Please Explain: Regional Accents

Friday, October 16, 2009

You can tell a lot about someone from the way they speak. On today’s edition of Please Explain we’ll look at the different accents found around the United States and find out where they come from and why they persist. Joining us are Natalie Schilling-Estes, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, and Kara Becker, of the Department of Linguistics at New York University.

Clips of the New Jersey, Outer Banks, Boston, and Midwest accents are from the International Dialects of English Archive.

Clips of the Brooklyn and Atlanta accents are from George Mason University's Speech Accent Archive.


Kara Becker and Natalie Schilling-Estes,

Comments [63]

Richard Batley from Ipswich, UK

At the risk of being a pain, another response to a question. The use of "youse" as the plural of "you" is not confined to Brooklyn - this is the invariable term used as the plural in Glasgow, Scotland (although those who feel they have gone up in the world avoid it). Also, regarding the comment on translators of Glasgow accent being needed by English businessmen , I am English and constantly have to ask both of my (also English) daughters to translate much of what any of my six grandchildren are saying when visiting them! This despite the fact that I lived in Scotland for near 20 years, but 50 miles from Glasgow where Scots usage is totally different.

Jan. 23 2010 05:54 PM
Richard Batley from Ipswich, UK

Ref-"Mark from Dobbs Ferry
October 16, 2009 - 01:48PM
I wonder if the guests have done any work regarding a relatively recent phenomenon wherein adolescent girls and young women virtually gargle their words, rarely giving anything full voice."
I feel just a little like an intruder here, being from the UK, but found this question while idly researching this irritating modern phenomenon. Here in the UK it has become an epidemic. It is made even more annoying by speakers who indulge in this strange speech form speaking a) at machine gun like speed but b) dragging out the final word with a strange downward then upward modulated tone. Even a word like "it" is drawn out to be virtually as long as a moderate sentence.Grating doesn't even come close. It seems to date from 2 to 3 years ago - where it originated is a mystery to me. It seems to bear no relationship at all to other forms of "street speak". Does anyone have a view or explanation?

Jan. 23 2010 05:32 PM
Michelle from Manhattan

I also noticed that each linguist pronounced "homogeneity" differently, and I am delighted that this word was one of the differentiating speech patterns between them.

Oct. 17 2009 02:55 PM
Michelle from Manhattan

Martha Stewart speaks with an aspirated "wh." Just listen to her say "white wine." I wince when I hear her, and have always deemed her speech patterns aspirational, i.e., the girl from Nutley, New Jersey, swimming "upstream" to Connecticut and later, Westchester County.

Oct. 17 2009 02:47 PM
Tim from Berkeley, California

I agree with Glenn from Manhattan. Your guests fell short of your usual standard, Leonard, in their expertise (I listen every day), and seemed to have some peculiarly academic hangups, both of which, I feel, led them to give incomplete or vague answers.

Oct. 16 2009 05:53 PM
Amy from Manhattan

anon [45]: It's not that the "r" is at the end of the word, it's whether it's followed by a vowel or a consonant. An "r" before a vowel is pronounced both within a word ("faraway"), where it's almost often written that way, & between words ("Bander Aceh"); it disappears before a consonant, again, both within a word ("fahthing)" & between words ("fah Cathay") & also when nothing follows it ("go fah"). (Do they still use farthings?)

Oct. 16 2009 02:36 PM
EricGG from Brooklyn

A few years ago I started to notice a peculiar accent being used by some women here in the city. Among the characteristics I noticed are:

* the VG-like lilting intonation at the end of sentences;
* use of a prolonged "hissy" 's' sound;
* a slight officious/NE-establishment sounding, stiff/clenched-jawed intonation ("glottal fry"?);
* its use mainly among 20-something, presumably college educated, professional/aspiring arrivists (non-native upper class New Yorkers).

It's as though the Sex in the City crowd adopted it's own distinguishing accent to identify themselves to one another among the corporate corridors where they're looking for their footholds into the NYC upper crust.

Any insight?

Oct. 16 2009 02:16 PM
Paul from Jersey City

Shelley said:

" One of the guests pronounced 'pronunciation' as "pronOUnciation." One or both have used "absolutely" as an affirmative many more times than necessary. This is a concern as your guests are experts in linguists. Right? Why? "

Why would this be a concern? They are linguists, not pedants.

