An accent by any other name

Ellis Island

Ellis Island. How many accents were heard here, do you think? Image courtesy of kconnors, Morguefile.

How do different accents get started among people speaking the same language? We learn our own language from various sources: parents, siblings, TV, radio, movies, friends, teachers and school assignments, to name just a few. Over time, our command of the English language grows and grows as we age. According to a couple of sources I’ve read, the average adult knows between 12,000 and 30,000 words.

But what factors affect our pronunciation of our own language? Some of it is our environment, I think. When your ears are constantly bombarded with a particular accent, you pick it up. My British friend has a young and adorable son who was already rocking his British accent at 3 years old, when I first met him. “Garden center” was pronounced as “gah-den cen-tah,” which he exclaimed every time he saw decorative ponds with fountains. I’m thinking the kid will grow up to be Alan Titchmarsh or Tommy Walsh.

Some of it is parenting. My best friend once mentioned that her brother and his wife refused to use baby talk with their kids, and those kids grew up speaking very precise English.

I’m curious to know — and probably somebody’s written a book about this topic somewhere — how a particular accent starts. I guess it’s influence. Maybe someone speaking in a slightly different way moves into a community and the accent grows and spreads through succeeding generations.

I don’t know if my particular American accent has a name. I slur my “d” and “t” sounds, I know. Here in the U.S., there are quite a few accents, I’d say: New England, the various boroughs of New York, the South, the twangs of the Shenandoah Valley and Tennessee and the Midwest, for example. I’m not sure if areas such as the Pacific Northwest have certain accents — I haven’t visited there yet so I don’t feel qualified to comment. (Hey, you guys in Oregon and Washington State, want to weigh in here?)

Some people I’ve met have confused me with their accents, even when we talk the same language. I had a music appreciation professor in college who kept talking about “tone collar,” which perplexed me until I realized she was talking about “tone color”. And there was a librarian I heard who referred to “Cat On A Hot Tin Ruff” (roof) while making a phone call to another library.

I get a kick sometimes out of imitating people with different accents, but it’s not easy. I can do a reasonable German or French accent. And since I live in an area where I hear Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Amharic and Arabic spoken every week as well as regional accents, I get a lot of practice material when I want to try another accent. *grins wryly*

I’m still working on my British and Aussie accents. I know that accents vary widely throughout the U.K., and every time I try to attempt my version of a British accent, my British friend snickers. She thinks my British accent sounds too upper class. (Jane Austen, see what you started??!!!) My best Aussie accent comes from a classic scene in the first “Crocodile Dundee” movie: “That’s not a knoife, mate! This is a knoife!”

You have to have a good ear for accents. Some professional actors such as Gabriel Byrne, Robin Williams or Bradley Cooper are gifted mimics, and it’s fun to listen to them. But maybe a good memory doesn’t hurt, either. Writing in a particular accent is hard, because some of your audience may not understand what you’re saying. I’ve seen some writers attempt it, while others leave it alone.

Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” once went on a rant about people with different accents and what it did (or didn’t) do for them. Although his version was done for comic reasons, he had some interesting points to make about speaking English. Enjoy.

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44 Comments

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44 responses to “An accent by any other name

  1. What interests me most is how each language sounds. I relish the beauty of the French language, delight in Aussie, and wish for the clipped British. After a summer spent in Germany I was unused to hearing American. I was embarrassed to realize it’s quite flat and without melody as I discovered hearing a conversation near me on the plane.

  2. “Ah Jaysus, ye defo cudnt undurstaand a Duublin aksent!”

  3. One of your best posts so far, in my humble opinion. There are numerous books on accents and dialects regarding English. If you are ever interested in reading any (and if you haven’t already read it) I highly recommend David Crystal’s book “Walking English”. Entertaining read to say the least.

    My Britsh accent is kind of bad, my northern Scottish passable and Aussie accent a little better. Something I find very difficult to imitate is a Southern accent. It’s almost always easy to spot a fake in the movies.

    Again I enjoyed this post, wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up FP again.

  4. I have a light Southern accent, and I can get rid of it when I’m around a different group of people from somewhere else or need to make a speech. Most people from the South don’t believe I’m from SC. I like listening to other accents. I find they inspire me also. Great post!

  5. You can trace the origins of some regional accents back to the original groups who live in an area. Since television has brought us into so much closer contact and more frequent contact, a lot of regional accents have been growing less pronounced (sorry for the pun). These days, the biggest differences seem to be between rich and poor rather than regions. Maybe that’s the way it will be eventually: the upper crust will talk one way and the poor will sound entirely different. Maybe they do already.

  6. Yeah, I agree with Teepee12. Some accents have gotten lost through the worldwide interaction. Here in the west, I’d say the Southern Utah drawl is very distinct–kind of hickish. My family falls into that all the time, and I grew up in Las Vegas. All I can say is that we picked it up at Grandma’s every time we visited her tiny town, and my sisters and I all fall (and I do mean fall, for it is not a becoming accent at all) into that accent whenever we all get together and talk. It makes all our husbands laugh, because we NEVER talk that way otherwise.

