The Rez Accent.

Cecily Hilleary writes for VOA about the “rez accent”:

In 1960, linguists predicted that compulsory education, mass media, foreign immigration and the “mobility of restless Americans” would ultimately standardize English, and in only a few generations, regional accents would disappear. Today, some scholars such as University of Pennsylvania sociolinguist William Labov note that while some accents are fading, others are growing stronger.

One example, according to Kalina Newmark, is Native American English, more commonly referred to as the “rez accent,” found among many Indigenous communities in the United States and Canada. Rez is the shortened word for reservation. Newmark, who is Dene and Metis from the Sahtu region of Canada’s Northwest Territories, attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, a school well-known for its diverse, Indigenous student body. […]

At Dartmouth, Newmark met Indigenous students from across North America and noticed an interesting phenomenon: Despite their different linguistic backgrounds, their English shared some distinctive features, especially when gathering socially. She found this was the case even with students who had never learned their heritage languages.

When assigned a project studying a non-English language, she and fellow Dartmouth student Nacole Walker, a Lakota from the Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota, decided to investigate the rez accent, which had never been studied before.

The Dartmouth team interviewed and recorded conversations with 75 people from tribes and Nations across North America. Their findings, “The Rez Accent Knows No Borders: Native American Ethnic Identity Expressed Through English Prosody,” appeared in the journal Language in Society in September 2016.

They found that Native American and Canadian First Nations communities speak different English dialects, but many share similar patterns of pitch, rhythm and intonation — features that linguists call prosody, the “music” of language. Even students who did not use the rez accent were familiar with it.

“The most important feature we found is the ‘contour pitch accent,’” said Dartmouth sociolinguist James Stanford, who mentored their study. […] “Another feature [that] study participants identified as ethnically distinctive had to do with what we call mid- or high-rise terminals,” said Stanford. In standard English, Stanford explained, speakers’ voices tend to drop in pitch at the end of a sentence. Many Indigenous speakers — like the character Thomas — end their sentences on a middle or high pitch.

“One other important feature that we noted was syllable timing — or rhythm,” Stanford said. “Each syllable takes up the same amount of time.” […]

Though she doesn’t discredit the influence of individual heritage accents, Newmark believes the rez accent is rooted in intertribal contact that took place during the reservation era of the 1880s, when Native and First Nations children from diverse language backgrounds were forced into residential schools, or during the relocation era of the 1950s and 1960s, when the U.S. sought to move Native Americans to cities and terminate reservations.

Coming together in schools or urban communities, Native Americans were compelled to interact with one another in English. “They were all learning English together,” said Newmark, “and making an English of their own.”

“What we are seeing is adaptation — and Native Americans have been specialists at adaptation forever,” said Twyla Baker, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation (MHRA) and president of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.

She pointed out that before contact with Europeans, tribes did not live in vacuums. “We traveled. We engaged in trade. We intermarried. We built political alliances with other tribes,” Baker told VOA. “The ability to learn other languages was crucial, and it wasn’t uncommon for folks to speak four or five languages, as many Europeans do today.”

More at the link, including video clips where you can hear the accent for yourself. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. “The Character Thomas” “refers to the character Thomas Builds-the-Fire, played by actor Evan Adams in the groundbreaking 1998 film Smoke Signals.”

    This is very welcome. I haven’t heard of any other research on Rez English since William Leap’s 1993 monograph American Indian English.

  2. jack morava says


    as cited here recently, cf the excellent



  3. David Marjanović says

    “The Character Thomas” “refers to the character Thomas Builds-the-Fire, played by actor Evan Adams in the groundbreaking 1998 film Smoke Signals.”

    And his intonation sounds strikingly similar to Swiss German. Not identical, but strikingly close.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    If we’re literally talking “pitch, rhythm, and intonation,” I daresay that many prescriptivists might find deviations from what they’re accustomed to aggravating but would also lack the vocabulary to tell the deviant-sounding speakers what to do differently. It’s not as straightforward as telling someone they’re putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable and what syllable it should go on instead. Maybe sentence-final rising-intonation-as-question-tag is an exception to this claim.

  5. hooray for a prosody-centered study!
    imagine what linguists will be able to do when they start taking timbre, gesture, body-posture, etc seriously!

    (prosody is also where i hear commonalities among canadian englishes that aren’t shared with u.s. englishes, which seems unlikely to crystallized through the same kind of (can-we-call-it-)creolization period, since there isn’t a parallel to the attempted genocide.)

  6. Akin to Irish English, whose speakers have retained much of the pitch, rhythm and intonation of their Irish-speaking ancestors – even though they are now overwhelmingly monoglot English speakers

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    The odd thing, though, is that this can’t be a case of retaining the prosody of forebears, because there were many very different languages involved – different in prosody along with much else.

    I wondered if Australian Aboriginal English was parallel; again, there are many different original languages involved, but on the other hand, Australian languages (unlike American) tend to have a lot in common phonologically even when not closely related to one another. And there’s an actual creole, too, to complicate matters.

  8. this can’t be a case of retaining the prosody of forebears

    yes! that’s why i’m tempted to think of it as a creolization process, with regional arrays of languages (and linguas francas) gathered under forced anglophony in the concentration-camp schools, further consolidated by the deepening of cross-geographic connections as pan-indigenous organizing blossomed (largely in english) from the late 20th century on. but i do wonder if there were common elements among the linguas francas – whether spoken or signed – that could’ve shaped the overall patterns.

    i can’t really account for the canadian prosody, though, except maybe as the success of a state border (plus CanCon requirements) in creating a separate-enough speech community from haida gwaii to avalon.

  9. @rozele, I don’t know the extent of your fieldwork (informal or otherwise) on Canadian-English prosody, but do you have enough datapoints from close-to-the-northern-border parts of the U.S. to be sure the isogloss (if that’s the right word in this context) is tracking the border perfectly? Just anecdotally, I had a college roommate from Green Bay, Wisconsin whose idiolect shared many features with the stereotypical Canadian accent that American teens of my generation had heard (perhaps in broad/exaggerated version …) from the fictitious Bob & Doug McKenzie.

  10. It’s worth considering that a very large share of Native Americans come from a small group of tribes, which could be summarized with only some distortion as Chippew, Oklahoma and Arizona (with Eastermn Cherokees closely ties to western relatives.)

    In my experience, native accents share some features with Southwestern Mexican American and general Western rural dialects. I wonder whether this is really creolization or just normal accent formation.

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