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A 'Dialect Nomad' Goes in Search of Changes in American English

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: linguist Walt Wolfram from North Carolina State University, a self-described "dialect nomad" who likes to wander through the dialects of American English.

RS: "And where has this nomadic journey taken you this time?"

WALT WOLFRAM: "Well, it's actually taken me to a new book that attempts to capture a whole range of dialects. It's titled 'American Voices: How Dialects Differ From Coast to Coast.' And what we tried to do in this book is to take some old, traditional dialects that people are aware of -- say, for example, Appalachian English or African-American English -- and show how they're configuring themselves, but at the same time look at dialect areas that people don't even think about in terms of dialects. Like look at dialect areas of the Midwest or look at places like Utah or Arizona, to show how some of these places are sites of emerging varieties of English."

AA: "So, for example, what's coming out of Arizona?"

WALT WOLFRAM: "Well, to some extent, what's coming out of Arizona is a sort of a carryover from what's happening in terms of California, where varieties of California English are starting to emerge. But also in Arizona what's happening is you're getting this sort of rural-urban split, where some of the rural residents of Arizona sound more Southern and urban speakers are sounding more like California in terms of some of the shifting vowel systems."

RS: "What about places like Las Vegas or Orlando, places that are growing so quickly that they can hardly assimilate the numbers of people, let alone the different dialects that are coming into the region?"

WALT WOLFRAM: "Well, there's a sort of homogenization that initially takes place. All of these people come in and sort of the native speaker becomes lost. But as a new group settles, what will, for example, happen with Atlanta is it will take some features of its original Southern heritage and it will start to redefine itself linguistically.

"So, for example, one of the things that you'll notice is that although there are lot of Northerners who move to Atlanta, within a couple of years they start saying things like 'y'all' and 'fixin' to' -- for 'I'm fixing to go now' -- something that's going to happen in the immediate future. Or they may start producing the vowel of 'time' as 'taime' and so forth. So what happens is, there's a selective process linguistically."

AA: "I'm curious, you're talking about the emerging California dialect, and that's a state where I spent many years -- and I'm curious, in the media we think of California-speak as being like the 'surfer talk' or the 'Valley Girl' sorts of ways. Is that what you're referring to, or also the influence of -- "

WALT WOLFRAM: "Well, I mean, that's more of the public image. What's really sort of the heart of the developing California dialect is changes in the production of the vowels. So, for example, instead of saying something like 'bat,' people may say something more like 'bet.' Or, for example, instead of saying something like 'cool,' they may say something like 'kewl.'

"So whereas we have these associations where, OK, California speech is the use of 'go' to introduce or 'be like' to introduce quotes, for example -- 'So he's like "Whadya doin'?" and I go "Whadya think I'm doin'?"' -- that's the sort of Valley Girl association. And that's certainly part of it, and California is probably where that change started. But what is more significant is some of the more subtle changes in the production of the vowels that people can identify, 'Oh, you're from California.'"

AA: Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at North Carolina State University. His newest book, which he edited with Ben Ward, is called "American Voices: How Dialects Differ From Coast to Coast."

Before we go, we have a question from Kayode Aladeselu in Nigeria, who wants to know it means when Americans say "so long." When a conversation ends with "so long," that simply means goodbye. And now we have to say so long for this week.

Our e-mail address is And if you'd like to learn more about American English, our segments are all posted with transcripts and audio files at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "So-Long-Farewell-Goodbye"/Big Bad Voodoo Daddy