    • Interesting! I notice that when I visit England, I don’t pick up the accent, but I do fall into the habit of using British words for things. It’s hard not to do that when your ears are bombarded with it, 24/7.

  7. No one does an Australian accent like an Australian, although so many people across the world think they can mimic it. As an Australian, I can say they do it very badly! Within Australia, just like the UK, we have regional and class accents, plus multi-cultural colourations, so it’s very very varied. Rex Harrison’s commentary is perfect and he speaks beautifully!

  8. I remember that movie scene. What a show…we used to imitate all those accents.
    My very proper grandmother and mother were always nagging us and correcting pronunciations of words – they said a regional accent could hamper you later in life/career. People always say I don’t sound like where I’m from.
    We used to play around with accents and regionalisms a lot in college (It was the Beatles era – everyone wanted to sound like they were from someplace else – the US had been such an isolated existence with less TV/rapid media and not as much international travel).
    How language is used and sounds is such an interesting thing to study.

  9. I find that if I watch a lot of British TV, my accent starts changing. 🙂 Some linguists actually work with accents and word pronounciation, and are able to pinpoint within 20 some-odd miles where you came from based on your vocabulary and enunciation. If I come across the study, I’ll let you know.

  10. Love this post — I’ve had the same thought so many times! Not only do I find my speech sliding towards the local accent while traveling, but I end up picking up local slang, too (‘dodgy’ is still one of my favorite descriptors, even after just 24 hrs. in London!)… it’s hard to keep those regional dialects from rubbing off!

  11. Fascinating question–accents, dialects. I love language and all its variations. I can only speak English, but I can manage to mimic the accents of a number of foreign tongues. I tell people: I don’t speak foreign languages, I just speak the accent of the foreign language! French, Irish, British, Eastern European, and Southern (not exactly foreign, but different than how we Yankees talk)! I’ve been told I don’t have an accent, or if I do, I have Walter Cronkite’s accent. Interesting, huh?

  12. travelrat

    ‘Tyke’ = Yorkshire. The best example is the dialect song ‘On Ilkla Moor bar t’at’ 🙂

  13. I once won a bet that I could talk to a group of people all night and not tip them off to the fact that I wasn’t really British…I also can mimic a Russian accent that makes Russians start speaking Russian (I use the pseudonym Ivan Awfulitch; it’s amazing the number of folks who don’t catch that.). To me, I do speak some English 😉 but the Russian is Chinese to me…As to where dialects and accents come from, it’s my understanding that traditionally they develop as people in a particular group or area in relative isolation from others whom speak the same language tend to focus their linguistics towards the dynamics of what they do (for example, a fishing village) influenced by education (or lack of) and people’s natural tendency to create words to facilitate their common cultural needs, while some specifically and intentionally isolate themselves (Those darn kids and their rock & roll music). We also constantly create and use created words to describe people, places and things. I used the slang rum-dumb in one of my posts and got quite a reaction from people even though to my knowledge the term has been around for years. Great Post Eagle!

  14. I went to California….I heard “Bro Talk.” What’s up Bruh? We gonna hit those waves? I don’t know Bruh, I can’t call it! LOL

  15. Eleenie

    I’m from England but I struggle to understand the Welsh accent. I’m not the only one either. Goodness knows why! And, have you ever noticed how a Scot can easily speak with an English accent but an English person can rarely mimic the Scottish accent?

  16. ZZMike

    It used to be, a few decades ago, that you could tell where a speaker grew up – often not just the town, but what part of town (North or South Boston (or is that Bahs-ton?).

    Another thing is that most other languages have sounds that don’t exist in English. The Xhosa click, for one; even Danish has sounds we can’t produce. Then there’s Chinese, with its tone system.

    It seems obvious to me that we learn how to talk, and what sounds to make, from our parents. Amplifying MartyW47’s comment, that explains why there are areas of pre-civilized tribes relatively close to one another, who speak entirely different languages.

    • You mean Bahs-ton, where they paaahrk the caaahrs in the paahrking lot? 😉 Interesting that you could tell if someone was a Southie or not from Boston.

      And to contribute to the other languages not having sounds that exist in English — German doesn’t have a “th” sound, like the “th” in “the”. Many German-speaking people that I’ve heard will use an “s” or a “z” sound as a substitute.

  17. I LOVE different accents (and, dare I blow my own trumpet? I’m pretty good at them too). After 20 years on the stage and studying phonetics and accents during that time, I always have a whale of a time with accents.

    I’m originally from north east England (yes, I’m a Geordie!), but we moved to Scotland when I was 10 years old. As a result my own natural accent is somewhat garbled and many people seem to think I’m Canadian (go figure!). However, I find that my accent changes depending on who I’m talking to, sometimes mid-sentence. It’s dreadful when I’m speaking to an Australian because they sometimes think I’m taking the mick, when I don’t even realise my accent has changed to mimic theirs till I’m half way through what I’m saying – LOL! Fortunately, all the Ozzies I’ve met have a great sense of humour and after I explain what’s happened they usually make me do a whole range of accents to amuse them! 🙂

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