Please Explain: Accents and Dialects

Friday, March 04, 2011

Today's Please Explain is all about accents in the English speaking world--how did Australians come to sound different than New Zealanders? Why do some people lose their accents quickly...while others can hold on to them for decades? NYU Professor of Linguistics Gregory Guy and North Carolina State University Distinguished Professor of English Walt Wolfram will discuss the various accents in the English-speaking world and even analyze some samples from volunteers!


Gregory Guy and Walt Wolfram

Comments [72]

Janice Vrana from NYC

For Walt Wolfram
I was struck by your snippet of NC Outer Banks dialect "Huy tuide" because in the 1960s I heard exactly the same dialect among native speakers in Amagansett/E.Hampton NY area. Most were still fishermen or farmers. There was a lot of fishing then. As transplants from a different area of Long Island, the discovery of the dialect was truly a surprise to our family. Best wishes........

Mar. 10 2011 01:58 PM
margie graham from memphis

Sorry for the lateness of this comment, but these guys were useless. They had absolutely nothing to say. I learned nothing at all from this, despite Leonard's efforts to get something--anything--from them. Please vet academics better. It does education no good these days to have numb-nut professors presented as experts.

Love the show (other than lame guests like these guys).

Mar. 06 2011 09:39 PM
Liz from New York

I'm not sure why this wasn't addressed. I don't have a Massachusetts accent but my brothers do. Two people in the family can have different dialects because

1) Pop culture. I watched a lot of television and associated myself with certain sub cultures. This is important. (As a result, as a teen, I had no Mass accent. Some people thought I came from California.)
2) I went to college and traveled.
3) I work in media.

However, I do say things like "elastic" for rubber band. And pronounce aunt the way it's written (not ant).

Often Hollywood gets the Massachusetts accents/dialects wrong. Case in point: Mystic River. Butchered it.

Mar. 05 2011 01:55 AM
Mary English

I'm an Irish woman who has not lived full time in Ireland for nearly 40 years, but my accent is still strong enough to be testament to the tenacity of the Northern Irish accent. I wanted to comment on the issue of language and cultural identity. Nine years ago I bought an apartment in a village in the North East of Ireland. Like all, villages in Ireland, however small, it has a Chinese takeaway. My sister and I went down one night and ordered a meal and while our King Prawn whatever was being prepared, the Chinese owners were staring at us with undisguised curiosity, eventually asking us, in the broadest of County Antrim accents, if we were local, It has since struck me that one of the great differences between language identity in Ireland and here in the US is that in Ireland, if you closed your eyes and just listened, you would not be able to tell what colour or ethnicity a person was, whereas here (and I have experimented on the subway), if you close your eyes and listen you can tell if someone is black, white or hispanic. This is also not a matter of class, as it is not only shows like The Wire, but also people as prosperous as Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey who have a recognizable black accent,. I wonder if it is to do with wanting to hold onto a separate identity, like a badge of pride?

Mar. 04 2011 08:06 PM
Prem from London

"Hoy Toyd" definitely sounds like English West Country ( e.g. Bristol) pronunciation of "High Tide"

The "English" speakers all sounded *very* Americanized.

Mar. 04 2011 07:58 PM
Charlie from Raleighwood, NC

"Accents may also be explained by physiological events within the oral pharyngeal cavity."

Eh, physiological differences can help explain differences of individual formant levels and pitch between speakers, but are generally unrelated to dialectal (sociolinguistic) differences in speakers. I can see why you think that, but the explanation (for you, is defined by a speaker's physiological makeup) is really the realization of an individual's phonology, which is determined by a number of factors (region, style, gender, socioethnic variety, etc.).

Mar. 04 2011 04:59 PM
Barry from White Plains

Steve Vail: Amy already corrected the "soft G" reference, and you're right that the "j" should be pronounced as in "jingle". But if we want to be closer to the Chinese pronunciation, it's not "jing", but "jin' ", where the "n" has a nasal sound. The "g" is not distinctly pronounced by the locals.

(And we won't get into the "bei" syllable (meaning "north") being spoken in the third tone, falling and then rising. That's beyond any attempt by Americans....)

Mar. 04 2011 03:34 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Steve Vail--the "j" sound *is* the "soft g" sound (as in "gee"). It took me a while to figure out that you meant they pronounce the j as "zh" instead of "j."

Mar. 04 2011 02:54 PM
BD from Brooklyn

Sorry to be off-point, but the test sentence about catching a cold after being outside is distracting me from the conversation. Come on, Leonard! You missed a chance to point out that of course (or, of caws), you can not catch a cold from being outside. I hope that's not because the educated folks (outer-borough accent or not) at NPR are taking that myth as fact. Please explain.

