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Dr. James Stanford, Dartmouth College - Receding New England Accent

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. James Stanford of Dartmouth College reveals why the iconic New England accent is become more geographically isolated. 

James Stanford is an assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Dartmouth College. His research interests include the sociolinguistics of less commonly studied languages, language variation and change, and the dialects of English in New England. He earned his Ph.D. at Michigan State University.

About Dr. Stanford

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Dr. James Stanford - Receding New England Accent

Do you say New Hampshire or New Hampsha? Do you say farmer or fahma? One of the fascinating facts about American English dialects is that many modern dialect contrasts can be traced directly back to the original European settlements of the colonial era. Let’s consider New England: The early European settlers in the Massachusetts Bay area and neighboring regions stayed in contact with their roots in southeast England, where speakers tended to “drop their r’s.” But most people who settled farther west, such as the west side of Vermont’s Green Mountains or in upstate New York, tended to pronounce their r’s. This dialect contrast between Eastern and Western New England endured for many generations after the founding settlers. In dialect research, we call this the Founder Effect.

At Dartmouth, my students and I have been researching dialects in rural towns and farms of northern New England. The most famous feature in this area is the “dropped r”, as in New Hampsha, but there are other distinguishing features. In this region, people traditionally pronounce the vowel in words like start as staht [sta:t]. Words like father often have a distinctive vowel as well, such that father is pronounced like fahtha [fa:ð?]. And words like bath and laugh may be pronounced with a “broad-a” baath [ba:?].

In New Hampshire and Maine, we’re finding that most younger speakers are not using these dialect features. While these traditional features remain somewhat stronger back in Boston, the social center of the Eastern settlement region, it is clear that the Founder Effect is dissipating in northern New England.
But don’t despair! American dialects are not dying off. It’s natural for languages and dialects to change over time, and we expect to find certain features occasionally receding. In other parts of America, linguists have found that dialects are actually becoming more distinct, not less. Dialect differences will always be a vibrant part of American culture, regardless of whether you choose to say culture or culcha.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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