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Distinguishing accents in English

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Even among native English speakers, as seen below, many different accents exist. Some of the regional accents are easily identified with certain characteristics.

Non-native speakers of the English language tend to carry the intonation, accent or pronunciation from their mother tongue[?] into their English speech. For more details see Non-native pronunciations of English. This page now looks only at variations in the speech of native English speakers.

Origins in alphabetical order:

Australia:

Australians have a distinct accent, which varies between social classes and is sometimes claimed to vary from state to state, though this is disputed. Accents tend to be strongest in the more remote areas. (Note that Australian accents are very different from New Zealand ones. See below.) The following are some Australian characteristics:

  • Vowels are changed in pronunciation as follows:

Australian Vowel Pronunciation in SAMPA
Australian RP Examples
VI eI day
AI aI my
@I i: see
VU @U no
{U aU now
@U u: soon,through

  • The /l/ sound in "Australia" is smashed; it becomes "Austray-yah".
  • Australians have a unique vocabulary. For example, not many people outside of Australia come into contact with Vegemite on a daily basis. "Good day" becomes "G'day".

Reference: Listen to various Australian singers and native speakers; the singer of the Australian band Midnight Oil has a notably thick accent. Steve Irwin, a wiry herpetologist known in the U.S. as the "Crocodile Hunter", has a much-parodied speaking style.

Canada:

Canadian accents vary widely across the country, and the accent of a particular region is often closer to neighbouring parts of the United States. Nevertheless, there are some charateristics that exsist across the country, in varying degrees, such as Canadian raising.

Regional variations include:

Canada (British Columbia):

  • /aI/ diphthong pronounced /^I/

Canada (Cape Breton Island):

Canada (Maritimes):

  • loss of non-prevocalic r
  • faster speech tempo
  • use of "Eh?" interrogative

Canada (Newfoundland):

  • Newfoundland English is a distinct dialect of the language with its own pronunciation and vocabulary. Please reference that article for more information.

Canada (Ontario and Quebec):

Canada (Prairies):

  • strong Canadian raising, "about" becomes "a boat"
  • "sing-songy" intonation
  • use of "Eh?" interrogative

Ireland:

  • Pronounces "r" whenever it occurs in a word.
  • "l" is clear wherever it occurs in a word, as in French
  • 'Pure' vowels: "boat" is pronounced (in SAMPA) "bo:t", and cane is pronunced "ke:n"
  • (in Republic of Ireland) The "th" sound is replaced with a dental stop (Irish "three" and Spanish "tres" start with same consonant cluster)
  • (in Ulster) The "oo" sound is brought forward, so "boot" is pronounced (in SAMPA) "b}t"

South African: South Africa has 11 official languages, one of which is English. Afrikaners, descendants of mainly Dutch settlers, tend to pronounce English phonemes with a strong Afrikaans inflection, which is very similar to a Dutch accent. Native English speakers in South Africa have an accent that generally resembles a middle to upper class British accent modified with varying degrees of Germanic inflection, due to the Afrikaner influence. Native South African English speakers also insert a number of Afrikaans loanwords into their speech. Please add information about the English accents of native speakers of African languages.

United Kingdom Accents and dialects vary more widely within the U.K. itself than they do in other parts of the world owing to the longer history of the language within the countries of the U.K. Here are some of the distinctions to be found:

