- American English
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English is the most common language in the United States. Though the U.S. federal government has no official language, English is the common language used by the federal government and is considered the de facto language of the United States because of its widespread use. English has been given official status by 28 of the 50 state governments. The use of English in the United States was a result of English colonization. The first wave of English-speaking settlers arrived in North America in the 17th century. Since then, American English has been influenced by the languages of the Native American population, the languages of European and non-European colonists, immigrants and neighbors, and the languages of slaves from West Africa.
- 1 Phonology
- 2 Vocabulary
- 3 Regional differences
- 4 Differences between British and American English
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
Compared to English as spoken in England, North American English is more homogeneous. Some distinctive accents can be found on the East Coast (for example, in eastern New England and New York City) partly because these areas were in close contact with England and imitated prestigious varieties of British English at a time when these were undergoing changes.[Need quotation to verify] In addition, many speech communities on the East Coast have existed in their present locations for centuries, while the interior of the country was settled by people from all regions of the existing United States and developed a far more generic linguistic pattern.
Most North American speech is rhotic, as English was in most places in the 17th century. Rhoticity was further supported by Hiberno-English, West Country English and Scottish English as well as the fact most regions of England at this time also had rhotic accents. In most varieties of North American English, the sound corresponding to the letter r is an alveolar approximant [ɹ] or retroflex [ɻ] rather than a trill or a tap. The loss of syllable-final r in North America is confined mostly to the accents of eastern New England, New York City and surrounding areas and the coastal portions of the South, and African American Vernacular English. In rural tidewater Virginia and eastern New England, 'r' is non-rhotic in accented (such as "bird", "work", "first", "birthday") as well as unaccented syllables, although this is declining among the younger generation of speakers. Dropping of syllable-final r sometimes happens in natively rhotic dialects if r is located in unaccented syllables or words and the next syllable or word begins in a consonant. In England, the lost r was often changed into [ə] (schwa), giving rise to a new class of falling diphthongs. Furthermore, the er sound of fur or butter, is realized in AmE as a monophthongal r-colored vowel (stressed [ɝ] or unstressed [ɚ] as represented in the IPA). This does not happen in the non-rhotic varieties of North American speech.
Some other English changes in which most North American dialects do not participate:
- The shift of /æ/ to /ɑ/ (the so-called "broad A") before /f/, /s/, /θ/, /ð/, /z/, /v/ alone or preceded by a homorganic nasal. This is the difference between the British Received Pronunciation and American pronunciation of bath and dance. In the United States, only eastern New England speakers took up this modification, although even there it is becoming increasingly rare.
- The realization of intervocalic /t/ as a glottal stop [ʔ] (as in [bɒʔəl] for bottle). This change is not universal for British English and is not considered a feature of Received Pronunciation. This is not a property of most North American dialects. Newfoundland English is a notable exception.
On the other hand, North American English has undergone some sound changes not found in other varieties of English speech:
- The merger of /ɑ/ and /ɒ/, making father and bother rhyme. This change is nearly universal in North American English. Exceptions are accents in northeastern New England, such as the Boston accent, and in New York City).
- The merger of /ɑ/ and /ɔ/. This is the so-called cot–caught merger, where cot and caught are homophones. This change has occurred in eastern New England, in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, and from the Great Plains westward.
- For speakers who do not merge caught and cot: The replacement of the cot vowel with the caught vowel before voiceless fricatives (as in cloth, off [which is found in some old-fashioned varieties of RP]), as well as before /ŋ/ (as in strong, long), usually in gone, often in on, and irregularly before /ɡ/ (log, hog, dog, fog [which is not found in British English at all]).
- The replacement of the lot vowel with the strut vowel in most utterances of the words was, of, from, what and in many utterances of the words everybody, nobody, somebody, anybody; the word because has either /ʌ/ or /ɔ/; want has normally /ɔ/ or /ɑ/, sometimes /ʌ/.
- Vowel merger before intervocalic /ɹ/. Which vowels are affected varies between dialects, but the Mary-marry-merry, nearer-mirror, and hurry–furry mergers are all widespread. Another such change is the laxing of /e/, /i/ and /u/ to /ɛ/, /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ before /ɹ/, causing pronunciations like [pɛɹ], [pɪɹ] and [pjʊɹ] for pair, peer and pure. The resulting sound [ʊɹ] is often further reduced to [ɝ], especially after palatals, so that cure, pure, mature and sure rhyme with fir.