Mar. 04 2011 02:27 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Mort, it's not a mispronunciation, according to Merriam-Webster:

Mar. 04 2011 02:10 PM

Dr Casper. - I think speech patterns shape facial muscles, too.

Mar. 04 2011 02:06 PM

Christine - Yes, I can see that - I used to work (I in NY) with an American expat (from Riverdale) who was working as a bilingual secretary in Paris - it distorted her sound, her grammar in writing - and her sense of nuanced meaning in English words and phrasing.

Mar. 04 2011 02:03 PM
Dr. Maureen Casper from Rye, NY

Speech is what makes us a part of the human family. It is essential for our survival although the deaf community has managed to create a culture without spoken language. Accents may also be explained by physiological events, movements within the oral pharyngeal cavity. The degree to which speakers round and spread their lips and the
jaw movement are events that vary across

Mar. 04 2011 02:02 PM
Christine from Brooklyn

Upon meeting me, people often think they detect a non-American accent to my speech: usually British or some kind of Eastern European.
I was born and raised in New York but have spent all of my adult life learning and speaking French, have lived in France off and on and make my living as a French linguist.
Could this intensive contact with a second language be the cause of this confusion?

Mar. 04 2011 01:57 PM
Amy from Manhattan

The development of dialects into new languages may have been slowed by communications advances (radio, telephone, TV) that keep speakers of different dialects from being as isolated from each other as they used to be.

Mar. 04 2011 01:56 PM
Peter from Manhattan

Did they just imply of that African American woman from Staten Island that she was uneducated and poor because of her accent? Wow!

Mar. 04 2011 01:56 PM

Mort, I think there might be a stick in your bum. Good for you, you're perfect.

Mar. 04 2011 01:55 PM

I am a native new yorker. It insulting to say that accent is equated to social status on staten island. Why is it socially acceptable to have a british accent but not ny?? All of the boroughs have destinctions between them, being from here, you can tell that...queens being the most different compared to s.I.

Mar. 04 2011 01:53 PM
K from Larchmont

I grew up in Mamaroneck. People tell me I have no accent. I've been told people in Manhattan have no discernable accent (like parts of Southern Westchester) - why is this?

Mar. 04 2011 01:51 PM
Mort from Warren County, NJ

My wife's first language is Hungarian, acquired at her Hungarian grandmother's knee, but she was born & grew up in New Jersey. In Hungary, she was immediately identified as American, by her rhythms, not by her pronunciation.

Mar. 04 2011 01:51 PM
maggie from nj

PS John Kennedy O'Toole points out the Jersey City/NOLA accent similarity in The Confederacy of Dunces, and I pay close attention (as a JC native) to NOLA natives on TV and he is absolutely right.

Mar. 04 2011 01:51 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Isn't the supposed "oil/earl" switch really because people w/those accents are using 1 vowel sound that falls in between the "oy" & the "er" sounds? And people who expect to hear the "oy" in a word hear this intermediate sound as "not-oy," so they interpret it as "er," & vice versa?

Mar. 04 2011 01:51 PM
Jackson from Manhattan

Why didn't you talk about race. There is an African-American accent that was brought up North from the South during the Great Migration. Cowards!

Mar. 04 2011 01:50 PM
Benjamin Schellack from New Brunswick, New Jersey

The reason Chicagoans (and certain varieties of British accents as in "drawring") says "warsh" and "Warshington D.C." is what they call the epinthetic "r." It makes pronunciation easier.

There's my college education in two sentences. Now I roast coffee for a living :)

Mar. 04 2011 01:49 PM

we in america, must have a very strange and unique accuity, for accents and dialects,given that no place in the world, has had so many people, for so long a time, come here, en masse, from so many different places. i don't know of people outside of north america,who would, or could, do impersonations of other accents, and make a living at it. are there any,that anyone knows of ?

Mar. 04 2011 01:49 PM
Karen from Brooklyn, New York from Brooklyn, New York

I'm curious about pop singers from Britain that seem to lose their various British accents when singing. Is this on purpose or is their something about singing that makes accents sound more like American accents.

Mar. 04 2011 01:47 PM
peter mitchell from NYC

In California, people pronounce Mary and Merry the same way and can not hear the difference between them even when you try to point it out.

Mar. 04 2011 01:47 PM
Euclid from New York

Could you please have the guest who recently used "anomia" explain in what sense he meant it? I have always believed it to mean the inability to remember names or find the right word, which didn't seem to quite fit in the context.