Cockney:
  • Initial h sounds are dropped; i.e. "house" becomes "ouse"; "help" becomes "elp"
  • T sounds in the middle of words are replaced with a glottal stop; i.e. "water" becomes "wa><er"
  • Diphthongs shift tongue positioning distinctively, similarly to Australian English
Estuary English
  • A broadly spread extension of Cockney, with less emphasis on the dropping of initial 'h's and a more profound presence of the glottal stop. Also compounded by an extremely imprecise understanding of grammar and a propensity to mangle tenses e.g. "Goin' up the mo'-urrway Sat-dee cos it's more be'-ur" (trans. "[I'm] going up the motorway [on] Saturday [be]cause it's more better").
  • Complete loss of the subjunctive tense: "I woou'nt do that if I was you"
  • Dropping of ly suffix on adverbs. "You havn't done it propper".
Southern English:
  • Terminal "r" is smashed; i.e. "doorway" becomes "doe-way", "forever" becomes "forevuh"
  • Unstressed vowels are also smashed
London accents:
  • The tongue is more forward in the mouth
  • Words can be overpronounced
  • th becomes v. "Fo'i fouzand fevvers on a frush's froat."
Northern English:
  • Generally use a flat a, so "cast" is pronounced k{st rather than the kAst pronunciation of most south-eastern accents. There are other peculiarities in specific Northern Regions.
Northern English/Liverpool:
  • The tongue is swallowed, cutting off nasal passages and making speech sound as if the speaker has a cold.
  • "th" is often pronounced as "d", for example "there" becomes "dere" usage "oarite dere la!"
  • distinctive rolling "ck" sound from the Welsh influence, sounds like the speaker is clearing their throat! usage:"gerr off me backk will yer!"
  • "arr, ey!" distinctive sound of a disappointed Scouser,
Northern English/Yorkshire:
  • The "u" sound is pronounced like the standard English "oo", so "luck" is pronounced (in SAMPA) lUk. The difference between the Yorkshire Pronunciation of "look" and "luck" is difficult to hear, the "look" vowel being slightly longer in duration and tending towards the SAMPA lyk pronunciation.
  • Shortening of "the" to "t", as in "I'm going down 't pub".
  • Many dialect words, for example "owt" and "nowt" for "anything" or "nothing", "bevvy" for drink etc.
  • Sing-song intonation, as in Swedish, Welsh, and the US accent from the film Fargo.
  • Use of the singular second-person pronoun "thou" and "thee".
  • In all cases of the past tense of "to be" is "were": "I were wearing t'red coat, but he were wearing t'green one".
  • In the South-East of Yorkshire vowel shifts so "i" becomes "ee", and "ee" becomes "i", so "Where have you been last night" becomes "wherst tha bin last neet".
  • Someone from the US commented that a broad Yorkshire accent does not even sound like English!
Northern English/Lancashire:
  • The "u" sound is pronounced like the standard English "oo", so "luck" is pronounced (in SAMPA) lUk. The "oo" in look is pronounced like the "oo" in "boom", so look is look is the SAMPA luk.
  • "o" pronounced "oi", so "hole" is pronounced (in SAMPA) "hOIl".
  • Many dialect words.
Welsh:
  • Distinctive pitch differences giving a "sing-song" effect
Scots:
  • pronounces "wh" differently from "w" (watt and what, weather and whether, wales and whales do not sound the same).
  • Does not pronounce technology as if it were spelled teknology.
  • Pronounces "r" whenever it occurs in a word.
  • 'Pure' vowels: "boat" is pronounced (in SAMPA) "bo:t", and cane is pronunced "ke:n"
  • The "oo" sound is brough forward, so "boot" is pronounced (in SAMPA) "b}t"
Reference: For London accents, listen to old recordings by Petula Clark, Julie Andrews, Rolling Stones, and The Who. For Liverpool accents, recordings by The Beatles (George Harrison's accent was the thickest of the four of them), Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman's Hermits, Echo and the Bunnymen. Welsh accents can be heard from the actors Richard Burton and (to a lesser extent) Anthony Hopkins, or on recordings of Dylan Thomas or in the music of Catatonia, Tom Jones or Shirley Bassey. Scots accents are exemplified by Sean Connery or the film Trainspotting.

United States of America:

In case anyone is wondering, the standard American English accent is the neutral dialect spoken by TV network announcers and typical of educated speech in the Upper Midwest, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Philadelphia. Standard American makes a good reference dialect because it has crisp consonants and more vowel distinctions than other major dialects, tends to retain distinctions between unstressed vowels, and is considered a "neutral" dialect. However, /o/ and /ah/ tend to merge in standard American (which means that "father" and "bother" rhyme). This may help readers accustomed to accents resembling British Received Pronunciation.

Regional and cultural variations within the USA include the following:

USA (African American, sometimes referred to as Ebonics): This is actually a cluster of dialects with numerous regional variations. The below describes some features found in many (but not necessarily all) varieties, and emphasizes a stereotype that may or may not be true in some areas of the United States. This dialect is not exclusive to African-Americans and might be more appropriately titled Urban.

