More on accents

by Chris Bertram on July 21, 2008

Further to earlier posts on this topic, the BBC website has a short clip of a voice coach training an Englishman to sound American, together with an accompanying article . (To my ears his American sounds slightly Irish.) There’s a priceless first comment below the article from a Texan who writes: “It never occurs to us that there is such a thing as an American accent.” Well now you know.

{ 63 comments }

1

Nick 07.21.08 at 3:58 pm

To my ears his American sounds slightly Irish.

When my wife and I visited Ireland a few years back, I found that a lot of people sounded vaguely American to my ears. The effect was pronounced when I couldn’t quite hear what was being said (as in conversation at the next table in a restaurant).

I’ve lived in the eastern U.S. for the past 23 years and assumed that the similarity must have been due to some influence from all the Irish immigrants.

2

rea 07.21.08 at 4:05 pm

the article from a Texan who writes: “It never occurs to us that there is such a thing as an American accent.”

Waaall, Ah don rightly know ’bout thaaat.

There isn’t an American accent, although there is most definitely a Texas accent.

3

An American 07.21.08 at 4:36 pm

What I want to know is: How do I get rid of my accent?

4

franck 07.21.08 at 4:46 pm

There’s more to it than just accents. You have to pronounce “schedule” as skedyool, not shedyool. You have to pronounce “project” as prajekt, not prohjekt, etc. (Boot and bonnet, lorry, etc.)

Those are clear signposts to Americans that the speaker is from somewhere else. There are a large number of markers that are difficult to erase.

5

abb1 07.21.08 at 4:50 pm

Since language is a dialect with an army and navy and since American army and navy are the most powerful in the world, the question “is there such a thing as an American accent” is settled. There is no such thing. Englishmen should learn to sound English. Kudos to the Irish.

6

Walt 07.21.08 at 4:58 pm

The only time I ever noticed Hugh Laurie messing up is when he put the emphasis on the first syllable of “debris”.

Do different American accents sound alike to British ears? Do the Texas accent and the Mid West sounds like they are clearly variants in the same family?

7

Jason B 07.21.08 at 5:13 pm

Hugh Laurie once said, I think when talking to David Letterman, that the hardest word for him to pronounce with an American accent is “murder.” I thought that was interesting, because the mouth movements of that word have made me uncomfortable all my life, and I was born in Minnesota.

But inasmuch as speaking a language with distinct phonetic markers can be considered an accent, there are hundreds of “American” accents. My Minnesota accent is strange here in Oklahoma. Their accents (and there are a number of them here) are odd to me–at least many are.

8

Sean K 07.21.08 at 5:55 pm

It has always seemed to me that the Northern Irish accent bears the closest similarity to a US accent. I wonder if that is in some ways a result of immigration patterns in the mid to late 18th century – where we had a great influx of Northern Irish settlers. I have a colleague at work from Belfast and he is frequently mistaken for an American at the office.

I also speak Irish quite fluently and find that I learned it from teachers from Donegal and Belfast. I find it easiest for me to mimic the pronunciation of Irish as spoken in Belfast.

I am also an American and have a natural affinity for languages so perhaps I am reading too much into this.

Sean

9

beloml 07.21.08 at 6:49 pm

My husband and I (in Texas) love the British show Spooks (MI-5 here in the States), but almost didn’t make it through the first episode because the actress who was supposed to be from Florida had such a horrendous accent. I honestly didn’t recognize it as English, much less American.

We also noticed on the final episode of Cracker that the supposed American sounded “off.”

10

rea 07.21.08 at 6:50 pm

a large number of markers

Billions of them.

11

norbizness 07.21.08 at 6:59 pm

There were 30 of us Texans at a semester abroad in London in ’92, and only 2 or 3 would have had accents that gave away our location. The rest of us were generic upper-middle-class suburbanite, which most Londoners guessed was “from California.” I’m guessing this is “an American accent.”

It could have been worse; we could have all sounded like Christian Bale, who sounds like he’s swallowing every overenunciated word right after he says it.

12

George 07.21.08 at 7:09 pm

@4 Franck

There’s more to it than just accents.

Exactly.