- Dropping of /j/ is more extensive than in RP. In most North American accents, /j/ is dropped after all alveolar and interdental consonant, so that new, duke, Tuesday, resume are pronounced /nu/, /duk/, /tuzdeɪ/, /ɹɪzum/.
- æ-tensing in environments that vary widely from accent to accent; for example, for many speakers, /æ/ is approximately realized as [eə] before nasal consonants. In some accents, particularly those from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, [æ] and [eə] contrast sometimes, as in Yes, I can [kæn] vs. tin can [keən].
- The flapping of intervocalic /t/ and /d/ to alveolar tap [ɾ] before unstressed vowels (as in butter, party) and syllabic /l/ (bottle), as well as at the end of a word or morpheme before any vowel (what else, whatever). Thus, for most speakers, pairs such as ladder/latter, metal/medal, and coating/coding are pronounced the same. For many speakers, this merger is incomplete and does not occur after /aɪ/; these speakers tend to pronounce writer with [əɪ] and rider with [aɪ]. This is a form of Canadian raising but, unlike more extreme forms of that process, does not affect /aʊ/. In some areas and idiolects, a phonemic distinction between what elsewhere become homophones through this process is maintained by vowel lengthening in the vowel preceding the formerly voiced consonant, e.g., [ˈlæːɾɹ̩] for "ladder" as opposed to [ˈlæɾɹ̩] for "latter".
- T glottalization is common when /t/ is in the final position of a syllable or word (get, fretful: [ɡɛʔ], [ˈfɹɛʔfəl]), though this is always superseded by the aforementioned rules of flapping
- Both intervocalic /nt/ and /n/ may be realized as [n] or [ɾ̃], making winter and winner homophones. Most areas in which /nt/ is reduced to /n/, it is accompanied further by nasalization of simple post-vocalic /n/, so that /Vnt/ and /Vn/ remain phonemically distinct. In such cases, the preceding vowel becomes nasalized, and is followed in cases where the former /nt/ was present, by a distinct /n/. This stop-absorption by the preceding nasal /n/ does not occur when the second syllable is stressed, as in entail.
- The pin–pen merger, by which [ɛ] is raised to [ɪ] before nasal consonants, making pairs like pen/pin homophonous. This merger originated in Southern American English but is now also sometimes found in parts of the Midwest and West as well, especially in people with roots in the mountainous areas of the Southeastern United States.
Some mergers found in most varieties of both American and British English include:
- The merger of the vowels /ɔ/ and /o/ before 'r', making pairs like horse/hoarse, corps/core, for/four, morning/mourning, etc. homophones.
- The wine–whine merger making pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, Wales/whales, wear/where, etc. homophones, in most cases eliminating /ʍ/, the voiceless labiovelar fricative. Many older varieties of southern and western American English still keep these distinct, but the merger appears to be spreading.
North America has given the English lexicon many thousands of words, meanings, and phrases. Several thousand are now used in English as spoken internationally.
Creation of an American lexicon
The process of coining new lexical items started as soon as the colonists began borrowing names for unfamiliar flora, fauna, and topography from the Native American languages. Examples of such names are opossum, raccoon, squash and moose (from Algonquian). Other Native American loanwords, such as wigwam or moccasin, describe articles in common use among Native Americans. The languages of the other colonizing nations also added to the American vocabulary; for instance, cookie, cruller, stoop, and pit (of a fruit) from Dutch; levee, portage ("carrying of boats or goods") and (probably) gopher from French; barbecue, stevedore, and rodeo from Spanish.
Among the earliest and most notable regular "English" additions to the American vocabulary, dating from the early days of colonization through the early 19th century, are terms describing the features of the North American landscape; for instance, run, branch, fork, snag, bluff, gulch, neck (of the woods), barrens, bottomland, notch, knob, riffle, rapids, watergap, cutoff, trail, timberline and divide. Already existing words such as creek, slough, sleet and (in later use) watershed received new meanings that were unknown in England.
