Ethnic dialects in North American English

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Ethnic dialects in North American English
Charles Boberg

McGill University
It is a well-known principle of sociolinguistics that languages reflect the people who speak them: social divisions produce associated cleavages in linguistic behavior. The United States and Canada have been multi-ethnic nations from their beginnings, and race and ethnicity have arguably produced the most fundamental social divisions in North American society throughout its history. It is therefore not surprising that North American English displays a wide range of ethnic dialects, or ethnolects, in addition to the standard varieties traditionally associated with people of British and, later, North European ethnic ancestry. As other ethnic groups have integrated socially with the British-origin group, either through extended contact over several generations or through upward socio-economic mobility, they have followed a pattern of heritage language loss leading eventually to complete assimilation to the British-American standard. By contrast, groups who have not been able to integrate socially continue to differ from that standard. Some recently-arrived groups are still going through the assimilatory process today. Ethnolectal variation has been studied systematically by North American sociolinguists since the 1960s; indeed, counteracting prejudicial evaluations of certain ethnolects was a key motivating force behind the development of sociolinguistics. This chapter will review the main types and most important studies of ethnic variation in North American English. Beyond identifying the obvious cases of variation aligned with major racial groups that have been widely documented elsewhere, it will give special emphasis to subtler examples of ethnolectal variation within the European-origin population. From this discussion it will become clear that the history of English in North America should be thought about not merely in terms of its linear, language-internal development from British inputs in the 17th century, but also in terms of its contact with other North American languages, and the role that these interfaces have played in producing the unique varieties of English now spoken in North America.

1 A multi-ethnic language in a multilingual contact situation
North American English has never been isolated from other languages. When English arrived in North America the early 17th century, the continent was already home to millions of Aboriginal people who spoke a wide array of languages. Moreover, English was only one of three major European colonial languages brought to North America: early British settlements on the Atlantic seaboard were founded between French settlements to the north and Spanish settlements to the south and west; even closer at hand were smaller groups of Dutch, Germans and Swedes, who were quickly absorbed into the English colonial enterprise. Even the English-speaking group itself did not comprise a single ethnic group: besides the English, there was a strong representation of Scots and Irish, with their own dialects, as well as people of African origin, most of these brought to the New World as slaves. Finally, subsequent settlement sources quickly diversified beyond Britain to include most of Europe in the 19th century and, in the 20th, most of the rest of the world, especially Latin America and Asia. This history has made North American English a lingua franca for the wide range of ethnic and linguistic groups who have settled the continent.

The most obvious ethnic differences in North American English arise from social divisions among the major racial groups who had the greatest role in populating the continent. Where social conditions -- including racial prejudice, social segregation and economic disparity -- have favored the continued isolation of these groups from one another, social distinctions have been reinforced and symbolized by linguistic distinctions. Thus, most American cities today are home to at least two distinct ethnolects: one spoken by most people of European and another by most people of African origin, the latter now called African American English (AAE). The most distinctive form of AAE is the vernacular variety spoken in casual situations or by people with less formal education, but the African American community displays the same range and type of sociolinguistic variation as other communities, with usage at higher social levels exhibiting fewer distinctively African American features. The fact that most people of African origin born in Canada speak Canadian rather than African American English further demonstrates that ethnolects are the product of social rather than genetic differences.

In addition to AAE, most American cities now feature another major ethnolect, spoken by many people of Hispanic or Latino origin, which shows the influence of Spanish. Latino English can be heard especially among the Puerto Rican- and Dominican-origin population of New York City, the Cuban-origin population of Miami and the Mexican-origin population of the southwest, from Texas to California; the latter variety is also called Chicano English.

Some American and many Canadian cities, particularly in the western half of the continent, also include relatively large Aboriginal populations, some of whose members speak varieties of English influenced by non-English substrates. Finally, cities that received large populations of immigrants over the last century often feature many other ethnic speech varieties, some of which are discussed below.

Exact numbers of speakers of these ethnolects are difficult to establish, but a rough estimate is available from the most recent United States Census, whose data on ethnic origin are summarized by Brittingham and Patricia de la Cruz (2004: 3). These are adapted here as Table 1, along with data on Latinos from Guzmán (2001: 3) and on Asians from Reeves and Bennett (2004: 1); the size of the Jewish ancestry group, not included among the those listed in U.S. Census tables, is estimated here from internet sources. Only 80 percent of respondents specified their ancestry, and only 58 percent specified a single ancestry, so real populations may be larger than those in Table 1.
Table 1: Ethnic ancestry of the United States population, 2000. Size of selected groups, from U.S. Census.