‘Schedule’ should be pronounced ‘skedjual’; it derives from Latin, not German. The American pronunciation would be the correct one.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/schedule

http://www.merriam-webster.com/cgi-bin/audio.pl?schedu01.wav=schedule

13

Jason B 07.21.08 at 7:15 pm

The American pronunciation would be the correct one.

The notion that past usage should (ugh) dictate future development is pretty silly. Here’s an example:

In Old English, the verb “to ask” was pronounced “aksode.” If that were the case, we’d be “wrong” to say “ask” rather than “aks.”

But that changed. Because language changes. Sometimes because of time and other times due to place. “Should” is a largely useless word.

14

Doug 07.21.08 at 7:19 pm

Is there an English accent? No more than there is an American accent. The anonymous Texan is quite correct.

15

Nick 07.21.08 at 7:45 pm

Jason B:

Some U.S. accents do pronounce “ask” as “aks.” Any idea if that is some sort of holdover from older dialects or an independent development?

16

Mike Otsuka 07.21.08 at 7:58 pm

Chris Bertram speaks with an English accent. Therefore there’s an English accent. (Whether he or anyone else speaks with the English accent is a different matter.)

Until I was twelve, it never occurred to me that there was an American accent. But, when I was that age, an Irishman informed me that I spoke with an American accent. He then managed a pretty good imitation of my accent (with some exaggerations to make me sound a bit like a surfer dude — I grew up in Southern California). At first I resisted, as I was under the impression that — unlike American southerners, New Yorkers, and, say, the English — I spoke unaccented English. But, upon reflection, I came to realize that everyone speaks English with an accent, since it occurred to me that Americans would have no stronger claim to speak English without an accent than the English. And I was sure that the English spoke with an accent.

17

Borden Tarde 07.21.08 at 8:09 pm

Every linguist knows–and everyone who’s ever taken a History of the English Language class ought to know–that every speaker has an accent. There’s no such thing as unflavored English.

18

George 07.21.08 at 8:09 pm

The notion that past usage should (ugh) dictate future development is pretty silly.

So you would be okay with ‘nookyular’, I guess.

19

Kieran Healy 07.21.08 at 8:14 pm

It has always seemed to me that the Northern Irish accent bears the closest similarity to a US accent.

IME many Americans find it very, very difficult to distinguish NI and Scottish accents.

20

bdbd 07.21.08 at 8:14 pm

Winner is still Kevin Costner who as Robin Hood provided a veritable national tour of English accents over the course of the movie — a stellar performance!

21

Jason B 07.21.08 at 8:24 pm

So you would be okay with ‘nookyular’, I guess.

I wouldn’t encourage it, but I understand it. Communication has happened. I’ll ridicule it, but that doesn’t discount the possibility that it’s legitimate usage.

22

Jason B 07.21.08 at 8:25 pm

Some U.S. accents do pronounce “ask” as “aks.” Any idea if that is some sort of holdover from older dialects or an independent development?

I think it’s independent development, but I wouldn’t condemn it for that. I’m Wittgensteinian: meaning is use. If you understand what I’m saying, we’re good.

23

Jason B 07.21.08 at 8:26 pm

Winner is still Kevin Costner who as Robin Hood provided a veritable national tour of English accents over the course of the movie—a stellar performance!

I’m no expert, but I couldn’t tell–did he hit a single accent correctly? I’m guessing “no.”

24

abb1 07.21.08 at 8:31 pm

I like it how the English always have to find a chemist to buy things normal people get from at a pharmacy . It’s so cute.

25

Bruce Wilder 07.21.08 at 8:36 pm

It seems to me that there might be some sense in the idea that accents in English can be a matter of degree of intensity.

Years ago, I walked into a London antiquarian bookshop to inquire after the availability of Alexander Kinglake’s legendary The Invasion of the Crimea: Its Origin and an Account of Its Progress down to the Death of Lord Raglan. (This was long before it came back into print as a paperback — lousy history, but fabulous prose, by the way.) I addressed myself briefly to the proprietor, but another customer answered, at some length. Astonished that I understood scarcely a word coming out of the mouth of a presumably literate man, I thanked him, but stood there dazed until he had left the bookshop. The proprietor confirmed that I had not understood anything said, and “translated”. That was the most intense accent I have ever heard in English, more intense than worst Australian male-bonding banter by an order of magnitude.

