upper Midwest & Great Lakes region and/or Yooper dialect (in particular Michigan which has extensive business ties with Ontario), while the phonological system of western Canadian English is virtually identical to that of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and the phonetics are similar.”

    The exceptions to this is Atlantic Canada, where Maritime English and Newfoundland English bear heavy Scottish influence and have any number of highly local variants (by region, even by village). The region was mostly settled directly from the British Isles, the few Loyalist enclaves aside. Speech patterns are distinctive: a week after I moved to Ontario, I realized that the subtle difference I’d been picking up around me was the fact that I was now in a community where everyone spoke the way that they did on the CBC! Shift to standard dialect is ongoing, regardless the past.

  • EcoPhysioMichelle

    That would explain why Cleveland ‘feels’ like a small east coast city, at least in comparison to the rest of the state.

  • Stephen

    Exactly what does the yellow in the last map signify? I’m wondering why it is lacking in large parts of New York State, and patchy across lower Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois?

  • EcoPhysioMichelle

    Density is what I assumed, but I’d like to hear more too. The upper part of Ohio is much flatter and easier to settle. IIRC it was settled first, then people drifted down into the foothills and turned into the People Time Forgot.

  • Stephen

    Actually, people were moving up the rivers into IL, IN and OH even before steamboats on the Great Lakes opened the yellow swath to major Yankee settlement.

  • EcoPhysioMichelle

    You’re probably right. If I’m wrong I blame my Appalachian primary education. 😉

  • Dahinda

    I live in the Galesburg, Illinois area and here there still is a noticible boundary, that runs just north of Galesburg, between a more northern accent and mentality and a southern one . The area that Galesburg is in, and areas in Illinois south of it, were settled mainly by southerners who first received land grants from the government and later by other southerners that followed as well as some Germans. Although he had New England roots, Abraham Lincoln was one of these southerners, coming from Kentucky. To the north of Galesburg the area was settled mainly first by New Englanders and New Yorkers and later by Swedes and Germans. Also, Peoria, which is southeast of Galesburg is demographically very much like other river towns to the south, St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati. While the Quad Cities (Moline, Davenport, IA), north of Galesburg, are demographicallly like smaller cities to the north, Rockford, Madison, WI etc. The maps shown though generalize too much. Chicago has its own accent, as does much of Wisconsin and also many parts of Southern Illinois has its own accent.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Razib, what is the “western portion of Greater New England” that has such a low proportion of English Americans — Wisconsin & Minnesota?

  • Razib Khan

    amos, yeah. upper midwest.

    the towns in this region were founded by yankees on yankee lines. but by 1900 waves of german and scandinavian immigrants have demographically marginalized the original yankee establishment.

  • Razib Khan

    That would explain why Cleveland ‘feels’ like a small east coast city, at least in comparison to the rest of the state.

    Exactly what does the yellow in the last map signify? I’m wondering why it is lacking in large parts of New York State, and patchy across lower Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois?

    where new englanders settled. those ‘old northwestern states’ are divided by areas settled by ‘butternut’ scotch-irish, midlanders from pennsylvania and downstate new york, and new englanders. the regions of settlement tend to follow latitude.

    Actually, people were moving up the rivers into IL, IN and OH even before steamboats on the Great Lakes opened the yellow swath to major Yankee settlement.

    before the canal based ‘great lakes’ economy opened up most of the settlement in these states was from the upper south, via the natural navigable waterways. chicago apparently was a scots-irish upper south city initially, before being swamped by yankees, and later white ethnics. this demographic change is at the heart of the political realignment during the 19850s, when the republican party pushed out of its yankee ghetto.

  • PD Shaw

    Of a narrower field of interest, I like the first few chapters of Kenneth Winkle’s: The Young Eagle — The Rise of Abram Lincoln. It’s the only Lincoln book I’ve read that tries to identify him within the context of the surrounding cultures.

    For instance, the author identifies the multi generational migration pattern of his extended paternal family from Massachusetts, south across the Cumberland gap and then Northwest into Central Illinois, concluding that Lincoln may be more Yankee in outlook than conventional focus on his Kentucky roots would have.

