Thursday, March 13, 2014


Which English Do You Speak?

You know how when you look up adefenestration word on Merriam-Webster's website, a little video will start playing on mute in the corner and someone will silently tell you about some obscure word or irregular rule? The purple-haired woman who shows up in those videos is named Kory Stamper, and she's written a super interesting essay about different dialects of American English and their varying levels of prestige.

One day I was telling my mother about the school day when she cut me off. "Can you queet talkin' like deese, because we don't talk like deese? Drives me crazy."

I was flummoxed. "I'm just talking," I said.

"You sound Mexican," she said, "and you're not. If you're not careful, your friends are going to think that you're making fun of them." It was my first introduction to sociolinguistics and the politics of dialect.

It never fails to fascinate me that we speak so many different versions of English despite the homogenizing effect of mass media. I've long been intrigued with Pennsylvania's "The car needs washed" construction, but I'd never even heard of the "I'm done my homework" construction Stamper mentions. And of course I'll never stop missing "y'all" and "might could" since I moved away from Texas, though it's nice to be back in "hella" country.

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I feel pretty dumb right now, but I'm from Philly and I never realized "I'm done my homework" was regional OR grammatically incorrect. I'm 28 years old and have a masters in education, and I'm so confused! Can someone explain to me why that's wrong/ weird?!


@Frankeneeka Ahhh, that's so interesting! In standard English, you have to say "I'm done WITH my homework" (or "I'VE done my homework") not "I'm done my homework." It's totally correct for your regional dialect, but incorrect in pretty much everyone else's. You are like an awesome rare language gem!

Do you use the "needs washed" construction too?


@Lauren_O'Neal I'd lay money she's unfamiliar with "needs washed" unless she has relatives in Pittsburgh (my hometown) or elsewhere in western PA. There are only two things eastern and western PA have in common linguistically. One is to say "PA" instead of "Pennsylvania" (which is statewide, really) and the other is "hoagie." I'd never even heard of "I'm done my homework" until this very post. But yesterday as I put my hair up in a gumband (western PA word, originally a rubber band but long since extended to also mean hair tie) I was telling someone how it (my hair) totally needs cut.


@Lauren_O'Neal @bureaucrab Yes, I was going to say that "needs washed" sounds like central or western PA-ese. Definitely not a Philly thing. My head is really exploding here because I help kids with homework at work every day and I'm constantly asking "You done your homework?". I know that's lazy Philly speak because I'm leaving out "are" at the beginning of a sentence, but I NEVER had an inkling that the rest was off. Huh. Them grammar jawns is crazy.


@Frankeneeka @bureaucrab Oh wow! I didn't realize there were so many variations within Pennyslvania itself! (I'm from California, the whole northeast is just one state to me.)

Funnily enough, I think "You done your homework?" comes back around to a more universal version of spoken English. People across the country would say that in casual conversation, just in most people's minds, it's a shortened version of "HAVE you done your homework?" not "ARE you done your homework?"


@Frankeneeka yeah I'm a translator who is nearly finished with a masters in linguistics and have never ever thought about it. Philadephia! (and apparently also Canada?) Last night I read this while drunk and then made my (non-English speaking) boyfriend try to repeat my cool southeastern PA way of mangling the English language.


@psychedelicate @Lauren_O'Neal not only is PA highly regional, but I can pin down a southeastern PA accent to the section of Philly or county of PA/ south Jersey suburb ( southeastern PA is in the same accent family as south Jersey, not the rest of Pennsylvania). I'm from outside of Northeast Philly and my husband is from south Jerz, by we live in South Philly. We get endless entertainment out of trying to perfect our neighbors' accent!

does it need saying

@Frankeneeka I'm really confused. What would be the correct way to say the car needs washed? Would it need washing? I have never thought there was another way to say it. (Indiana here)

Heather Funk

@Frankeneeka "Correct" being a relative term, "The car needs to be washed"? "The car needs washing" has a nice proper British ring to it, though.

It seems like there are a lot of different dialects spoken in Indiana, which is super interesting. I would assume it's more Great Lakes/ Chicago in the north part, Midwest in the middle, and then you get all the way down to the bottom and it's suburbs of Louisville, and they have more pronounced Southern accents than residents of the city proper in my experience.


@does it need saying The way I would say it is "the car needs TO BE washed". I think a lot of these weird regional phrases are just normal phrases with some superfluous words left out. More straight and to the point. Although who knows if I'm saying that wrong, too. I don't even know anymore!

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@Frankeneeka yup, until recently I didn't know people dropped the "to be"* and said "Needs washed", and if I hadn't seen it somewhere online (maybe in the comments of another Hairpin piece years ago), I'd have been so confused when my Indiana-born coworker told me "this file needs fixed."