Many American accents are pretty light; my Southern Great Lakes accent differs only in the flatness of its tone from a BBC voiceover, except for telltale mispronunciations, like, melk for milk, or gahrantee. I doubt that my accent would trouble any native English-speaker’s understanding.

26

Grand Moff Texan 07.21.08 at 8:53 pm

He sounds like someone is beating a dog. Beagle, I think.

Look, for all the variety of American accents, there are a few simple rules to getting it right:
1. do not pronouce all your vowels (which saves you the trouble of thinking about them). Americans generally pronounce only the vowels that fall in stressed syllables, with others turning into the ‘uh’ sound.
2. watch your consonant breadth: Brits say “tiuna,” Americans say “tuna.” You have been warned.
3. shift your consonants one step to the left: as in Mexican Spanish, t’s turn to d’s, d’s turn to th’s, b’s often turn to v’s, etc. Most Americans have no idea that they do this, but a work like “category” turns into “caduhgoree” in American English.
4. for God’s sake, don’t hatch your r’s. Look, I know our r’s are harder than yours, but if you think too much about this, you wind up sounding like John Wayne with a lobotomy (pronounced “luh-BOD-uh-meee” in American).
5. For Southern English, the first rule is that all stress falls on the initial syllable. Theatre becomes THEE-ate-uhr. Umbrella becomes UM-brell-uh. I should note, however, that this is considered very working class, even in the South.
.
.

27

Grand Moff Texan 07.21.08 at 8:56 pm

Oh, I forgot: flatten your modulation.

Lots of rising tones, intended to make compound-complex sentence structure intelligible to the listener, is not requires among Americans, who do not employ compound-complex sentences structure, at least in spoke English.
.

28

Grand Moff Texan 07.21.08 at 8:56 pm

Shit, apparently we can’t spell, either.

Typos are universal, although today I seem to have a monopoly on them.
.

29

George 07.21.08 at 9:08 pm

I wouldn’t encourage it, but I understand it. Communication has happened. I’ll ridicule it, but that doesn’t discount the possibility that it’s legitimate usage.

Sorry, ‘nookyular’ isn’t legitimate usage. It’s mispronunciation; it’s a mistake; it’s risible. (Though you could ask me again in 2108.)

30

novakant 07.21.08 at 10:35 pm

But, upon reflection, I came to realize that everyone speaks English with an accent, since it occurred to me that Americans would have no stronger claim to speak English without an accent than the English.

That’s very kind of you, but in England people generally don’t have a clue what their fellow man is talking about unless he was born in the same fifty mile radius. For that reason and because they don’t want to come across as toffs speaking the Queen’s English, many reasonable people who want to be more widely and easily understood have adopted something sounding quite similar to the way people talk in Iowa as a common denominator.

31

agm 07.21.08 at 10:51 pm

Even better. West Texas, South Texas, central Texas, small town Texas — there are definitely a stereotypical accent.

Far West Texas, lots of English as a second language, and lots of a nondescript accent that is nothing like the stereotype except for making use of the English language. West Texas (e.g., midland) — closer to the stereotype. Small town Texas is the stereotype. Houston, a real mish mash, what with so many people being from so many different countries. The Panhandle, I have absolutely no idea.

32

agm 07.21.08 at 10:52 pm

Arg. Editing on the fly doesn’t always come out as planned…

33

Jason B 07.21.08 at 11:02 pm

Though you could ask me again in 2108.

I’ll commit to the meeting, if you can guarantee its eventuality.

34

blah 07.21.08 at 11:39 pm

My wife and I (both American) argue about accent all the time. It kind of annoys her when our kids pronounce certain words with my more Midwestern accent.

35

bdbd 07.22.08 at 12:24 am

My wife and I are from Texas, military brats both so we have some but not much Texas accent I think. We live outside of Philadelphia though, so our son has grown up with regionalisms from there (especially the very short and terse “yeh!” affirmative response to simple questions). Luckily he hasn’t turned up with the “youse guys” that is heard in South Philly and in parts of suburbs populated from there. I’m told by a reliable source that “youse” is Irish 2nd person plural, like “ya’ll” in Texas.