Oct. 16 2009 02:16 PM
Barbara from ny, ny

Puberty is the dividing line between speaking a newly acquired language with or without an accent. This might also apply to different accents within a language. In working for many years with people from abroad, I have found it to be invariably true that when people learn the new language after 13 or 14 they always have an accent, even if slight.

On a different note: Once I was out west, stopped on a ski trail, and someone asked if I needed help. No thanks, I said. She said: So you're from New York?

Oct. 16 2009 02:08 PM
Shelley from Prairie du Chien, WI (via Jersey City/Manhattan, via McGregor, Iowa)

My apologies as my comment is a somewhat off topic, as it has to do with language and pronunciation, rather than accent. One of the guests pronounced 'pronunciation' as "pronOUnciation." One or both have used "absolutely" as an affirmative many more times than necessary. This is a concern as your guests are experts in linguists. Right? Why?

Also, it was interesting that the African American teacher who called in did not realize Leonard's pointing out that she said 'ofTen' was referring to her pronunciation of the letter 't' in her pronunciation of the word - a geo-class marker. Leonard did not pursue the issue.

Oct. 16 2009 01:58 PM

I ahve a friend with a Londoner father, a mother from Delhi who grew up all over the world incl NYC and just uses whatever accent is appropriate wherever she is, falls into it.

Oct. 16 2009 01:53 PM

A linguist came to my HS (upper class) and picked out everybody's history - except for the few affected accents - he called on them

Oct. 16 2009 01:51 PM
Peter from New York

I went to university in New Orleans and I have British relatives. One came to visit me my freshman year and we went to dinner. The waiter, an African American, had a distinctly British accent of indeterminable origins. My uncle wondered where he was from and I suggested he was from the West Indies. We asked the waiter and he said he was from a town in Louisianna and that he and everyone else had similar accents. We were both shocked and I never remembered the name of the town. Do you know where he might have been from?

Oct. 16 2009 01:51 PM
Charles from Croton-on-Hudson

Have either of the guests worked with the AMISH COMMUNITY. If so, do both the Amish's German and English dialects differ between not only regions, but clan groups?

Oct. 16 2009 01:51 PM
Michael from washington heights

Please ask your guests if the visual rhymes in poetry, as "remain and again" suggest a pronunciation different from current usage? Can this help us understand pronunciation in earlier eras?

Oct. 16 2009 01:50 PM
MrFool from Brooklyn

aspirated wh IS an old feature, very old. The current way is new. Old English cognates of Modern English words that start with this phoneme are actually spelt 'hw'. Example 'hw[ae-diphthong]t'. In this case orthography may actually be a clue to phonology.

Oct. 16 2009 01:49 PM
Mark from Dobbs Ferry

I wonder if the guests have done any work regarding a relatively recent phenomenon wherein adolescent girls and young women virtualy gargle their words, rarely giving anything full voice.

Oct. 16 2009 01:48 PM
Amy from Manhattan

On "Warshington": I went to school in DC's Maryland suburbs, & I remember 1 teacher who pronounced it "Warsh'n'n." I don't know where she was from, though.

And Cory's call about how his grandmother talked like a Brooklyn Jewish woman makes me think about Eddie Murphy, who uses a Yiddish accent when he plays himself as an old man. I thought this was his idea of how old people sounded, but maybe it's specific to the way his grandfather talked!

Oct. 16 2009 01:47 PM
anon from nyc

The Brits seem to trade off NOT pronouncing final "r" with adding one where it isn't, as in "Bander Aceh".

Oct. 16 2009 01:47 PM
Janet from New Jersey

Very interesting and the two speakers are very well versed in the topic....really injoyed them....

Oct. 16 2009 01:46 PM
Nina from Easat Village, NYC

I'm really glad to hear the expanding discussion on regional accents among African Americans. It seems to me (and this is purely anecdotal, but I stand by it) that as long as I have been around (58 years), African Americans who passed through my home and made up my family have spoken with a variety of regional accents. So I find myself thinking that researchers ears may be more educated these days and that this may be one other reason for the discovery of this 'new' phenomenon of recognizing regionality in African American speech . . . This is a very interesting discussion. Thank you!