Ancestry group

Number (millions)

Proportion of nat. pop. (%)

United States total






Hispanic or Latino






African American












Native American






Further data from Brittingham and Patricia de la Cruz (2004: 8-9) indicate the regional distribution of these groups. African Americans are dominant in many counties across the coastal southeast, from Louisiana to Georgia to Virginia, but are also the largest ancestry group in four of the country’s ten largest cities: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. Mexican-Americans, the largest Latino group (18.4 million), dominate in many counties across the southwest, from California to Texas, but are also the largest group in the six remaining largest cities: Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas and San Antonio. The Latino population is growing very quickly and the data in Table 1 do not include a large number of non-citizen Latinos now resident in the United States; Latinos have now likely equaled or exceeded the German group to become the country’s largest ethnic minority and will soon be twice the size of the African American group. German-Americans, who are shrinking rather than growing, still dominate a vast Midwestern region (except for the cities just mentioned) and much of the Northwest. Italian-Americans, by contrast, are concentrated in a much smaller northeastern area centered on New York City. Native Americans have several discontinuous regions of prominence, including eastern Oklahoma, the “four corners” area around northeastern Arizona, and several counties in South Dakota and Montana. The English, now a small minority in the country they played so large a part in founding, are dominant only in parts of New England and in Utah and surrounding regions. If to the English group we add those who claim American, Scottish, Irish, Scotch-Irish and Welsh ancestry, we get a British-origin group making up something less than a third of the population; if to these we add the major North European groups – those of German, Polish, French, Dutch and Scandinavian ancestry, most of whom can now be assumed to have assimilated more or less completely to the linguistic model of the British-American group – we account for just over two thirds of the population. Roughly speaking, this suggests that up to a third of Americans today speak an ethnolect other than the standard “non-ethnic” variety based on Anglo-American speech.

Ethnic diversity has not only created distinctive ethnic speech varieties but contributed a rich supply of loanwords to mainstream or standard North American English, drawn from the wide variety of languages spoken on the continent. Some of these likely entered English through the ethnolects of bilingual speakers. From Aboriginal languages came many words for things unfamiliar to European settlers, such as igloos, kayaks, moccasins, moose, mukluks, raccoons, skunks, teepees and toboggans. The lexical contribution of African languages was comparatively small, but banjo, gumbo, mojo, okra and zombie, and perhaps also jazz, are a few words that did survive the social dislocation and repression of slavery. Contact among English- and Spanish-speakers in America’s southwest introduced dozens of Spanish words into American English, such as those for animals (alligator, armadillo, coyote), foods (barbecue, burrito, chili, guacamole, jalapeño, nacho, quesadilla, salsa, taco, tortilla), architecture and town design (adobe, barrio, plaza), landscape (canyon, mesa, sierra), and cattle raising (bronco, chaps, corral, lariat, lasso, ranch, rodeo, stampede). At about the same time, the arrival of thousands of Yiddish-speaking European Jews in large eastern cities, especially New York, led to the development of a Yiddish stratum of the American lexicon. Though Jews were a small group compared to many other ethnic populations, their subsequent prominence in many fields, including popular entertainment, spread their lexical contributions farther than they might otherwise have gone, in some cases penetrating popular usage beyond the Jewish community itself. A few examples are bagel, chutzpah, kibitz, klutz, kosher, kvetch, lox, maven, nebbish, nosh, shlemiel, shlep, shmo, shmooze, shmuck, shtick, shpiel and yenta.

2 African American English
The earliest systematic studies of AAE (e.g., Wolfram (1969) in Detroit and Labov (1972a) in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City) identified many grammatical and phonological features – negative concord, aspectual be, copula deletion, 3sg /s/ absence, high frequency of /t, d/-deletion, /r/ vocalization, etc. – that both distinguish it from European-American varieties and demonstrate its systematic, rule-governed nature. These studies rejected the view of AAE as a failed attempt to acquire standard English, asking instead whether it should be considered a completely separate linguistic system, closely related to English, or a dialect of English with unique phonological and grammatical rules. Labov’s view was that “…[AAE] shows internal cohesion, [but] … is best seen as a distinct subsystem within the larger grammar of English” (1972a: 63-64). The pioneering work of Labov, Wolfram and others (like Dillard 1972) inspired a highly productive tradition of research on AAE that has made it one of the best studied non-standard dialects in the world, certainly attracting far more scholarly attention than any other ethnolect in North America. There is no space in this chapter to give this important body of work the attention it deserves, so the reader is referred instead to a sample of more recent general treatments of the subject: Green (2002), Lanehart (2001), Mufwene et al. (1998), Rickford (1999) or Wolfram and Thomas (2002).