36

Bloix 07.22.08 at 1:34 am

Yes, nookular is unforgivable! Also, people who say Feb-you-ary should be shot! And anyone who says Wenz-day instead of Wed-nes-day is a peasant! — Oh, wait —

37

notsneaky 07.22.08 at 3:02 am

“”Aks” …I think it’s independent development”

Of course it’s an independent development. Coming from popular culture. As in “you gotta axe somebody”.

“in England people generally don’t have a clue what their fellow man is talking about unless he was born in the same fifty mile radius”

Yeah, I don’t believe that at all. In all honesty, putting aside Hungarian, Finnish, Basque, Gaelic and probably something I’m forgetting about, there really are just three languages in Europe. Germanic, Latin and Slavic. An Englishman can make himself understandable to a Dutchman, provided s/he speaks slowly, clearly and uses only “common” words. The same thing is true for a Spaniard/Italian and Russian/Pole/Czech/Serb. French throws a bit of a wrench into this (including partly into English) but it’s not that far off.

To get a bit postmodern on this, because (Western) Europeans (particularly the English) once used to rule the world they tend to be, well, Western-Euro-centric and engage in a lot of navel gazing. This leads to folks seeing small differences as bigger differences and the proliferation of accents, dialects, and even languages where in different circumstances these things would get all lumped in together. But a lot of these boundaries – these accents, dialects, and even languages – are just human constructs.

And I’m with the above commentators – as long as communication happens (and the communication can be “if you’re having trouble understanding the way I talk, that’s your problem not mine”) there is no such thing as “improper” usage of language.

38

derrida derider 07.22.08 at 3:22 am

“Many American accents are pretty light”
Light relative to what? You’re showing your ethnocentricity here.

It’s hilarious that some people think they don’t speak with an accent, or that such a thing is even possible. It used to be upper-class Brits who held this delusion, believing that their own Received Pronunciation was the benchmark against which all other English speakers should measure themselves. Now it appears that educated East Coast Americans have the same delusion.

39

bizza 07.22.08 at 3:37 am

”Aks” …I think it’s independent development”

Actually, linguists incline toward the view that African-American Vernacular English retained the Old English pronunciation. See here for some discussion.

40

will u. 07.22.08 at 3:46 am

I’ve always wanted to make a horror film in which the murderer quips “may I AXE you a question?” This tops even today’s idea for a Russian alt-country band called Uncle Tupolev.

Anyway, while no accent serves as a standard — even if money and an army are behind it — I still would bet that, to *most* English speakers across the globe, Cockney English sounds exotic, and standard Midwestern American flat and bland. Perhaps I haven’t shed my linguistic provincialism.

41

mijnheer 07.22.08 at 3:48 am

To speak like an American, one must normally not pronounce the “t” sound in the middle of a word — e.g., “And now, from CNN headquarders in Adlanna, uh innerview with uh ennerprising dennist who is doing his uddermost to save wadder.”

42

bad Jim 07.22.08 at 4:52 am

Perhaps educated East Coast Americans have the delusion that they’re speaking standard American, but almost all West Coasters do, and perhaps not without reason. We don’t have a long history here, so we don’t have strong regional variation. Southern and Western accents are somewhat more common in the predominantly rural inland areas, probably as a result of immigration patterns.

When I travel in Europe I’m often surprised that people can’t identify me as American by my accent. I shouldn’t be; I can’t distinguish Austrians and Germans, and I still confuse South Africans with Australians, even though I used to have an Australian sister-in-law.

43

Joshua Holmes 07.22.08 at 5:13 am

1. do not pronouce all your vowels (which saves you the trouble of thinking about them). Americans generally pronounce only the vowels that fall in stressed syllables, with others turning into the ‘uh’ sound.

At least on the East Coast, many vowels reduce to the Dead I, something akin to “roses” as RO-ziz, but with the Short I sound more reduced.

3. shift your consonants one step to the left: as in Mexican Spanish, t’s turn to d’s, d’s turn to th’s, b’s often turn to v’s, etc. Most Americans have no idea that they do this, but a work like “category” turns into “caduhgoree” in American English.