Mar. 04 2011 01:47 PM
wayne from Queens

I was born and raised in NYC and my family is from south China so my home language was Cantonese but I was speaking English before kindergarten. I met a Macedonian woman who also said she was born and raised in NY and had a very strong accent. She said it was because she was raised in an enclave society. I also met a Japanese woman raised in Japan. And these are the only two people who I've ever met who have claimed I speak with a Chinese accent! Whereas all my ESL students want to speak like I do because I don't have an accent!

Mar. 04 2011 01:47 PM

How is it possible that a section of New Orleans has the exact same accent as Jersey City?

Mar. 04 2011 01:46 PM
Denise from Huntington, NY

I'm fascinated by accents in English. I spent 2 years living in London. Over that time, I was SURE I sounded as much like New Yorker on the day I arrived as the day I left. But when I came home, everyone pointed out how "British" I sounded. It's an inflection you pick up, I guess. Meanwhile, while I lived there, I met another American woman, from the American South, who had COMPLETELY changed her accent to sound British, a la Madonna.

But I remain proud of my ability to pick out British accents. Last summer, I was at a friend's home while she was getting a tree taken down, and the man doing the work was English. I listened to him for a while, and when I asked him if he was from Yorkshire, he was so pleased to say yes. He said that here in the U.S., everything thinks he's either Irish or Australian. To me, the Yorkshire accent was unmistakable.

BTW, I can also totally tell the difference between Australian and New Zealand English!


Mar. 04 2011 01:44 PM
Jean from Brooklyn

My two boys are big fans of the British show about cars, "Top Gear". After watching an episode or two, my 8-year-old picks up a British accent, but it's a mashup of multiple types of British accents.

Mar. 04 2011 01:43 PM
Brendan from New York

I'm from upstate New York, and when I was in college a number of my friends were from Long Island; it was like we spoke different languages.

As such, I was wondering if there's a clear point in linguistics when dialects split off to become entirely separate languages? E.g. some linguists think that some regional Scottish dialects should be considered separate languages...

Mar. 04 2011 01:42 PM
Mort from Warren County, NJ

I'm surprised to hear Prof. Guy say "homogenous" rather than "homogeneous."
As a Professor of English, I expect other educated people to adhere to a higher standard of pronunciation.

Mar. 04 2011 01:42 PM
Steve Vail from Midtown

Why do so few news reporters know how to correctly pronounce the capital of China. The jing in Beijing should be pronounced the same as the Jing in Jingle Bells, not the soft G that so many announcers have affected.

Mar. 04 2011 01:40 PM
Mike from Great Neck, NY

Hello Leonard,

I'm retired and I'm self-conscious about my New York accent.
When I'm responding to an important or urgent question, I may sound New Yorkerish---no such word.
Is there any method that can be used to illuminate any accent that one may have?

May I thank you in advance,
Michae Casey

Mar. 04 2011 01:39 PM
art525 from Park Slope

Leonard and Brian both say "sin-ghah" instead of singer. Drives me crazy

Mar. 04 2011 01:39 PM
Alejandro Nolasco from Bronx, NY

I've always been perplexed by people who say 'drawring' instead of 'drawing'. Does that extra 'r' sound dead smack in the middle of this two-syllable word have any connection to other examples like saying 'nucular' instead of 'nuclear'?

Mar. 04 2011 01:39 PM
Ally from Harlem

This doesn't seem to take race into people from New York sound completely different than white people from New York...are there any non-white people saying the "Mary caught a bad cold" sentence?

Mar. 04 2011 01:37 PM
robert from Bay Ridge

I have a question about how some jews are speaking.
Even if hebrew or jiddish is their second (to english) language, they tend to pronounce "L" as something like between L and R sounds. The closest example of what I'm talking about would be Ira Glass. Where this pronunciation came from?

Mar. 04 2011 01:35 PM
Ro from Manhattan

Re your three British speakers: there is something in the UK called 'received pronunciation or RP' which designates the 'correct' pronunciation of the language according to the upper classes. This depends on class/birth and education and is totally irrespective of the region you were born or brought up in. (As opposed to raised/reared - which is appropropriate for livestock only!)

Mar. 04 2011 01:34 PM
Henry Schmelzer

I left Vienna over 70 years ago as a result of certain events there. I was then just over 14 years
old. My Viennese accent has clung to me pronounced as ever. A fellow refugee (from Germany) was not only able to shed himself of his old accent within a year or two, but relatively soon was able to speak in true 'accents' of various areas of Britain.