3 Latino English
Much less academic attention has been devoted to Latino English, despite the large and growing Latino population, perhaps because Latinos have not in general presented the same social justice issues as African Americans, or because Latino English is seen as a transitory, second-language, immigrant variety, not a native type of American English. Nonetheless, while some Latino varieties do fit this description, others are spoken by American-born Latinos who continue to use distinctive linguistic features as a symbol of their cultural identity (Eckert 2008). Whereas earlier work examined Puerto Rican English in New York City (Wolfram 1974; Poplack 1978), much recent research has focused on America’s largest Latino group, the Mexican-origin or Chicano community (Bayley 1994; Fought 2003, 2006; Mendoza-Denton 2008; Penfield and Ornstein-Galicia 1985; Santa Ana 1996). As with AAE, there is no space here to discuss the many specific features of Latino English; Fought (2003) offers a good overview. Suffice it to say that many of these involve transfer from Spanish, but some also show the influence of AAE, with which many Latinos have had intensive contact in urban neighborhoods.

4 European-North American ethnolects
Like Latino English, the ethnolects spoken by various European-American groups have garnered less scholarly attention, but what there is goes back even earlier; for instance, Thomas (1932) is an early study of Jewish English in New York City, while Emeneau (1935) describes German-Canadian speech in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Labov’s first work examined the effect of Portuguese versus English ethnicity on vowel production on Martha’s Vineyard (1963) and his subsequent study of New York City speech analyzed Italians and Jews as linguistically distinct ethnic groups (1972b); Laferrière (1979) also studied the latter two groups, along with Irish-Americans, in Boston. Since these early studies, however, the relative importance of European-American ethnolects has declined. Because of their relative physical and cultural similarity to Anglo-Americans, European immigrants have tended to assimilate more quickly than African Americans or Latinos, thereby losing their ethnolinguistic distinctiveness. Little is left of the ethnic varieties spoken by the millions of Germans and Scandinavians, for instance, who settled the American Midwest in the 19th century (but see Purnell, Salmons and Tepeli 2005); the ethnolect of bilingual Norwegian Americans studied by Haugen (1969) has faded away as its speakers intermarried with non-Norwegians and dispersed to other locations. In some places, European ethnic varieties have hung on, even in urban contexts: Carlock and Wölck (1981) and Wölck (2002), for example, report on phonological differences between the German-, Polish- and Italian-origin communities of Buffalo, New York. In general, however, ethnolinguistic differences among long-resident European groups have survived only where particularly strong cultural or religious bonds prevent members from integrating with non-members, as in the communal social structure of German-speaking Amish and Mennonite agricultural settlements, or in parts of the Jewish community.

Jewish English has been better studied than most European-American ethnolects, partly because many Jews have held themselves apart -- or been excluded -- from non-Jewish society. Benor (2009, 2010) has examined the ethnolect of Orthodox Jews, a group more segregated than most. Attendance of children at Jewish schools and synagogues, disapproval of marriage to non-Jews and the maintenance of largely Jewish social and even occupational networks have all helped to preserve unique linguistic features (Gold 1985). Many of these originate in the Yiddish-influenced, second-language English of the immigrant generation: Feinstein (1980) looks at topicalization, in which objects occur before the verb (my car he had to hit!; a nicer jacket you couldn’t find?). Tannen (1981) observes that New York Jews exhibit distinct conversational patterns. These may seem aggressive or abrasive to some non-Jewish listeners, therefore contributing to “the stereotype of the pushy New York Jew” (133). New York Jewish English, she suggests, employs more abrupt topic shifts, more story-telling, faster speech rate and turn-taking, “cooperative overlap and participatory listenership”, and frequent pitch and amplitude shifts (137). Tannen’s data were collected during family conversations at Thanksgiving dinner, a context reminiscent of the portrayal of Jewish conversational style by Woody Allen in the film Annie Hall (1977). At one point, Allen splits the screen to juxtapose the polite, quiet and orderly (but, we are made to think, oppressive) exchange at Easter dinner with the family of the midwestern gentile woman his Jewish character is dating, and the loud and disorderly yet joyous and convivial free-for-all of his own family’s holiday meal in Brooklyn. The Jewish family modulates pitch, shouts, interrupts and overlaps with each other, and addresses many topics abruptly and simultaneously, just as Tannen found.