Ts and Ds in the middle of American English words are reduced to the dental flap – “latter” and “ladder” are identical, but the middle sound is not a full D. I have never heard an American pronounce a B like a V. The closest thing is when we make a labiodental nasal before a labiodental fricative. That is, the M in “comfort” is made with the teeth on the lips instead of the lips together. The only thing I can figure about the B -> V comment is that our Bs may turn from bilabial plosives to bilabial fricatives (the difference between D and Z, except on the lips). But if so, I’ve never heard it.

44

Jeffrey Kramer 07.22.08 at 5:38 am

If you had to pick one representative voice to represent “English accent” and “American accent,” for a class of Martian linguists, who would you pick? (I would go with Rex Harrison for English and Henry Fonda for American.)

45

shannonr 07.22.08 at 5:49 am

I still confuse South Africans with Australians, even though I used to have an Australian sister-in-law.

That’s just….odd. From my Australian perspective, of course! I’ll pop some standout words below to help you distinguish in future.

Australian: Aaaahrse; M’i’ddle; K’i’ds. (with ‘i’ being the short, knife-sharp “i”)
South African: Orse; Muiddl; Kuidz. (with “ui” being the steamrollered “i”)

Again wishing I’d taken the time to learn IPA…

46

novakant 07.22.08 at 6:29 am

Yeah, I don’t believe that at all.

Well, there was a bit of hyperbole in my post, but I’d still claim that the most easily and universally understood form of English is spoken by bright and educated foreigners who are not afflicted with some regional accent and are instead aiming for some form of transatlantic middle ground as far as pronunciation goes.

47

Chris Bertram 07.22.08 at 8:25 am

#43 Wazzee torkin abaat?

48

abb1 07.22.08 at 8:52 am

in England people generally don’t have a clue what their fellow man is talking about unless he was born in the same fifty mile radius

It’s certainly true in Italy, when they use their local dialects, and I suspect the radius is about a half of that. And so, some time ago they picked one of the dialects (from some place in Tuscany), called it ‘Italian’, and forced it on the rest of the country thru the educational system, newspapers, and later radio and TV.

I think it would be fair to say that any country’s standard language/accent is the one exhibited by this country’s most official TV presenter.

49

Chris Bertram 07.22.08 at 9:00 am

#48 That would make Terry Wogan the authentic voice of England….

50

deliasmith 07.22.08 at 9:26 am

Mass chanting carries an accent. Football crowds in my adopted city chant for ‘Ah-Lestah’, football crowds in my home town sing ’Dee lie leur’ (striking Baltic rendition here).
When American crowds chant ‘U-S-A number one’ is there a discernable accent? Does the crowd at Yankee Stadium chant with a Bronx accent?

51

Dave 07.22.08 at 10:06 am

Fascinating, so much parochialism and ignorance. I only hope it is all tongue-in-cheek. Personally I’m always puzzled by people who claim not to be able to understand other regions’ accents. Are they just not listening properly, or something?

But, to add my own amusing anecdote, on a trip to the States a couple of years ago, I did smile when I heard the very-proper CNN newsreader/anchor carefully enunciate the rap-person Fifty-cent’s name as “fiddy-cent”… A sweet gesture of cross-ethnic solidarity, I thought.

52

Nick 07.22.08 at 10:35 am

The Texan’s right surely? 25 years ago I spent some time at college in North Carolina. To this day my American friends do not speak with American, still less Southern, accents – they just speak with the inflections of their own voices. At least that’s all I hear . . .

53

Tom T. 07.22.08 at 11:20 am

It has always seemed to me that the Northern Irish accent bears the closest similarity to a US accent.

IME many Americans find it very, very difficult to distinguish NI and Scottish accents.

These can’t both be true, since many Americans consider the Scottish accent to be somewhere between comical (think of Groundskeeper Willie: “The noozel! The noozel at the end of the hoose!”) and incomprehensible (think of Mel Gibson’s American rooster in Chicken Run asking if the Scottish hen was in fact speaking English). These are exaggerations, of course, but I did watch Trainspotting on DVD with the captions turned on.

I could never understand half of what Benny Hill was saying, either, but I guess he often had his face planted in some woman’s chest as he talked.

54

Tom T. 07.22.08 at 11:21 am

Second line above should be in italics as well. It’s a shame the new system doesn’t seem to offer preview.

55

novakant 07.22.08 at 1:42 pm

This is quite funny: 21 accents in 2 1/2 minutes.