    Also, the author identifies the three cultural regions of his adopted state: The Upland South of largely scots-irish, Jacksonian Democrats; the Midlands settled by the people of the Upper Ohio valley (PA, OH and Northern KY), and “Yankeeland,” consisting of New Englanders following the Canals and Lakes West to Northern IL. The significance for Lincoln was that his Whig politics were really only competitive in the Midlands during his early career, when both Yankees and Southerners were reliably Democratic. It was the realignment of Yankees on cultural issues and the increase in freesoil German migrants beginning in 1856 that placed his politics in a majority position in the State and arguably the country.

  • T. Kosmatka

    I totally agree with the way Indiana is divided. I grew up in Northern Indiana, and folks a few miles south of Hwy 30 tended to speak in a different dialect than people closer to the big lake. The division could be quite stark.

  • Will Robinson

    World of Toil and Strife by Peter N. Moore is a great little book that points a laser at a Scots Irish community transforming from yeoman farmers to planters and staunch Presbyterian Calvinists to Baptists.

  • ohwilleke

    “1900 waves of german and scandinavian immigrants have demographically marginalized the original yankee establishment.”

    Interestingly, in much of that region, developers intentionally alternated Catholic and Lutheran towns every thirty miles or so, along the rail lines.

    * * *

    Malcolm Gladstone’s book “Outliers” has a chapter called “Legacy” that touches on similar themes, although there has been subsequent research that challenges the accuracy of some of the authorities he relies upon for his story, finding that “culture of honor” instincts in ordinary people are actually more closely associated with the Lowland South than the Inland South, despite the Hatfield and McCoy narrative that has developed about that concept in the Inland South and tried to connect it to a heritage as herders. Plantation society, rather the a legacy of herder culture may have more to do with that bloody cult of the Gentleman.

    * * *

    My intuition is that there is a dialect of American English roughly corresponding to the territory of Old Mexico that distinct from the predominant Western accent and omitted from the map. One of the most prominent speakers of that dialect is U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a Hispanic politician whose family roots in Southern Colorado predate the inclusion of that area into the United States.

    I also suspect that Hawaii has its own unique American English dialect.

    * * *

    The Glenmary Research, a Catholic missionary organization that collects data on religious preference by claimed number of affiliated parishioners from religious denominations at a county level on a regular basis providers another good gloss on white American cultural divides. Its maps, most recently from 2000, are the most detailed compilation of American religious inclinations out there (The American Religious Identification Survey,, the other main source for localized religious identification data most recently in 2008, is limited to state by state data using opinion survey rather than denominational data). Glenmary is particularly useful because it has data not just on the leading religious affiliation in a county, but on the runner up, with reveals important subtrends. Glenmary and ARIS are two of the major sources of U.S. data for

    * * *

    Many sources on American sectionalism are found in the literature on the “Red State, Blue State” discusison in political science, several good examples of which are referenced in the Wikipedia article with that title.

  • pconroy


    I’ve seen TV programs and YouTube video of the dialect from Newfoundland – around St John’s and possibly other areas too – and they sound to me very like the South East Irish accent, where I grew up.

    Here is a clip, in Irish (Gaelic), that discussed this. Note that “Baille Shean” (Literally: John’s town) seems to refer to St John, and “Talamh an Éisc” (Literally: Land of Fish or Fishland) is Newfoundland:

    Here is a Newfie accent that is very close to the Irish South East accent:

  • Lassi Hippeläinen

    Don’t forget the climate. Many Scandinavians, who emigrated to America, settled in a wide east-west band from the Great Lakes to British Columbia, because there the environment was closest to their original home. They knew how to live in coniferous forests, i.e. they were cattle farmers in the summer and lumberjacks in the winter.

    Mediterranians would be more comfortable in the South for similar reasons, but no Europeans were experienced in living on high mountains like the Rockies.

    People started mixing up only after means of land travel got better.

