English as she is Spoke

by Kieran Healy on November 29, 2006

Dan Drezner takes an online quiz and finds he has a “midland” accent. His evaluation says:

“You have a Midland accent” is just another way of saying “you don’t have an accent.” You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas.

The number of people who sincerely believe they do not have an accent is quite astonishing. Maybe quizzes like this are partly to blame.

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Canadian accent « The Dagger Aleph
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1

rea 11.29.06 at 7:41 pm

It’s one of those conjugations: I don’t have an accent, you do, and he talks funny.

2

blah 11.29.06 at 7:44 pm

It’s not astonishing at all, since most people perceive their own speech as the baseline against which divergent speech is recognized.

3

ogged 11.29.06 at 7:51 pm

Ok, I confess, I grew up in the Midwest and sincerely believed that I didn’t have an accent, until I moved away and realized that Midwesterners sound like rubes. Now I don’t have an accent.

4

John Quiggin 11.29.06 at 7:56 pm

When I lived in America, people would admire my baby son and ask if he was going to grow up talking with an accent. My reply was “No, we thought we would take him home before he got one”.

5

Dan Goodman 11.29.06 at 8:04 pm

The Midwest has a number of accents. For example, at least some people in Carbondale, Illinois sound Southern. (Whereas some people from Mississippi don’t.) Minnesotans don’t sound much like Chicagoans, etc. — and each group uses words the other doesn’t.

To me, the late Rod Serling has no accent. (Hamminess, but no accent.) We’re both from the Hudson Valley Dialect Area — one of three in New York State, all three of which cross state boundaries.

For leads to good information, see the American Dialect Society’s website: http://americandialect.org

6

John Emerson 11.29.06 at 8:09 pm

Ogged also had to get rid of his Rush and Kiss Tshirts.

My own accent became famous when the movie “Fargo” came out. I don’t rhyme “bag” with “vague”, though. That might be the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which happened after I left the Midwest.

7

Kelly 11.29.06 at 8:21 pm

Unfortunately, those of us who were raised around a couple of Europeans, a couple of hardcore Southerners, and a Frenchwoman don’t do well in these tests.

…I get mistaken for Canadian a lot. Cuz apparently “sounds sort of British, sort of American” equals Canadian. ;)

8

ogged 11.29.06 at 8:28 pm

This great site archives sound clips of English as it’s spoken around the world.

9

yoyo 11.29.06 at 9:14 pm

This is just the corollary to the “i’m not ethnic, i’m american” thingamajigie

10

Matt Weiner 11.29.06 at 9:28 pm

I grew up in the Midwest

But ya didn’t grow up in what is defined as the Midland, namely Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri.

Ditto for you Minnesotans. “Bag”/”vague” was pretty comment among Milwaukeeans as of 2005, that’s all I can tell you.

(That said, agreed with rea.)

11

ogged 11.29.06 at 9:46 pm

was pretty comment among

Another charming regionalism.

12

luci 11.29.06 at 9:58 pm

I grew up near Houston, TX – and have a very, very slight accent (according to others) while my siblings have a much stronger Texas accent.

While I’d guess the increased consumption of mass media would have a homogenizing effect on local/regional traits, my brother actually has a stronger accent than my parents.

13

John Emerson 11.29.06 at 10:07 pm

The Minnesota zone seems to include most of Wisconsin and parts of Iowa and the Dakotas.

14

Walt 11.29.06 at 10:17 pm

Do Unfogged commenters roam the Internet in packs, now?

15

poki 11.29.06 at 10:40 pm

There is a noble cosmopolitan goal in affecting astonishment that many people think they have no accent, even though the group of people who think they have no accent includes people with different accents. But I think this astonishment is roughly equivalent to astonishment that almost everyone thinks he can communicate easily with other people, even when though “almost everyone” includes people who don’t even speak the same language. It is a slightly malicious way of willfully misunderstanding the uses of the word “accent”.

16

Slocum 11.29.06 at 11:08 pm

Well, I would say that the perception of being without an accent isn’t entirely without foundation. I can travel over very large areas of the U.S. and not hear any notable differences between the speech there and here (here, for me, being Michigan). California doesn’t sound different. Nor Colorado. Nor the suburbs of Chicago. Nor, for that matter, do most national TV announcers. But people from the northeast definitely sound different, as do those from the south, of course.

17

John Emerson 11.29.06 at 11:26 pm

In dialect maps the whole American West is one big zone, and it’s pretty similiar to a few of the eastern zones (non-Southern, non-coastal). Especially Midlands.

18

Rick B 11.29.06 at 11:47 pm

Hey, I know that I don’t have an accent. I can tell, because, just like in 1964, the Preznit doesn’t have an accent.