Other noteworthy American toponyms are found among loanwords; for example, prairie, butte (French); bayou (Choctaw via Louisiana French); coulee (Canadian French, but used also in Louisiana with a different meaning); canyon, mesa, arroyo (Spanish); vlei, skate, kill (Dutch, Hudson Valley).
The word corn, used in England to refer to wheat (or any cereal), came to denote the plant Zea mays, the most important crop in the U.S., originally named Indian corn by the earliest settlers; wheat, rye, barley, oats, etc. came to be collectively referred to as grain (or breadstuffs). Other notable farm related vocabulary additions were the new meanings assumed by barn (not only a building for hay and grain storage, but also for housing livestock) and team (not just the horses, but also the vehicle along with them), as well as, in various periods, the terms range, (corn) crib, truck, elevator, sharecropping and feedlot.
Ranch, later applied to a house style, derives from Mexican Spanish; most Spanish contributions came after the War of 1812, with the opening of the West. Among these are, other than toponyms, chaps (from chaparreras), plaza, lasso, bronco, buckaroo, rodeo; examples of "English" additions from the cowboy era are bad man, maverick, chuck ("food") and Boot Hill; from the California Gold Rush came such idioms as hit pay dirt or strike it rich. The word blizzard probably originated in the West. A couple of notable late 18th century additions are the verb belittle and the noun bid, both first used in writing by Thomas Jefferson.
With the new continent developed new forms of dwelling, and hence a large inventory of words designating real estate concepts (land office, lot, outlands, waterfront, the verbs locate and relocate, betterment, addition, subdivision), types of property (log cabin, adobe) in the 18th century; frame house, apartment, tenement house, shack, shanty in the 19th century; project, condominium, townhouse, split-level, mobile home, multi-family in the 20th century), and parts thereof (driveway, breezeway, backyard, dooryard; clapboard, siding, trim, baseboard; stoop (from Dutch), family room, den; and, in recent years, HVAC, central air, walkout basement).
Ever since the American Revolution, a great number of terms connected with the U.S. political institutions have entered the language; examples are run, gubernatorial, primary election, carpetbagger (after the Civil War), repeater, lame duck and pork barrel. Some of these are internationally used (for example, caucus, gerrymander, filibuster, exit poll).
The rise of capitalism, the development of industry and material innovations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries were the source of a massive stock of distinctive new words, phrases and idioms. Typical examples are the vocabulary of railroading (see further at rail terminology) and transportation terminology, ranging from names of roads (from dirt roads and back roads to freeways and parkways) to road infrastructure (parking lot, overpass, rest area), and from automotive terminology to public transit (for example, in the sentence "riding the subway downtown"); such American introductions as commuter (from commutation ticket), concourse, to board (a vehicle), to park, double-park and parallel park (a car), double decker or the noun terminal have long been used in all dialects of English. Trades of various kinds have endowed (American) English with household words describing jobs and occupations (bartender, longshoreman, patrolman, hobo, bouncer, bellhop, roustabout, white collar, blue collar, employee, boss [from Dutch], intern, busboy, mortician, senior citizen), businesses and workplaces (department store, supermarket, thrift store, gift shop, drugstore, motel, main street, gas station, hardware store, savings and loan, hock [also from Dutch]), as well as general concepts and innovations (automated teller machine, smart card, cash register, dishwasher, reservation [as at hotels], pay envelope, movie, mileage, shortage, outage, blood bank).
Already existing English words—such as store, shop, dry goods, haberdashery, lumber—underwent shifts in meaning; some—such as mason, student, clerk, the verbs can (as in "canned goods"), ship, fix, carry, enroll (as in school), run (as in "run a business"), release and haul—were given new significations, while others (such as tradesman) have retained meanings that disappeared in England. From the world of business and finance came breakeven, merger, delisting, downsize, disintermediation, bottom line; from sports terminology came, jargon aside, Monday-morning quarterback, cheap shot, game plan (football); in the ballpark, out of left field, off base, hit and run, and many other idioms from baseball; gamblers coined bluff, blue chip, ante, bottom dollar, raw deal, pass the buck, ace in the hole, freeze-out, showdown; miners coined bedrock, bonanza, peter out, pan out and the verb prospect from the noun; and railroadmen are to be credited with make the grade, sidetrack, head-on, and the verb railroad. A number of Americanisms describing material innovations remained largely confined to North America: elevator, ground, gasoline; many automotive terms fall in this category, although many do not (hatchback, SUV, station wagon, tailgate, motorhome, truck, pickup truck, to exhaust).