Henry of Somerset

Mar. 04 2011 01:34 PM
Matthew from New York

I'm a New Zealander who has lived in NY for some 22 years, and I teach students on the history of the English language in New Jersey. I'm interested in accent change (since "acquisition" and "loss" seem inaccurate terms). Why do some people pick up an accent after moving more quickly than others? Can it be a conscious decision or an unconscious process?

Mar. 04 2011 01:32 PM
Laura from UWS


Please do follow up about intonation and cadence! I remember back in the 1980s when valley girl intonation was epidemic, even among adults.

NOTE: standard New York used to be like former Gov. Kaine of NJ, like 1930s-40s movies. Slightly British. For example, "feust" for first. Rarely heard any more now that the dominant class includes people with money rather than money+pedigree, as it were.

Mar. 04 2011 01:32 PM
Mark Schubin from now Manhattan, originally Hoboken

My wife often relies on me to translate accents. We were on a ferry to Newfoundland on which the captain's "Nice day, isn't it?" came out as "Noyce die, intit?" One of the passengers said the purpose of the trip was that his "boy's going to school," which came out as "by's gwinna shul."

My own accent, despite having been raised in Hoboken, puzzles people, though I DO refer to water as "Waugh-ter."

Mar. 04 2011 01:29 PM
Katie from Scarsdale

As an Australian living abroad I am fascinated by the fact that my kids (aged 8 and 10) have Australian accents despite having never lived there (they were born in Malaysia, and have lived in Lebanon, France and now the USA) and having spent very little time with other Australians. When they talk to their American friends they put on an American accent, but not with my husband and I, while other friends' kids have totally picked up the American accent and lost the Aussie one...

Mar. 04 2011 01:29 PM
Julia Small

growing up in NYC (upper westside) my mother is and was is an english teacher. She made my brother and me recite "I want to MARRY LARRY because he isn't HAIRY"... it was very important for us to distinguish between the different sounds of the words. Because of that she says, I now don't sound like a "New Yaw-ka". thanks ma

Mar. 04 2011 01:28 PM
Liz from NYC

Sorry I meant "accent" not dialect.....

Mar. 04 2011 01:28 PM
Camille from Brooklyn, Y

I grew up in Northern California (with a mother from Ghana and father from New Jersey) then moved to Brooklyn for a few years and then to Slovenia for 3 years where I almost never got a chance to speak to native English speakers of any sort. Now that I am back in NYC a my friends all say I have a completely different accent, and I agree though I can't pinpoint quite when it happened or what it is or whether I ever even had one fixed accent. Interesting topic!

Mar. 04 2011 01:28 PM
Alejandro Nolasco from Bronx, NY

I've noticed that the mainstream American media plays a role in establishing a certain hierarchy of which accents are acceptable in certain roles and which aren't. I can't help but notice that a Spanish accent like Antonio Banderas' is given to an insect that flyes around with a nasal spray (not to mention Wilmer Valderrama), yet someone like Piers Morgan or Craig Ferguson go straight into the limelight unencumbered by their thick accents. Is this a feature of American culture, the socio-cultural attitudes of the average English speaker or is something less tangible afoot here.

Mar. 04 2011 01:27 PM
Amy Heller from Harrington Park, NJ

I had an uncle who grew up in Harlem many years ago. A Jewish guy, he used to call my sisters and me the "goils." And he called it "motor earl." To this day I think of him whenever I make Earl Grey Tea, which is flavored with oil of bergamot. Or as my uncle Charlie would have said: "Oil Grey Tea, flavored with earl of bergamot!"

Mar. 04 2011 01:27 PM
Laura from UWS

My mother said she had the radio on a lot when I was learning to talk and I wound up talking the standard accent (Ohio?) of radio announcers.

A school teacher pointed out that I have two words I picked up from farm-country Long Island father, which New Jersey farm country had, too: NAYul for nail, BLAoos for blouse.

I've picked up nail and blouse in a New Jersey family's pronunciation, not knowing where they were from, but recognizing the sound.

Mar. 04 2011 01:27 PM
Charlie Roberts from Highlands, NJ

There are two stock car drivers, Jeff and Ward Burton . . . brothers, who grew up in the same household in (I believe South Boston, Virginia) and their dialects as well as their manner of speaking are very different. They joke about it but neither can explain why.

Mar. 04 2011 01:27 PM
andrew from Somerset, NJ

I have taught EFL for many years in the US, and have taught EFL in Taiwan. I find that when I am trying to pronounce certain words to my class I often begin to unconsciously pronounce words like my students. Why does this happen?