The emigration of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe to North America also gave rise to Jewish communities in several Canadian cities, particularly Montreal and Toronto. Montreal’s Jewish community was one of three ethnic groups compared by Boberg (2004, 2010) in a sociophonetic analysis of several vocalic variables in Montreal English, along with the city’s Italian- and British-origin communities. Ethnic group membership was found to have a significant effect on several variables (2010: 222). Italian Montreal English resists the centralization of the goose and goat vowels prevalent in North American English and has not consistently adopted the Canadian Raising that is normal in British-origin speech (a raised nucleus in the diphthong of mouth, before a voiceless fricative, in contrast to a low nucleus in other environments, like how or loud). The comparatively recent arrival of Italians (after World War II) and their transitional sociolinguistic status between the city’s French and English populations has prevented their full assimilation to the Anglo-Canadian model that prevails outside their own community. Speakers of Jewish Montreal English, by contrast, have adopted local Canadian features, reflecting their earlier arrival (before World War II) and their closer residential proximity to the British-origin group. Jews nevertheless display their own distinctive pronunciations, such as a lower vowel for words in the face set and a much backer vowel for price words, like line, which sounds somewhat like loin to non-Jewish listeners. In Montreal, ethnic differences persist even among Canadian-born speakers and their children, unlike in other large Canadian cities (see Hoffman (2010) and Hoffman and Walker (2010) for Toronto). This persistence is apparently fostered by the self-segregation of many of Montreal’s ethnic groups (Lieberson 1970, 1981) and by their geographic and cultural isolation from the city’s British-origin population. It is also a function of the minority status of English in Montreal, where French is now the only official language and the dominant language of public life, thereby limiting the access of recent immigrant groups to native targets for linguistic assimilation.
5 New directions
Several ethnic groups have so far received only brief mention, because systematic research into their speech patterns has been less common. Some groups clearly deserve more attention than they have had in the past. For example, the quantity of research on Italian-origin English (or other Mediterranean varieties, such as Greek English) is smaller than that on Jewish English, despite a much larger Italian-ancestry population (Table 1). Even less understandable is the comparative lack of research on Asian-American Englishes (Lo and Reyes 2004: 115), given large and growing communities of South or East Asian origin. Some of these are long-established, like the Chinese, who began arriving in the 19th century. In many cities they now represent a sizable portion of the population; Chinese is the second-most-spoken language in every major city in English-speaking Canada (Boberg 2010: 22-24). Perhaps because they have been remarkably successful at achieving higher education and middle-class socio-economic status within one generation of their arrival, these groups have not attracted the attention of researchers concerned with empowerment of disadvantaged groups. Certainly, their rapid assimilation into Euro-American culture has reduced their ethnolinguistic distinctiveness relative to other groups, yet where their numbers are large, some groups display subtle indicators of Asian ethnicity that merit study. As Asian immigration to North America is likely to grow rather than shrink in the future, this seems a promising new direction for research on ethnic dialects, as suggested by the collection of papers in Reyes and Lo (2009).

The most glaring gap in ethnolinguistic scholarship relates to the English used by people of Aboriginal ancestry: the Native Americans of the United States and the First Nations peoples of Canada. Though they are not as populous as speakers of AAE or Latino English, they represent a much wider diversity of substrate languages and cultures and present a set of ethnolinguistic features that are equally worthy of study, yet scholarly attention has so far been limited. This may reflect the much greater concern of North American linguists with documenting and analyzing Aboriginal languages themselves, rather than the Aboriginal Englishes that are replacing them, an understandable preoccupation given the fragile state of those languages that survive. While acknowledging that this may be the greater need, more research on Aboriginal Englishes might be beneficial both to linguistics and to Aboriginal groups themselves, who now find themselves in an increasingly Anglophone context, which presents dialect-related issues of social integration, access to education and cultural identity. Some research, of course, has been done, starting with Labov (1963), who included Native Americans among the ethnic groups he examined on Martha’s Vineyard. More recently, a study of the English spoken by the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina has produced several reports (Dannenberg 2003; Schilling-Estes 2000; Torbert 2001; Wolfram and Dannenberg 1999; Wolfram and Sellers 1999). There have been more isolated studies of other communities as well: Wolfram (1984) on tense marking in two Puebloan communities; Flanigan (1987) on Lakota English; and Leap (1993) on English among the Ute tribe. In Canada, First Nations Englishes have been studied by Ball and Bernhardt (2008), Scollon and Scollon (1979) and Toohey (1985). Completely lacking, however, are comprehensive, multi-regional surveys of Aboriginal English comparable to the resources now available on AAE or even Latino English. Given the highly distinctive nature of Aboriginal Englishes, this lack represents perhaps the most significant opportunity for a new approach to ethnic variation in North American English.

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