In addition to the above-mentioned loans from French, Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Dutch, and Native American languages, other accretions from foreign languages came with 19th and early 20th century immigration; notably, from Yiddish (chutzpah, schmooze, tush and German—hamburger and culinary terms like frankfurter/franks, liverwurst, sauerkraut, wiener, deli(catessen); scram, kindergarten, gesundheit; musical terminology (whole note, half note, etc.); and apparently cookbook, fresh ("impudent") and what gives? Such constructions as Are you coming with? and I like to dance (for "I like dancing") may also be the result of German or Yiddish influence.
Finally, a large number of English colloquialisms from various periods are American in origin; some have lost their American flavor (from OK and cool to nerd and 24/7), while others have not (have a nice day, sure); many are now distinctly old-fashioned (swell, groovy). Some English words now in general use, such as hijacking, disc jockey, boost, bulldoze and jazz, originated as American slang. Among the many English idioms of U.S. origin are get the hang of, take for a ride, bark up the wrong tree, keep tabs, run scared, take a backseat, have an edge over, stake a claim, take a shine to, in on the ground floor, bite off more than one can chew, off/on the wagon, stay put, inside track, stiff upper lip, bad hair day, throw a monkey wrench, under the weather, jump bail, come clean, come again?, it ain't over till it's over, what goes around comes around, and will the real x please stand up?
American English has always shown a marked tendency to use nouns as verbs. Examples of verbed nouns are interview, advocate, vacuum, lobby, pressure, rear-end, transition, feature, profile, belly-ache, spearhead, skyrocket, showcase, service (as a car), corner, torch, exit (as in "exit the lobby"), factor (in mathematics), gun ("shoot"), author (which disappeared in English around 1630 and was revived in the U.S. three centuries later) and, out of American material, proposition, graft (bribery), bad-mouth, vacation, major, backpack, backtrack, intern, ticket (traffic violations), hassle, blacktop, peer-review, dope and OD, and, of course verbed as used at the start of this sentence.
Compounds coined in the U.S. are for instance foothill, flatlands, badlands, landslide (in all senses), overview (the noun), backdrop, teenager, brainstorm, bandwagon, hitchhike, smalltime, deadbeat, frontman, lowbrow and highbrow, hell-bent, foolproof, nitpick, about-face (later verbed), upfront (in all senses), fixer-upper, no-show; many of these are phrases used as adverbs or (often) hyphenated attributive adjectives: non-profit, for-profit, free-for-all, ready-to-wear, catchall, low-down, down-and-out, down and dirty, in-your-face, nip and tuck; many compound nouns and adjectives are open: happy hour, fall guy, capital gain, road trip, wheat pit, head start, plea bargain; some of these are colorful (empty nester, loan shark, ambulance chaser, buzz saw, ghetto blaster, dust bunny), others are euphemistic (differently abled (physically challenged), human resources, affirmative action, correctional facility).
Many compound nouns have the form verb plus preposition: add-on, stopover, lineup, shakedown, tryout, spin-off, rundown ("summary"), shootout, holdup, hideout, comeback, cookout, kickback, makeover, takeover, rollback ("decrease"), rip-off, come-on, shoo-in, fix-up, tie-in, tie-up ("stoppage"), stand-in. These essentially are nouned phrasal verbs; some prepositional and phrasal verbs are in fact of American origin (spell out, figure out, hold up, brace up, size up, rope in, back up/off/down/out, step down, miss out on, kick around, cash in, rain out, check in and check out (in all senses), fill in ("inform"), kick in ("contribute"), square off, sock in, sock away, factor in/out, come down with, give up on, lay off (from employment), run into and across ("meet"), stop by, pass up, put up (money), set up ("frame"), trade in, pick up on, pick up after, lose out.