Mar. 04 2011 01:26 PM
Lorna Donnelly from Connecticut

I am from Scotland but my daughter was born in the USA. I expected she would talk with my accent until she went to school - but she never did. She was always a little American!

Mar. 04 2011 01:26 PM
Liz from NYC

I'm from Ireland orginally. Ireland has 32 counties and each county has it's own dialect which always amazes me considering the size of the country.

Mar. 04 2011 01:26 PM
Christopher from Greenpoint

I grew up in East Hampton, New York and I always found it interesting that we clearly have a different accent than the typical "Long Island" accent. We say "Crick" instead of "Creek", which is common in country towns, but we also call each other "Bub", which is as far as I know unique.

Mar. 04 2011 01:26 PM
Dr. Maureen Casper from Rye, NY

Accents may also be explained by physiological events within the oral pharyngeal cavity

Mar. 04 2011 01:25 PM
Native N'Yrker from NYC Girl

I am a native New Yorker living in the south for many years....the southerners say I sound like a northerner and the New Yorkers say I sound southern...I think I do not have an accent at all!

Mar. 04 2011 01:24 PM
Ro from Manhattan

"Hoy toyd" to me sounds as though from Somerset in England. Is there any history of 'Somersetters' settling in North Carolina?

Mar. 04 2011 01:22 PM
Amy from Manhattan

A country as big as Australia must have different regional accents, not just 1 "Australian" accent, & even smaller ones (like New Zealand & oh, yeah, England) don't have just 1 accent. Are people from 1 country more likely to be able to distinguish the different accents of their own country than those of another country, even a nearby one (Australia/NZ or US/Canada)?

Mar. 04 2011 01:22 PM
Laura from UWS

"Hoi Toid" (High Tide) is West Country English.

Australian accent has a lot in common with Cockney London 19th Century.

I wish you'd cover the island of Jamaica, the People's Republic of Brooklyn and Brooklyn vs. Bronx.

Old Brooklyn = "I taut I hoid a boid choip" (I thought I heard a bird chhirp) and "erl berling berlers ("Oil burning boilers"). I think erl for oil might be Irish influence, like Archie Bunker and terlet for toilet.
Thanks so much!!!

Mar. 04 2011 01:22 PM
Peter from New York

This is impossible when it comes to teaching kids to read. Most reading programs use a mid-Atlantic accent on the vowels in phonics instruction. Makes teaching kids in Montgomery difficult.

Mar. 04 2011 01:22 PM

Is the "standard" New York accent in decline?

Mar. 04 2011 01:20 PM

i subscribe to jeff numberg's theory on this, at least to some degree. if you speak at 40, the way you did at 12, then more than likely, you have either not been around very much, or, not been terribly curious of the world around you. there is, no hard fast rule here though,i've met people with a heavy "brooklynease" talk to them, who had a worldly expansive view of life.

Mar. 04 2011 01:18 PM

snobby nuns told us to "drop your jaw"

Mar. 04 2011 01:18 PM
Jean Freely from New York City

Try "Hairy Harry got married in a merry ceremony." If someone has a thick mid-west accent all will sound the same. If from the east coast all will sound different.

Mar. 04 2011 01:13 PM

Love this segment idea! I'm US born, my second language is French and friends tell me my Spanish has a French accent. I remember in HS a linguist came in and told us to a person whose parents came from where and who was a phony!

Mar. 04 2011 01:09 PM

My mother is French, but when she speaks English she has more of a British accent. And after living 40 years in NYC she has not picked up any the "New Yorwk" mannerisms.

Mar. 04 2011 12:42 PM
Melissa from Ridgewood, NJ

Also: I've heard several different linguists say that there is a basic New York regional accent that encompasses all the boroughs and New Jersey. When I, a West Coast native, say this to people here in New Jersey, they say no way -- there's a definite Jersey accent, Brooklyn accent, Queens accent, etc. I've also noticed that the accent of Jerseyans varies a great deal, with some lifelong residents speaking what I think of as a standard American accent and others with a strong Jersey accent. Is this a class difference or something else?

Mar. 04 2011 12:16 PM
Melissa from Ridgewood, NJ

It's not surprising that Kiwis and Aussies sound different -- we in the U.S. may lump them together, but they have very different histories and they're pretty isolated geographically from each other. That said, to my untrained ear, I hear some similarities among Austrialian, New Zealand and South African speech -- is this just due to the onetime British influence?

Mar. 04 2011 12:04 PM
trin tierney from Park Slope Brooklyn

What about cadence? After living in New York for sometime a linguist friend commented that that the rhythmn
of my West Mass way of speaking had changed more than the sounds

Mar. 04 2011 09:19 AM

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