Speaking in others’ tongues

Posted by on February 28, 2012

Stop and think: when was the last time you chose to pronounce a word or sentence, or carry on a conversation, in an accent that was not your normal one? What accent or manner of speech were you imitating, and what was your reason for doing this? The choice to add a linguistic twist to what you say is another aspect of pragmatics that holds some useful information for learners of English.

Most English speakers can recognize, even if they cannot reproduce, the stereotypical accents in English from speakers of the world’s best known languages: German, all of the main Romance languages, and Chinese, for example. English speakers usually imitate these accents for some comic effect, or to make an observation – not always a flattering one – about the people of the nationality whose accent they are imitating.

When English speakers take on an accent of a variety of English other than their own, their intention may or may not be comic, but the choices of accents they imitate will vary greatly depending on where they live, and what their native dialect is. English speakers around the world are probably familiar with general features of the best known English accents: American, British (perhaps several varieties of this), Irish, and Australian, for example. English speakers from these countries have a variety of English accents to draw on when they wish to convey some idea – often a humorous one – that their words would not communicate if spoken in the normal way.

Even though Americans make up the biggest single block of native speakers of English, the number of English accents the typical American carries in his or her quiver is relatively small; perhaps because of the lack of obvious distinctions among US regional accents. Trained linguists can pick out subtle differences in various regional American vowels and intonations, but these are often lost on ordinary speakers.

Despite the huge variety of distinct dialect and accents in Great Britain, many Americans consider the “British accent” a monolith, and they would probably find a BBC newsreader a typical example of it. The United States didn’t shake off the idea that British English was the most prestigious version of the language till the late 19th century, and media imports in the form of films and television beginning in the 20th century have ensured that speaking with a British accent is still a way to signal sophistication, haughtiness, and an air of privilege. British pronunciation says “posh” to many American speakers.

At the other end of the class and prestige scale, Americans may resort to a generalized rural or Southern US accent to convey ignorance or a lack of sophistication.  Markers of this accent may include the nonstandard form y’all  for you, elimination of the final -g in gerunds and participles (walkin’ and talkin’), and changing the diphthong /aɪ/ to /a:/, so that words like side and ride sound like sad and rad. Is this fair to country folks or residents of the Southern United States? Not at all, but it is largely the result of historical events: the defeat of the South in the Civil War, followed by the much slower development of social progress in the south, the persistence of poverty there, and until very recent times, the fact that few Southern cities were considered centers of culture.

The speech of many African Americans is indistinguishable from that of white Americans, but there is also a distinctive form of English in the US, African American Vernacular English or AAVE, that white speakers do not normally imitate but that blacks may use at will. In an interesting interview here, the African-American authors of a recent book note that when they “want to make sure they’re connecting” (with other African Americans) they sometimes “lapse into the dialect.” This reason – the wish to connect – is surely the best one for using a form of speech other than your normal one, because it gets to the core of language use: communicating effectively.

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Comments (5)
  • Interesting post, Orin. Is it quite true, though, that ‘many Americans consider the “British accent” a monolith’? In movies and TV shows, there are occasional signs of another stereotype, the working-class Brit who invariably has a Cockney accent (or something in that ballpark). The most notorious example is Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins – the object of enduring ridicule. This is the prototype, and later exponents include Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, and Daphne Moon’s brothers (in the sitcom Frasier): these feckless lads (obviously played by American actors) periodically turn up in Seattle sporting a version of Cockney – despite the fact that they come from Manchester. So maybe, for many Americans, there are two varieties of British accent?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 28th February, 2012
  • “British pronunciation says “posh” to many American speakers.”
    Watching Disney films, as an adult, with my daughter, it became clear that British accent (English accent to be more specific) = villain. Just think of Shere Kahn in the Jungle Book, Jafar in Aladdin, the bad lion in the Lion King (can’t remember the character’s name but its voice was Jeremy Irons), and many many others

    Posted by Karen Richardson on 28th February, 2012
  • British accents have also been used in films as a marker of criminality or villainy, albeit often of a sophisticated kind.

    That’s an interesting note on “lapsing into the dialect”. The African-American narrator in Walter Mosley’s novel Devil in a Blue Dress says the following:
    I always tried to speak proper English in my life, the kind of English they taught in school, but I found over the years that I could only truly express myself in the natural, “uneducated” dialect of my upbringing.

    Posted by Stan on 1st March, 2012
  • When I first started teaching in China, my students could not understand my North Carolina drawl. Twelve years later, I’m back in North Carolina, and folks probably think “You ain’t from around here, are ya?” I am.

    Posted by Michael LaRocca on 2nd March, 2012
  • Thanks to all for your comments. Michael, you’re right that Britspeak is not always monolithic for Americans. When there is sufficient context (i.e., more than one British dialect or accent on display), Americans distinguish them, and have easily internalized the film cliches whereby the the posh characters speak RP and the bad guys (as Karen notes), unpredictable characters, or colorful cameos speak up in regional or working-class accents. But if an American hears any British speaker in isolation, their observation is likely to be “British accent,” and nothing more specific.

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 2nd March, 2012
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