*Shakespeare was ahead of his time


@Frankeneeka "Needs washed" is definitely one of the odd regionalisms that really stuck with me from moving around a lot. I grew up in Southern California and Boston, but went to college in Ohio with a roommate from southern Michigan, and thanks to her I say that all the time.

does it need saying

@Frankeneeka D'oh! Well that makes sense. I didn't even think of that.

Steph Barnard@facebook

@Frankeneeka I live in Cincinnati, and everyone here says things "need verbed" all the time. I blame Kentucky.

Heather Funk

@Steph Barnard@facebook Naaaaaw! That's where I'm from, and I ain' never heard that! "I done verbed," as in, "I done did my homework, Ma," is another story altogether...


@does it need saying This is doubly interesting because your username itself is an alternative to "needs said."


@Steph Barnard@facebook I also think it's from Kentucky, as I heard it primarily from a college buddy who grew up there and a grad school buddy who grew up in West Virginia and went to college in Kentucky. I think it's lovely!


@Frankeneeka I'm from Canada and say "I'm done" things all the time. I still can't wrap my mind around it being incorrect. To me it's totally logical to be in the state of being done doing something- like "I'm done doing my homework" but you can drop the "doing" because it's a bit redundant. "I have done my homework" sounds further in the past, and "I'm done" is more of a state- "I'm done with that." This also makes me remember how when learning French, I had to remind myself not to say "je suis fini" (I am finished) because it can mean you are dead, instead you must say "j'ai fini" (I have finished). I suppose for a non-"I'm done" speaker this would be more intuitive.


this is so clear.@t


I love me some linguistics! That's a really fun article. I recently had an awesome time with the cot/caught and marry/merry/Mary mergers at work one day when I realized my team was from all over the US.

Since the Bay Area is so full of transplants (like me), one of my favorite things to do is listen and try to pinpoint the accent origin, especially if it's a double-accent (see: Indian-born Australian coworker).

I haven't adopted hella up here, and I definitely refer to freeways as "the 280" still. They'll never shake the San Fernando Valley out of me.


@hedgehogerie I was raised in NorCal, but my dad is from SoCal, so I somehow picked up "the 280" as a child. The funny thing about "hella" is I have Internet friends from as far away as the UK and Australia who've picked it up, but SoCal is still like, Nope.


@Lauren_O'Neal Oh man, I'm so fascinated by the SoCal/NorCal culture divide (rivalry? Cage match?): I've only ever been to Southern California, and I loved it, but then I have friends from Northern California who seem to suggest that Southern California is in fact the worst place on earth. Why?


@adorable-eggplant Basically, NorCal thinks there is this big rivalry and has a huge chip on its shoulder about being better than SoCal. SoCal doesn't care about NorCal at all, which means they've already won. But I will never admit they've won because I'm from NorCal and everyone is so fake down there and the traffic is terrible and they're so obsessed with appearances and etc.


@Lauren_O'Neal This 100% matches my experience. The traffic is terrible (the people seem real, but I have never seem so many glistening white BMWs, sooooo, or felt so slubby for just wearing normal jeans). But OMG the food, y'all, it was very reeeeeeaaal.


@adorable-eggplant Oh yeah, apparently California in general has better produce than most of the country. I don't really know, I have to check my produce privilege.

Heather Funk

I spent a few years in Western NY before moving back to Kentucky... I never thought I had a regional accent before, but now that I'm back I realized that I spent a lot more time enunciating "for" and "isn't" and "to" instead of "fer" and "idn't" and "t' " (not to mention the subtle difference between "pen" and "pin" I didn't even realized existed till I was 19) when I lived there so as to fit in because I come from a very non-prestigeful accent territory, though of course they had their own accent there. I remember I used to talk to someone I thought was Mrs. Leary over the phone and it was six months in before I saw her name written out and realized it was Mrs. LARRY.

I actually really like the Southern accent, though, and find it comforting and charming. And don't lie, y'all, there is a LOT of need in the English language for "y'all" and "your all's."


My regionalisms are such a hodgepodge. I've been living in Boston off and on since I was 11, but I will still occasionally be told by a friend that something I think is perfectly normal is a Southern California thing -- I didn't realize that people here don't use an article before freeways (the 405) until I was, like, 20. (Or that they don't really say freeway.)

Then there's the Midwestern college, and the study abroad in Dublin, and the too much Canadian TV, and the grad school in England, and teaching in France, and ahhhh. I'm too linguistically impressionable; it's a problem.


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