Noun endings such as -ee (retiree), -ery (bakery), -ster (gangster) and -cian (beautician) are also particularly productive. Some verbs ending in -ize are of U.S. origin; for example, fetishize, prioritize, burglarize, accessorize, itemize, editorialize, customize, notarize, weatherize, winterize, Mirandize; and so are some back-formations (locate, fine-tune, evolute, curate, donate, emote, upholster, peeve and enthuse). Among syntactical constructions that arose in the U.S. are as of (with dates and times), outside of, headed for, meet up with, back of, convince someone to..., not to be about to and lack for.
Americanisms formed by alteration of existing words include notably pesky, phony, rambunctious, pry (as in "pry open," from prize), putter (verb), buddy, sundae, skeeter, sashay and kitty-corner. Adjectives that arose in the U.S. are for example, lengthy, bossy, cute and cutesy, grounded (of a child), punk (in all senses), sticky (of the weather), through (as in "through train," or meaning "finished"), and many colloquial forms such as peppy or wacky. American blends include motel, guesstimate, infomercial and televangelist.
English words that survived in the United States and not Britain
A number of words and meanings that originated in Middle English or Early Modern English and that always have been in everyday use in the United States dropped out in most varieties of British English; some of these have cognates in Lowland Scots. Terms such as fall ("autumn"), faucet, diaper, candy, skillet, eyeglasses, and obligate, are often regarded as Americanisms. Fall for example came to denote the season in 16th century England, a contraction of Middle English expressions like "fall of the leaf" and "fall of the year". During the 17th century, English immigration to the British colonies in North America was at its peak and the new settlers took the English language with them. While the term fall gradually became obsolete in Britain, it became the more common term in North America. Gotten (past participle of get) is often considered to be an Americanism, although there are some areas of Britain, such as Lancashire and North-eastern England, that still continue to use it and sometimes also use putten as the past participle for put (which is not done by most speakers of American English).
Other words and meanings, to various extents, were brought back to Britain, especially in the second half of the 20th century; these include hire ("to employ"), quit ("to stop," which spawned quitter in the U.S.), I guess (famously criticized by H. W. Fowler), baggage, hit (a place), and the adverbs overly and presently ("currently"). Some of these, for example monkey wrench and wastebasket, originated in 19th-century Britain.
The mandative subjunctive (as in "the City Attorney suggested that the case not be closed") is livelier in American English than it is in British English. It appears in some areas as a spoken usage and is considered obligatory in contexts that are more formal. The adjectives mad meaning "angry", smart meaning "intelligent", and sick meaning "ill" are also more frequent in American (these meanings are also frequent in Hiberno-English) than British English.
While written AmE is standardized across the country, there are several recognizable variations in the spoken language, both in pronunciation and in vernacular vocabulary. General American is the name given to any American accent that is relatively free of noticeable regional influences.
After the Civil War, the settlement of the western territories by migrants from the Eastern U.S. led to dialect mixing and leveling, so that regional dialects are most strongly differentiated along the Eastern seaboard. The Connecticut River and Long Island Sound is usually regarded as the southern/western extent of New England speech, which has its roots in the speech of the Puritans from East Anglia who settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Potomac River generally divides a group of Northern coastal dialects from the beginning of the Coastal Southern dialect area; in between these two rivers several local variations exist, chief among them the one that prevails in and around New York City and northern New Jersey, which developed on a Dutch substratum after the English conquered New Amsterdam. The main features of Coastal Southern speech can be traced to the speech of the English from the West Country who settled in Virginia after leaving England at the time of the English Civil War.
Although no longer region-specific, African American Vernacular English, which remains prevalent among African Americans, has a close relationship to Southern varieties of AmE and has greatly influenced everyday speech of many Americans.
A distinctive speech pattern also appears near the border between Canada and the United States, centered on the Great Lakes region (but only on the American side). This is the Inland North Dialect—the "standard Midwestern" speech that was the basis for General American in the mid-20th century (although it has been recently modified by the northern cities vowel shift). Those not from this area frequently confuse it with the North Midland dialect treated below, referring to both collectively as "Midwestern" in the mid-Atlantic region or "Northern" in the Southern US. The so-called '"Minnesotan" dialect is also prevalent in the cultural Upper Midwest, and is characterized by influences from the German and Scandinavian settlers of the region (yah for yes/ja in German, pronounced the same way).
