American Dialects

Some time ago I posted “A Guide to the Pronunciation of General American English“. Recently, I came across a useful adjunct: “North American English Dialects, Based on Pronunciation Patterns“.

If you scroll down the page, you’ll find a list of links to samples of the speech patterns of various regions. I was amused to hear Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, in this YouTube video clip. It’s almost like hearing myself — another native of the central and southeastern parts of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

What that clip and others illustrate is that a broad pattern of pronunciation (e.g., General American English) is overlaid with many sub-regional variations in the form of accents and emphases.

Larry Page’s accent, for example, has a nasal and breathy (or reedy) quality. He might say TOE-MAY-TOE instead of TOE-MAH-TOE, but the way in which he says it will be different than the way it sounds coming from the mouth of an Iowan.

Further, in many parts of the Upper Midwest (certainly including parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan) there is a tendency to end a sentence on an ascending tone, as if a question were being asked even though the sentence is declarative. Again, the sentence may end with TOE-MAY-TOE instead of TOE-MAH-TOE, but it will have a distinctly different sound than TOE-MAY-TOE placed elsewhere in a sentence and TOE-MAY-TOE pronounced at the end of a sentence by an Iowan.

Speaking in Foreign Tongues

Have you wondered why it’s so hard to learn to speak a foreign language, especially as one gets older. (“Older” includes persons of high-school and college age, as opposed to toddlers.) I have some thoughts on the matter, which I’ll get to after a relevant detour into a pair of well-known English and American accents.

You’re probably familiar with the “posh” English accent, also known as Received Pronunciation (RP):

RP is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as “the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England,”although it can be heard from native speakers throughout England and Wales…. Although there is nothing intrinsic about RP that marks it as superior to any other variety, sociolinguistic factors have given Received Pronunciation particular prestige in parts of Britain.It has thus been the accent of those with power, money and influence since the early to mid 20th century….

The modern style of RP is an accent often taught to non-native speakers learning British English…. RP is used as the standard for English in most books on general phonology and phonetics, and is represented in the pronunciation schemes of most dictionaries published in the United Kingdom.

[A] notable British phonetician, has identified the following people as RP speakers:

(More here about RP.)

If you’re unfamiliar with the speech of the Royal Family, etc., think of the Crawleys of Downton Abbey —  Elizabeth McGovern’s character excepted, of course.

RP has an American equivalent, General American (GA):

The General American accent is most closely related to a generalized Midwestern accent and is spoken particularly by many newscasters. It is thought to have evolved from the English spoken by colonials in the Mid-Atlantic states, evolved and moved west. Walter Cronkite is a good example of a broadcaster using this accent. This has led the accent to sometimes be referred to as a “newscaster accent” or “television English”. General American is sometimes promoted as preferable to other regional accents. In the United States, classes promising “accent reduction”,”accent modification” and “accent neutralization” generally attempt to teach speech patterns similar to this accent…. General American is also the accent typically taught to people learning English as a second language in the United States, as well as outside the country to anyone who wishes to learn “American English.”

Where does GA come from?

The Telsur Project … examines a number of phonetic properties by which regional accents of the U.S. may be identified. The area with Midwestern regional properties is indicated on the map: eastern Nebraska (including Omaha and Lincoln); northwestern, southern, and central Iowa (including Des Moines, Sioux City and the Iowa-side Quad Cities), with an adjacent narrow strip of northern Missouri; and western Illinois (including Peoria and the Illinois-side Quad Cities. Notably, this section of Illinois does not include the Chicago area).

Note that GA doesn’t encompass the entire Midwest, which contains a variety of distinct accents, even though most Midwesterners, seem to believe (wrongly) that they’re accent-free. For example, the Chicago accent, as I’ve heard it, has a “big city” shading — a more “aggressive” sound than the softer tones one associates with the rural and semi-urban areas of the Midwest. Many Chicagoans (e.g., the late Mayor Richard Daley) have been known to substitute “dese” and “dem” for “these” and “them.”  The accents of the Upper Midwest — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota — are also distinctive and easily mocked. (Think of the Minnesotan played by Frances McDormand in Fargo.)

GA, of course, sounds nothing like RP, nor is it considered “posh.” But, like RP, it is easily understood by other speakers of English.

Why? I think it’s because GA is a straightforward way of speaking, absent the vocal gymnastics that accompany other regional accents; for example:

  • The “a” sound is “ay”; it’s not drawn out into a nasal whine (“a-a-uh”), as it is in Upstate New York and parts of the Upper Midwest.
  • The letter “r” is pronounced “are,” not only at the beginning of a word but also in the middle and at the end. Thus words that end in “r” (or with the “r” sound) are instantly understandable to any American, even those who say “ah” for “are,” “heah” for “hear” and “hear,” “waw” and “wo-ah” for “war,” or “Cuber” for “Cuba” — to give but a few of many possible examples. (It doesn’t work the other way around. Years ago, before I became “worldly,” I had to ask a native of New York City to repeat “Clahk Milluh” three time before I — a native Midwesterner — understood that he was referring to a person named Clark Miller.)
  • The “t” is pronounced, except in words where it has long been suppressed (e.g., “often” = “offen”). Thus GA speakers say “plentiful,” not the “pleniful” of some Eastern accents.
  • The long “i” is “eye,” not the “ah” of “rahfle” (rifle) and “tahr’ (tire) that’s heard in some parts of the South.
  • Also in contrast to many Southern accents, words are pronounced crisply, not stretched; for example: “building” is “bil-ding,” not “bee-i-l-ding”; “fish” is just that, not “fee-ush.”

I could go on and on. But what I’m leading up to is this: It’s true that GA is an accent, but the simplicity of GA makes it easy to mimic. (That’s why it’s taught to non-English speakers.) British actors who try to “do” an American accent usually succeed only when they “do” GA. (British actors’ imitations of Southern accents usually seem hilarious to Southerners, as do most imitations essayed by non-Southern American actors.)

What does all of this have to do with the difficulty of mastering the pronunciation of a foreign language? My amateur guess is that two things keep most people (older than toddlers) from learning how to speak a foreign language as its native speakers do: (1) embarrassment and (2) embedded  habits of pronunciation. The two impediments are related. If you’ve grown up pronouncing vowels, consonants, diphthongs and other particles of speech in certain ways, you’re likely to feel self-conscious about pronouncing them in new ways, especially in the presence of your peers. And you’ll find it hard to pronounce particles of speech in new ways if doing so requires you to make sounds that you’re unaccustomed to making.

If, for example, you want to pronounce the “r” in garçon (boy or young man) as a French person does, you have to throw in a silent gargle, so that the “r” is almost suppressed. Then you get to “çon,” which starts out somewhere between “sone” and “sawn,” but ends with an open, nasal sound — the “n” is hinted at but not enunciated. Further, you have to resist the temptation to emphasize the first syllable, and put equal emphasis on both syllables.

See how hard it is? And that’s just a small sample of the vocal gymnastics required to speak one foreign tongue passably well. (Also required: some mastery of vocabulary and grammar, the latter of which is often more complex than in English.)

So, even if an American gets over the embarrassment of making “weird” sounds, he or she still faces the obstacle of making those sounds correctly. The same goes for non-English speakers who want to master British or American English. But if they aim to master RP or GA, their task is made easier by the relative simplicity of those two accents.