19

minneapolitan 11.30.06 at 12:02 am

What really ought to be addressed is the degree to which intentional affect and unintentional emotional urgency affect accents. In the US you can walk into a Starbucks in any city or town and the fresh-scrubbed young barrista is going to sound virtually the same in every one of them. But talk to a dozen rural auto mechanics or suburban stockbrokers and you’ll get at least 13 different accents. I lose it sometimes and say “orange” and “about” just like a Canadian, but that’s not the way I really talk, you see.

I heard a middle-class white guy screaming into his phone on the street in lower Manhattan a couple years ago in a New Yowak/Lon Guyland accent that would have made Penny Marshall’s hair stand on end. But I’ll bet when he goes to his college reunion he sounds pretty much like a CNN announcer.

20

Michael Sullivan 11.30.06 at 2:14 am

Several times each year, someone will say to me, “What’s your accent?”

I will reply, “Californian.”

They will say, “No, that’s not it.”

I will say, “I’m actually pretty sure that it is. I was born in California. I was raised in California. I have lived nowhere besides California for any period of my life longer than the four years of college. Both my parents resided in California for many years before I was born, and prior to that, my father lived in Montana (accent indistinguishable from California), and my mother lived in Dallas, Texas (a gentle southern accent which my mother had entirely shed by my youth). By definition, then, my accent is Californian.”

“No,” they’ll say. “I think it’s kind of British.”

And that’s when I’ll shoot them, your honor.

21

abb1 11.30.06 at 3:46 am

Aussies sure speak funny.

22

Scott Martens 11.30.06 at 4:06 am

Yes, ignorance of basic linguistics abounds.

23

Wickedpinto 11.30.06 at 4:33 am

News reporters, at least anchors, and almost every national anchor, and national reporter, have interchangeable “accents” and it is a “midwest” “accent” that best represents that.

As for the test, it isn’t a test of accent, even if thats what they say they are, they are a test of colloquial expression. “pop” and “soda” and such.

related, but distantly.

24

Aidan Kehoe 11.30.06 at 5:00 am

News reporters, at least anchors, and almost every national anchor, and national reporter, have interchangeable “accents” and it is a “midwest” “accent” that best represents that.

Not anywhere I’ve ever lived. But, hey, welcome to the internet! Check out youtube.com, and if someone says they’re from Nigeria and they need a small sum up-front to aid in transferring money to the US, they’re lying.

25

Timon Braun 11.30.06 at 5:18 am

There is a fantastic sample of international and regional accents at GMU that you will have much more trouble guessing than you expect, if you have a friend press the links for you. You find yourself distressed at how inscrutable international English really is and then you hear a Brooklyn accent and it really is like butta.

26

Timon Braun 11.30.06 at 5:21 am

I had trouble with the link, you may prefer to cut and paste http://gazette.gmu.edu/articles/7659/

27

Jono 11.30.06 at 5:46 am

Most people have a lot of diffivulty guessing where I am from (based on my accent). If I told you I’m from Wales, you might immediately bring to mind what I call the stereotypical welsh accents (there are about half a dozen, which vary in sublte and not so subtle ways), what you almost certainly wont bring to mind is my actual accent, which is very specific to a single town (and to a lesser extent could be grouped with a couple of close by towns). It is a mix of mainly a Potteries accent (Stoke-on-Trent/Stafford) plus a bit of Scouse (Liverpool and environs) and Mancunian (Manchester). It is so difficult to place if you don’t know where I am from that when I gave evidence to the police and the officer had to put down what my accent was he jusst put down “no distinguishable accent”. Added to that, if I am with a group of people with a strong accent for as little as a week I find my self using bits of their accent. Try covering all that in some program that tries to place an accent.

28

aaron 11.30.06 at 7:49 am

Here in Michigan, I discovered in college that our accent is mosly a complete absense of adverbs. Adjectives and adverb are used interchangably (I still have a problem understanding adverbs and proper grammer in general, especially punctuation).

It is also funny that in the past “good” was used when “well” should have been. Once people caught on they started using “well” when they should be using “good”.

29

kid bitzer 11.30.06 at 8:21 am

gotta say this quiz got me totally wrong. I have lived in several parts of the US for large periods of time. It put me in one of the few parts I have never lived.

It’s a fun conversation-starter, like ‘what’s your sign?’, but not much more scientific.

30

Claire 11.30.06 at 8:48 am

A “dialect” is a linguistic variety characteristic of a certain geographical location. There are no accentless speakers! The only sense under which the phrase “speaks with no accent” makes sense is if the word is used in the sense of “stigmatised variety characteristic of a certain location”.

31

Alejandro Rivero 11.30.06 at 9:04 am

I lived in Kent, UK, for one year. Which is the Standard. I am driven to believe that “Standard” accounts for “pardon, say it again?”. But they do not have identity card, so how do you expect to be able to separate real British from, say, republican rebels?