  • Use of double negative; in some speakers, multiple negation is used for emphasis: "I ain't never done nuthin' like that."
  • Use of "ain't" where Standard American English (SAE) uses "isn't".
  • Auxiliary "be" + verb is used for the habitual aspect[?] of a verb. "It be dat way sometime" = "It's like that, sometimes".
  • Auxiliary "done" + verb is used for the completive aspect[?] of a verb "He done gone to the store" means that he completed the errand he set out to do. SAE has no direct equivalent to this.
  • Some speakers may pronounce /D/ as [d] initially and as [v] between vowels; and /T/ as [f]. <ed. note: I've not heard this in MN, but am told it happens elsewhere.>
  • People who live in the northern USA may perceive the dialect as having a distinct "Southern" quality to it, because of a tendency to monophthongize /ay/ as [a:] (see "USA (Southern)" below).
  • African American dialects are not only non-rhotic, but in some cases may also delete /r/ between vowels. Thus, "Carol never made drop rate art" may be pronounced "Ca'ol nevah made drop rate aht" [k}.ol nE.v@ med drOp ret a:t]. "Store" is pronounced "stow".

USA (Boston, Massachusetts):

  • loss of non-prevocalic <r>. "Park the car in Harvard Yard" becomes "Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd."
  • "I had no idea" becomes "I had no eye-dee-err"

USA (Brooklyn, New York):

  • loss of non-prevocalic <r>.
  • faster speech tempo
  • /OI/ pronounced /3r/ and /3r/ pronounced /OI/. When asked if the apartment had heat in the winter the landlord replied "Shua. We got a brand new url boyna." ("Sure. We purchased a brand new oil burner.")

Reference: Old Bugs Bunny cartoons (Bugs has a Brooklyn accent). The accent is often exagerated, but it still does exist to some degree with many Brooklyn natives.

USA (Midwest (Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin)):

  • /O/ merged with /a/. "not" sounds like "naht" (/nOt/ --> [nat]), "opportunity" like "ahppertunity" (NOTE: This is standard in Connecticut, an eastern state.)
  • preservation of non-prevocalic <r>

USA (Minnesota, esp. rural):

  • /O/ merged with /a/. ("Father" rhymes with "bother".)
  • Preservation of non-prevocalic <r>
  • Canadian raising: see section on Canada.
  • "roof", "book", and "root" all use the same vowel (SAMPA [U]).
  • Use of German/Scandinavian "ja" as an affirmative filler or emphatic; Standard US English "yes" is used to answer questions and to start an explanation.
  • Tendency towards a "sing-songy" intonation (the area's earliest European settlers were primarily Scandinavian, and this has influenced the local dialect). More recently, this has been reinforced by an influx of Asians, most of whom speak tonal languages.
  • For a stereotypical (if somewhat overdone) example of Minnesotan, refer to the movie Fargo. For a more normative example, Garrison Keillor speaks with a typical urban Minnesota accent.

USA (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): Pittsburgh accents have a number of distinctive features. Please reference that article for more information.

USA (South):

  • monopthongization[?] of /ay/ as [a:], eg. most dialects' "I" --> "Ah" in the South.
  • (also some East Coast:) loss of non-prevocalic r.
  • slower speech tempo
  • putting two modals together as if the second were an infinitive: "I might could do that."

USA (New England and East Coast):

  • (also South:) loss of non-prevocalic r in some dialects.
  • faster speech tempo

USA (Maine and Downeast[?]):

  • Older native Maine (USA) residents pronounce "yes" or "yeah" as "ayuh", with the stress on the the second syllable.

USA (St. Louis and vicinity):

  • Older St. Louisans (probably born earlier than 1960) tend to merge the /Or/ sound as in for with the /Ar/ sound of far. This accent is otherwise a typical Midwestern General American-like accent.
  • Many younger speakers are picking up the Northern Cities Vowel Shift[?] heard in Chicago, eastern Wisconsin, and much of Michigan. This vowel shift causes words like cat /k&t/ to become more like /kEt/ and talent /'t&l,nt/ to be more like /'tj&l,nt/ or /'tEl,nt/. Younger generations also tend to pronounce not more like /nAt/ (naht), as do older generations in this area. This does not necessarily mean a complete merger between /A/ and /O/, however.



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