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Image Regional Identities: America’s Mental Maps

These cultural regions were not static in their structure. By 1988, the original four regions of British America had greatly expanded, and were also joined by other regional cultures which did not exist two centuries earlier. Altogether, there were now at least seven cultural regions in the continental United States:

1. The Northern Tier, including New England, the upper old northwest, the northern plains and the Pacific northwest, all settled by Yankees but now dominated by other ethnic groups who are Roman Catholic in New England, Lutheran in the middle west.

2. Greater New York, small in area but 10 percent of the national population, and a very heavy infusion of middle European and Jewish culture grafted on the old Dutch root.

3. Midland America, extending from Pennsylvania west through the Ohio Valley and the middle west to the Rocky Mountains, marked by a diversity of European immigrant groups; the leading religion in many midland counties is Methodist.

4. The Great Basin, a predominantly Mormon culture in Utah, and parts of Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming; a mix of New England, midland and highland southern culture.

5. The Coastal South, from southern Maryland to Florida and the Texas coast near Houston. Its culture is tempered by large numbers of northern immigrants.

6. The Southern Highlands, including Appalachia, the old southwest, the Ozark Plateau, and much of Texas and Oklahoma which are still dominated by the old ethnic groups; the leading religion is Baptist.

7. Southern California, a hybrid of highland southern, midland, Hispanic and Jewish culture, spreading into Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.

Each of these seven cultures is a complex mixture of old regional patterns with new ethic and religious groups. Each has its own speech ways. In addition to the old dialects of northern, midland, coastal southern and highland southern speech, three others have appeared in the twentieth century. New York English developed from a distinctive mixture of northern and midland speech, enriched by central European and Jewish languages, California English combines highland southern and midland speech with many Hispanic expressions. Great Basin English brings together northern, midland and highland southern speech ways in a syncretist accent which is beginning to emerge as American standard speech. In the late twentieth century, national television broad-casters are trained to use the accent of Salt Lake City—the American equivalent of BBC English.

Within these cultural regions, new ethnic group and religious denominations have emerged; but the old regional identities themselves remain remarkably strong. In the mid-1960s, cultural geographers Peter Could and Rodney White measured American attitudes in that respect, by the ingenious method of constructing “mental maps” in which spatial judgments are represented in topographical terms. They found that the mental maps of most Americans shared a few topographical features in common, notably a “California high” and a “Dakota low,” But attitudes also differed profoundly from one historical region to another, Alabamans despised New England; northerners disliked Alabama, Could and White were surprised by the persistence of these historical attitudes, which they regarded as temporary aberrations caused by the Civil War. “By the year 2000,” they wrote, “we may hope that the mental maps of Americans, northerners and southerners, will no longer reflect the wound established over a century ago,” But these regional antipathies had appeared long before the Civil War and they remained remarkably strong in the twentieth century.8

During World War II, for example, three German submariners escaped from Camp Crossville, Tennessee. Their flight took them to an Appalachian cabin, where they stopped for a drink of water. The mountain granny told them to “git.” When they ignored her, she promptly shot them dead. The sheriff came, and scolded her for shooting helpless prisoners. Granny burst into tears, and said that she would not have done it if she had known they were Germans, The exasperated sheriff asked her what in “tarnation” she thought she was shooting at. “Why,” she replied, “I thought they was Yankees!”9

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