32

stuart 11.30.06 at 9:23 am

I come out as a New Yorker (or generally the NE), at 100% of the bar. I’m not sure if that is similar to having a moderately generic English (as in from England) accent; at least I have lived in half a dozen different locations throughout England and never noticed a strong accent (and therefore presumably I have not had a noticeably strong accent compared to the locals). I imagine it could all be the BBCs fault for standardising on one accent half a century ago and making it very widespread.

33

neil 11.30.06 at 9:28 am

Isn’t it obvious? “You don’t have an accent” means “You have the same accent as people on TV.”

34

jamesonandwater 11.30.06 at 10:10 am

Well my Dublin accent apparently sounds like Philadelphia. Where in the states does bag rhyme with vague?

35

Stuart 11.30.06 at 10:18 am

I think there is a notion of “standard” that applies to both British and American English speech. The Brits have “Received Pronunciation” or “RP,” which is (as I understand it) upper-middle-class London speech. American Standard (no, not the toilets) is Mountain States speech – the sort of speech that doesn’t immediately identify you as being from anywhere. As others have noted, the speech of many Northeasterners and Southerners immediately identifies them, as does the speech of Chicagoans and other Great Lakes Midwesterners. TV announcers usually speak Standard.

From what I have seen, Canada doesn’t have regional speech variation. Australia has some class variation, I believe.

36

mds 11.30.06 at 10:20 am

Isn’t it obvious? “You don’t have an accent” means “You have the same accent as people on TV.”

But this doesn’t seem to be true, based on their regional definition:

the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri)

Missouri is a center of accentless speech? The state that contains a substantial population using “you all” (yes, two distinct words)? For that matter, southern Illinois has a strong contingent that pronounces wash as “wahrsh.” I always thought of Iowa as the epicenter of Nowheresville accent. Hmm, perhaps this internet quiz is not as rigorous as I supposed.

37

Stuart 11.30.06 at 10:22 am

Oh, FWIW, I took that quiz twice. There was one question that I dind’t quite know how to answer, because my speech is somewhat idiosyncratic. So I answered that one question differently each time I took the test, and every other question the same way. The first time I learned my accent is that of the West and the second time I learned my accent is that of Boston.

Go figure.

38

Matt Weiner 11.30.06 at 10:26 am

Where in the states does bag rhyme with vague?

Wisconsin and maybe the Minnesota zone as described in comment 13. (I’ve only lived in Wisconsin of this territory, but it’s very noticeable there.)

southern Illinois has a strong contingent that pronounces wash as “wahrsh.”

This is also quite common in Pittsburgh and I suspect in the Midlands generally. Why they describe this as “no accent” I have no idea.

FWIW, I was born and raised in Pittsburgh but tested out as a Northeast accent because I pronounce “mary” “merry” and “marry” differently. My parents are from New York.

39

marcel 11.30.06 at 10:35 am

Stuart (32) says: From what I have seen, Canada doesn’t have regional speech variation.

Doesn’t sound right to me. I live in NH and there’s this region just north of here where the speech sounds quite different from just about anything in either Ontario or New Brunswick. That suggests regional speech variation to me.

40

John Emerson 11.30.06 at 10:50 am

As far as standard radio accent goes, there are different standards. If you’re travelling in the west listening to country radio, you hear a lot of a sort of harsh Southwestern accent that I think of as Oklahoman. You don’t have to be near Oklahoma, it’s the kind of station. (I’ve never listened to a country station east of the Mississippi.)

41

tom s. 11.30.06 at 11:18 am

“From what I have seen, Canada doesn’t have regional speech variation.”
There is some truth to this from Ontario west (although Northern/Eastern Ontario is a bit different from south/west). Newfoundland is not only distinct, with its Irish-sounding overtones, but distinct within its own regions (small fishing villages with – historically – not much communication) and other Atlantic provinces don’t sound very Ontario-like either.

And then there’s Quebec, of course. They speak just a bit different to the rest of us.

42

Watson Aname 11.30.06 at 11:20 am

36: Yes, 32 is wrong. Canada has large regional variations. The difference between Newfoundland and BC is as large as NY and CA, I’d say.

43

tom s. 11.30.06 at 11:22 am

- marcel beat me to it.

44

Watson Aname 11.30.06 at 11:23 am

38: B.C. is quite distinguishable from the prairies too. It’s probably fair to say that there isn’t much to choose between Saskatchewan and Manitoba, though.

QC has multiple accents. So does ON, BC, and NS. THe differences are a bit subtle compared to say, LI vs. upsated NY.

45

vanya 11.30.06 at 11:58 am

FWIW, I and my wife took that test and it pegged us both exactly (me New Hampshire, and her Philadelphia). I thought for a little internet quiz the test was actually pretty good at identifying subtle vowel markings that most people don’t notice – neither of us talks with a stereotypical accent (I don’t rhyme “can’t” with “haunt”, or drop my “r”s. She doesn’t front her vowel sounds as much as a typical Philly resident would do).