  • ohwilleke

    Lassi: Southern Europeans immigrants (and to the extent that there were any, North African and Levantine immigrants for that matter) overwhelmingly settled in the Northeast and Midwest because that is where the jobs were to be had. Very few settled in the South where the land had already been settled by Anglo (and to a lesser extent French and Spanish) settlers. Yes, the Spanish colonialists were from Southern Europe, but their colonies didn’t have particularly Mediterrean climates (with the exception of California). In Eastern North America, Spanish influence was pretty much limited to Florida and the Gulf Coast, and was ephemeral on the Gulf Coast.

    The original European migrants to the West were trappers and fishers (often French), miners (Cornish and otherwise), and a mismash of whoever was nearby and saw opportunity there. The other very demographically important immigrants to the Rockies were Mormons, who were basically Northern European Yankees (they one of the core genetic reference databases now), who kept getting kicked out of their current homes until they found someplace where no one else lived (Utah from Missouri from Upstate New York, more or less).

  • PD Shaw

    I’ve not read before that Chicago was a scots-irish upper south city initially, and it makes sense from some things I’ve read, but not others.

    The Scots-Irish settlement and agricultural practices favored woodland. They moved Northward into the lower Midwest and Missouri, but aside from some temporary excursions, did not pass into the prairies. Some say it’s because they were unwilling or incapable of dealing with busting sod, and a few accounts complain of the winter season as they headed southward.

    The Midland settlers were interested in marketplace agriculture, were desirous of large flat expanses near rivers or towns or major roads. The Germans were of like mind, so there is traditionally a cultural line btw/ the Upper South and the Midlands which tracks the geography. I think the link to Michelle’s comments is of a similar view that the Upper South might be further North through the Midwest.

  • Razib Khan

    Yes, the Spanish colonialists were from Southern Europe, but their colonies didn’t have particularly Mediterrean climates (with the exception of California).

    right. the climate of the southern USA is NOTHING like the med. lassi should familiarize himself with a koppen map.

  • Finch

    > Here is a Newfie accent that is very close to the Irish South East accent:

    The woman filmed sounds remarkably like my older relatives. No Newf would group their accent with that of the Maritimes. Notably, there’s little Scottish presence in Newfoundland – the Newfoundland accent is what you get when you put the population of Ireland and western England in a box for 400 years.

    That said, it’s getting hard to find an accent that strong anymore.

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  • Spike Gomes


    Actually we have our own Creole language:

    In it’s truest forms, it’s near impossible for a standard English speaker to make out. Due to the influence of mass media, it’s dying a slow and rather unremarked death. On the main island of Oahu, it’s hard to find anyone under the age of 30 who uses “stay” as a “to be” verb anymore, and many of the Japanese and Chinese loanwords are starting to fall out of use.

    For a lot of people, it’s their first language and some older folks can’t really speak standard English. For me it’s a second language. I grew up with standard English at home and was scolded for using it.

  • dave chamberlin

    Kind of like melting glaciers these regional accents are fast dissapearing. The difference between generations living in the same place is very noticable. A bit of a shame really, when I was young traveling to another part of the country was a trip to a distinctly different place. Now the commercial stips are indentical, the housing is the same, and the people aren’t much different. It is primarily the landscape that tells you what part of the country you are in.

  • Laassi Hippeläinen

    @19&21: The Scandies settled pretty much as the Koppen map suggests. For Mediterraneans there wasn’t that much to choose from, because they are coastal people (hence the conditional “would be more comfortable”). But I hear there are many Italians in New York, which is a seashore city between the latitudes of Rome and Naples…

  • Stephen

    Re: Mediterranean? The upper Rio Grande, in northern New Mexico, is a zone of early Spanish settlement. And if I discern the Koppen map (and my own intuition) correctly, it matches much of southern and eastern Spain. BTW — the descendants of those folks are still there, making the region much more Spanish than New England is Puritan, anymore.

  • Razib Khan

    But I hear there are many Italians in New York, which is a seashore city between the latitudes of Rome and Naples…

    dude, there’s no resemblance between east coast temperate climates and med. new york has blizzards and summer rain.

  • Huxley

    Interesting that Chicago is connected to St. Louis via Interstate 55 through Bloomington and Springfield, Illinois. It must be due to an urban vs. rural midwestern difference.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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