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The Mid-Atlantic Dialects


The Mid-Atlantic region of the United States is made up of the coastal states between New England and the South. The term itself is often applied to varying groups of states, but generally, its members are considered to be New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. The Mid-Atlantic states do not share a common dialect: in fact, all three major groups of American English are spoken within their confines. Following Hans Kurath's classifications, Mid-Atlantic speech ranges from the Northern dialects of New York State, to the Midland dialects of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to the Southern dialects of the lower Chesapeake Bay and Delmarva.

The Dialects of the Mid-Atlantic States

Adopting Kurath's divisions of American English , New York is the only Mid-Atlantic state in which only one of these divisions is spoken: the Northern one. Upstate New York and the Great Lakes region speaks a dialect which covers a wide geographic range, from western Vermont to Northern Pennsylvania. Along the Hudson river valley, a second dialect is differentiated, which extends into extreme northeastern Pennsylvania and most of North Jersey; this is notable for its heavy Dutch influence. The third major dialect in the State is that of Metropolitan New York City, including the suburbs in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island.

New Jersey is divided between the Northern and the Midland types. North Jersey speech is strongly influenced by the New York metropolitan area which spills into it. Likewise, South Jersey speech has a strong Philadelphia element, both because of the metropolitan expansion and because so many Philadelphians spend their summers at the shore resorts. It may be possible to regard the speech of the "Pineys" in the south as a rustic speech native to New Jersey.

Northern dialects of the Upstate New York type occupy the northernmost counties of Pennsylvania, except in the northeastern corner of the state, where the Hudson Valley element is stronger. Otherwise, the state is wholly Midland. The Delaware Valley immediately surrounding Philadelphia is rather uniform in speech. The rest of the southeast (barring the Philadelphia suburbs) and central Pennsylvania is taken up by the Susquehanna Valley dialect, heavily influenced by the Pennsylvania German language and culture of the area. Past the Alleghenies is yet another dialect, this time the Western Pennsylvania speech of the Pittsburgh region.

Delaware is divided between the Midland and Southern dialect boundaries. Wilmington and the north are heavily influenced by Philadelphian, and thus Midland, while Lower Delaware speaks the Southern dialect common to the Delmarva peninsula, which is a rather characteristic dialect and which has remained rather independant from the Virginia-influenced dialects of Maryland's western shore.

Maryland, like Delaware, has Midland speech along its northern border, the chief distinction being that the Midland dialects in Maryland are of the central Pennsylvania type rather than the Delaware Valley type. Further south are two distinct types of Southern dialects divided by the Chesapeake Bay: the Delmarva variety, on the Eastern Shore, and the Virginia Piedmont type from Baltimore south on the western shore.

Lastly, it should be noted that some researchers discount the existence of a Midland group of dialects. They classify the South Midland dialects (West Virginia, etc.) as Southern, and the North Midland dialects, (New Jersey and Pennsylvania) as Northern dialects.

Urban and Local Characteristics

The major Mid-Atlantic cities display differences in speech that have their roots in the original settlement of the colonies. These differences have often radiated out from the original points of settlement and colored the speech of surrounding areas.

The most important common characteristic is the complex distribution of two forms of short a: the lax a in bat, and the tense a in bad, which sounds very much like the ai in air . Some dialects lax all short a's, others tense all short a 's (See Buffalo below). But in the coastal Mid-Atlantic areas of New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, both types of short a exist, with complex rules governing which words are tense and which are lax. These rules do, however, differ from city to city: ash, for example, is lax in Philadelphia but tense in New York. Also common to the metropolitan areas of the Northeast is the pronunciation of soft th as d : dis (this), dem (them), etc.

The urban dialects also have grammatical peculiarities. One of these is the use of a distinct pronoun for the second person plural, the equivalent of the Southern y'all. In New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore, the form is youse, a simple pluralization of you . This form is also heard in more rural areas in Southeastern Pennsylvania, and may have originated there. In Pittsburgh, the form is y'uns , a contraction for you ones. On the Delmarva peninsula, the second person plural is mongst-ye, a relic.


Buffalo and other cities of Upstate New York, including Syracuse and Rochester (and also the Midwestern cities of Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago) are often linguistically classified together as the 'Northern Cities', on the basis of certain shared similarities. There is for example, a raising of the short o vowel to the level of lax a: the most outstanding example in Buffalo being the pronunciation gat (got). Words that are historically in the short a class are pronounced with the tense short a in all environments: thaet (that).

New York City

New York City is quite distinctive linguistically, the local speech being one of the most readily recognized throughout the country. It is typical of Atlantic port cities in that postvocalic r is dropped, so that source is pronounced the same as sauce, and or pronounced aw. One New York (specifically Brooklyn) feature that is often remarked upon is the substitution of oi for er/ir ; i.e. boid (bird). However, the actual number of speakers for whom these sounds are identical is small. Generally, the sound heard in Brooklynese bird is not oi, but more like uh-ee, which, when written, is "rounded off" to oi. A well-pronounced r is heard in some environments where it does not historically exist, as in I sawr it . (I saw it.)


The Philadelphia dialect is unusual for an Atlantic port city in that pre-consonantal and final r's are well pronounced: in Boston, New York, Richmond, and Atlanta they are regularly dropped. As in the South, the diphthong ow begins with short a: al (owl) and fal (foul). There are also characteristics shared with New York City, namely the fronting of o before r and y: stoor (store), booy (boy). Typically Philadelphian pronunciations are vurry (very) and furry (ferry), with the short u of cut.


Pittsburgh historically was a gateway to the Midwest, and its dialect still reflects this. Features common to Pittsburgh include the leveling of the diphthong ow to short o: ot (out) and cot (caught) and the use of Midwestern pop as opposed to the Eastern soda . Long ee before l is typically simplified to short i : i.e. still (steel), mill (meal).


Baltimore's dialect shares many characteristic pronunciations and words with its northern neighbor Philadelphia. One of these is the long o in words like home, which is very fronted, pronounced something like eh-oo. Otherwise, as we might expect, Baltimore's speech shows a distinctly Southern character. The diphthong oi is flattened to aw: bawl (boil), spawled (spoiled), as is long i before r: far (fire), arn (iron).

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