And Michael Sullivan if you’re from California and people think you sound English you may want to consider speech therapy, you may have a speech defect. People think my Boston born son has an “English” accent when he speaks – he actually has Aspergers and simply doesn’t follow normal intonation patterns.

46

wsam 11.30.06 at 12:08 pm

Canadian spelling is the best!!!

In fact, the only people in the world without an accent are people who’ve moved to Toronto from elsewhere in Canada, normally Edmonton, Nova Scotia or Hamilton. Unless you consider ending every sentence so it sounds like you’ve just asked a question to be an accent, which it isn’t; that’s just annoying.

Don’t people just grunt and bang hockey sticks together to communicate in Saskatchewan?

What about curling? Does curling count as a language? Or is it just a dialect?

47

John Emerson 11.30.06 at 1:04 pm

I thought that the Newfies had their own language called “screech”.

The test is Americocentric and pretty much useless for Brits and Aussies, I think. The ten questions are fine-tuned to pick out specific groups, and don’t work if you aren’t in one of those groups. Canadians who don’t speak Minnesotan (i.e. Newfies) will be missed too.

48

Jay C 11.30.06 at 1:11 pm

I guess the reason why “quizzes like are easy to blame” is that quizzes like this are generally inane and useful mainly for a moment’s entertainment. Myself, I was born and raised in Southern California (to New York-born-and-raised parents), and have lived in New York City for 24 years: and yet the result on my accent quiz was:
“Your accent is as Philadelphian as a cheesesteak” – with possibilities of South Jersey, Baltimore or Wilmington thrown in.

Philly? Baltimore? Fuhgeddaboudit!

49

kid bitzer 11.30.06 at 1:17 pm

it would be much more useful if it would quiz us on how we pronounce “banana facile”.

50

Western Dave 11.30.06 at 2:34 pm

Well, it correctly identified me as originally being from NY but I don’t know how it can identify Philadelphians without a water vs. wudder question. And as for standard English being Inter-Mountain west, what Wyoming sheepherders are you talking to? In the west, there are two major accent groups, urban and rural. Of course, from there it gets much more complicated. But if you say you are from New Mexico, I can pretty much tell you which county after talking to you for an hour.

51

abb1 11.30.06 at 3:59 pm

I told them everything sounds the same to me (indeed it does) and they told me I’m from midwest. That’s the place where people with bad hearing get exiled, apparently.

52

mds 11.30.06 at 4:48 pm

But if you say you are from New Mexico, I can pretty much tell you which county after talking to you for an hour.

I can also do this, but it requires asking during the hour which county the person is from.

53

Cala 11.30.06 at 11:10 pm

I was told whichever one means you have a good radio accent.

Do Unfogged commenters roam the Internet in packs, now?

Axes of Unfogged! The Unfoggedtariat are upon you!

In fact, the only people in the world without an accent are people who’ve moved to Toronto from elsewhere in Canada, normally Edmonton, Nova Scotia or Hamilton.

Western Canada near Edmonton has an identifiable accent. You have to sort of scrunch up your mouth while you do the Eastern lilt with your voice, so it doesn’t lilt as much.

I never noticed the Pittsburgh accent growing up, but now when I visit my parents all the neighbors and the people interviewed and my relatives talk funny.

54

bad Jim 12.01.06 at 5:43 am

Finally! I moved from “Midland” to “The West” by admitting I can’t practically distinguish “stalk” and “stock”.

My relatives in the D.C. area, whether they came originally from Iowa or New York, don’t sound noticeably different from us Californians. They might not agree that we sound like them. I’ve never asked.

55

erin 12.01.06 at 3:11 pm

I think “no accent” is a clumsy way of saying “Standard American Dialect” (AKA Northeastern Ohio dialect). It’s still a dialect, of course.

56

Bernard Yomtov 12.01.06 at 10:09 pm

The quiz pegged me as northeastern – Philadelphia/Boston which I am now (Boston), but most of my life I have lived in the south.

Just to support Kieran’s statement about people not thinking they have accents, as I answered the questions I couldn’t imagine any English speaker answering differently.

“Bag” and “vague.” Are they serious?

57

John Emerson 12.01.06 at 11:57 pm

Bag / vague is very rare and its also new. As I understand, “Bag” is pronounced “bayg”, “vague” is not pronounced “vagg”. I may have heard it around here but it’s the only Minnesotaism I don’t have.

58

Matt Weiner 12.02.06 at 9:54 pm

I insist that “bag” as “bayg” is not rare in Milwaukee. See also. It may be new, most of the people I can remember saying it were under 40.

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