In the interior, the situation is very different. West of the Appalachian Mountains begins the broad zone of what is generally called "Midland" speech. This is divided into two discrete subdivisions, the North Midland that begins north of the Ohio River valley area, and the South Midland speech; sometimes the former is designated simply "Midland" and the latter is reckoned as "Highland Southern". The North Midland speech continues to expand westward until it becomes the closely related Western dialect which contains Pacific Northwest English as well as the well-known California English, although in the immediate San Francisco area some older speakers do not possess the cot–caught merger and thus retain the distinction between words such as cot and caught which reflects a historical Mid-Atlantic heritage.
The South Midland or Highland Southern dialect follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moves across Arkansas and Oklahoma west of the Mississippi, and peters out in West Texas. It is a version of the Midland speech that has assimilated some coastal Southern forms (outsiders often mistakenly believe South Midland speech and coastal South speech to be the same).
The island state of Hawaii has a distinctive Hawaiian Pidgin.
Finally, dialect development in the United States has been notably influenced by the distinctive speech of such important cultural centers as Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which imposed their marks on the surrounding areas.
Differences between British and American English
American English and British English (BrE) differ at the levels of phonology, phonetics, vocabulary, and, to a lesser extent, grammar and orthography. The first large American dictionary, An American Dictionary of the English Language, was written by Noah Webster in 1828; Webster intended to show that the United States, which was a relatively new country at the time, spoke a different dialect from that of Britain.
Differences in grammar are relatively minor, and normally do not affect mutual intelligibility; these include: different use of some verbal auxiliaries; formal (rather than notional) agreement with collective nouns; different preferences for the past forms of a few verbs (for example, AmE/BrE: learned/learnt, burned/burnt, snuck/sneaked, dove/dived); different prepositions and adverbs in certain contexts (for example, AmE in school, BrE at school); and whether or not a definite article is used, in very few cases (AmE to the hospital, BrE to hospital; contrast, however, AmE actress Elizabeth Taylor, BrE the actress Elizabeth Taylor). Often, these differences are a matter of relative preferences rather than absolute rules; and most are not stable, since the two varieties are constantly influencing each other.
Differences in orthography are also trivial. Some of the forms that now serve to distinguish American from British spelling (color for colour, center for centre, traveler for traveller, etc.) were introduced by Noah Webster himself; others are due to spelling tendencies in Britain from the 17th century until the present day (for example, -ise for -ize, although the Oxford English Dictionary still prefers the -ize ending) and cases favored by the francophile tastes of 19th century Victorian England, which had little effect on AmE (for example, programme for program, manoeuvre for maneuver, skilful for skillful, cheque for check, etc.).
AmE sometimes favors words that are morphologically more complex, whereas BrE uses clipped forms, such as AmE transportation and BrE transport or where the British form is a back-formation, such as AmE burglarize and BrE burgle (from burglar). It should, however, be noted that while individuals usually use one or the other, both forms will be widely understood and mostly used alongside each other within the two systems.
- Dictionary of American Regional English
- IPA chart for English
- Regional accents of English speakers
- Canadian English
- North American English
- International English
- Received Pronunciation
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History of American English
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- Wolfram, Walt. (1969). A sociolinguistic description of Detroit negro speech. Urban linguistic series (No. 5). Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.
- Wolfram, Walt; & Thomas, Erik. (2002). The development of African American English: Evidence from an isolated community. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
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- Bayley, Robert; & Santa Ana, Otto. (2004). Chicano English grammar. In B. Kortmann, E. W. Schneider, K. Burridge, R. Mesthrie, & C. Upton (Eds.), A handbook of varieties of English: Morphology and syntax (Vol. 2, pp. 167–183). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
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- Wolfram, Walt. (1974). Sociolinguistic aspects of assimilation: Puerto Rican English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.
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- Do You Speak American: PBS special
- Dialect Survey of the United States, by Bert Vaux et al., Harvard University.
- Linguistic Atlas Projects
- Phonological Atlas of North America at the University of Pennsylvania
- Speech Accent Archive[dead link]
- Dictionary of American Regional English
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