56

richard 07.22.08 at 2:37 pm

Walt: Do different American accents sound alike to British ears?
Before coming to America, these British ears knew only two US accents: “American” (works also for Canadian) and “Southern.” Outsiders often cannot perceive differences that are obvious to natives; whether that’s from lack of exposure or a lack of mnemonic reference points (such as social/cultural context) I’m not sure.
Do the Texas accent and the Mid West sounds like they are clearly variants in the same family?
Yes. They’re definitely not British or Antipodean.

George: So you would be okay with ‘nookyular’, I guess.
Yes. It’s a useful social marker.

Bruce: accents in English can be a matter of degree of intensity.
Intensity relative to what? This idea is like imagining you can stand at the still centre of the universe and watch everything else moving from your point of absolute rest and authority. You really mean “degree of difference from your own.”

novakant: in England …many reasonable people who want to be more widely and easily understood have adopted something sounding quite similar to the way people talk in Iowa
No. The standard British accent is now a general sort of Estuarian, closest in tone to North London. Amy Winehouse is trying to move this more towards Crunk Rapper, but so far with liu succe.

57

Gene O'Grady 07.22.08 at 3:50 pm

I haven’t read all the comments, but I suspect no one else has had the experience I had in Ireland ca. 1972 of regularly being identified as English by my accent? (Grew up in California, but strongest influence on my accent is probably my mother, from rural Illinois — last outpost of the ancient pronounciation “hwat.”)

For what it’s worth my midwestern relatives, perhaps due to the great-whatever mother from Rochedale, use words in everyday speech that are glossed as regional or archaic in the works of Elizabeth Gaskell.

58

PSP 07.22.08 at 10:46 pm

The English never plan anything, but they are always scheming.

59

Lucas 07.23.08 at 12:05 am

Dave: Fascinating, so much parochialism and ignorance. I only hope it is all tongue-in-cheek. Personally I’m always puzzled by people who claim not to be able to understand other regions’ accents. Are they just not listening properly, or something?

Understanding accents different from your own is an acquired skill, and often taken for granted. Typically, those lacking interaction with diverse groups have a lot of difficulty understanding linguistic patterns different from their own. I am sure you can recall an instance when you have witnessed a misunderstanding between a local and an outsider who speaks lightly accented English.

60

Ben 07.23.08 at 2:54 am

Do different American accents sound alike to British ears?

Interestingly, according to Desley Deacon, in a chapter you can read online (http://epress.anu.edu.au/tal/html/frames.php), there was a strong Australian influence on the development of what the movies promoted as a ‘good’ American accent.

61

nick s 07.23.08 at 6:48 am

Do different American accents sound alike to British ears?

Based on my parents’ recognition, I’d say that there are a few distinctions: ‘Bugs Bunny’, ‘Foghorn Leghorn’, ‘Yosemite Sam’, and ‘None of the above’, based upon exposure to film and television. That’s to say, they can tell a New Yorker from a Deep Southerner from a Cowboy Westerner, but throw them a Minnesotan or a Kentuckian or a Californian or a Canadian and they’ll file it under ‘Unidentified American’.

The KU audio database is a really good resource, in part because of standard texts that are designed to accentuate the idiosyncracies of, um, accents.

As for my accent (like those of the general locale) it seems to be one of the least subject to attrition, given the number of people who seem to have retained most of theirs after several decades living in the US. An inexact example is Ridley Scott, whose accent is noticeably thicker now than it was in the 1980s.

(One thing that has changed for me: Radio 4 play “Americans” now sound like fingernails across a blackboard.)

62

Theron 07.24.08 at 4:17 pm

Three cheers for derrida derider – as a Southerner, I’ve always been a little annoyed at the notion that we are the ones with the accent and people from the midwest are lacking in same. The “I don’t have an accent” attitude is pretnetious, at best.

Mijnheer – I grew up in the Atlanta area and I don’t even substitute “d” for “t” – “A’lanna” is closer to what I say. I tend to be more crisp about other words, but I struggle to say “Atlanta” as written.

63

jamie_2002 07.25.08 at 5:07 pm

I was born in “Trahno”

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

We don’t use all our consonants, but we don’t sound American :)

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