Oct. 16 2009 01:45 PM
Jocelyn from NYC

Lucy from Brooklyn- this stress pattern IS common in Southern dialects and is considered a feature.

Oct. 16 2009 01:44 PM
Glenn from Manhattan

I don't think these elite college professors know what they're talking about and have their heads somewhere else. Too much education. I wonder why WNYC and NYTimes always quote college professors, like they know what they're talking about?

Oct. 16 2009 01:43 PM

out about route
out about route

say them either way!

Oct. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Michael Levine from Brooklyn

Could you guests comment on tests that determine where someone was educated. For example marry, merry, Mary.

Oct. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Peter from Brooklyn

Leonard, with all love and devotion I have to say that your voice has an unmistakable and incorrigible Brooklyn twinge to it. Its lovely, but very much the accent of the modern Brooklyn glitterati. So sorry old chum.

Oct. 16 2009 01:43 PM
Tonky from Brooklyn


Please ask whether the native languages influencing regional dialects also influence the MEANING of english the repective regions.

example: Swedish is a very straight forward language - when translated to english their words aren't veiled by victorian modesty. Their word for "bra" translates to "boob holder"

SO - perhaps Minnesotans and Wisconsinites are more straight forward in how they speak?

Oct. 16 2009 01:42 PM
Michelle from Queens

What I notice the most different in NYC is the pronounciation of words like idea sounding like idear. I notice many NYers add r sounds in words when there isn't an r in the word.

Oct. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Sari from Montclair, New Jersey

In broad terms, East Coasters differentiate the pronunciations of merry, Mary, and marry. These words sound exactly alike when pronounced by those on the West Coast.

Oct. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Vincent from Suburban NJ

Re Irish:

I've studied Irish Gaelic for a few years: here's my theory on Warshington -- the Ulster dialect of Irish Gaelic sometimes adds an "R": for example,
"seachtain" (week) is pronounced "searchtain."
I think may explain the "earl" pronunciation of "oil."

Also, New Orleans had many Irish immigrants, in the many thousands, after the Famine.

Best regards, Vincent

Oct. 16 2009 01:41 PM
Glenn from Manhattan

Mondee, Tuesdee is also a Baltimore thing

Oct. 16 2009 01:40 PM

I am from the Texas Gulf Coast, and I've had several people in New York ask me about my British accent. Why is that?

Oct. 16 2009 01:39 PM
Lucy from Brooklyn

My husband is from the South and he and his family say UM-brella and IN-surance, putting the accent on the "UM" and the "IN". Is this common or just something that my husband and his family do?

Oct. 16 2009 01:39 PM

Wershington instead of Washington is the pronunciation used around the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area.

Oct. 16 2009 01:38 PM
pedro palacios from Berkeley Heights, NJ

Why do radio people in all parts of the country strive to have an indistinct accent, no matter wether the ads on the radio are all in regional accents?

Oct. 16 2009 01:38 PM
Daryl from Brooklyn

Another Pittsburgh pattern: Saying dee, instead of day at the end of the days of the week, e.g., Mondee, Tuesdee, Wednesdee, et al.

Oct. 16 2009 01:38 PM
Cheryl from nyc

PS: Bill Moyers also says "WARSHington"

Oct. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Michelle from Queens

I grew up in Michigan (metro Detroit), and all my family is from there as well. My father pronounced Washington, like the example Leonard just gave.I never pronounced words like my dad, and always thought it sounded strange.

Oct. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Roz from nyc

While I consider myself something of a Henry Higgins in the accent recognition dept., I was confounded by a recent experience. I was listening to the radio at bit of a distance and assuming the speaker to British but astounded that on moving closer I was hearing a U.S. Southerner, without question! In search of an explanation, I Googled the following:

"Actually, the original dialect of American English is what is called by some a 'high Southern accent', characterized by Civil War movies in which the Southern generals from Virginia say things like "Miss Scaalet, you aa looking mahty luvly tuhdey...I do hope the guvuhnuh shows up" This is the 'proper speech' often heard (less common nowadays) in the legislatures of Virginia and Georgia...

This accent, interestingly enough, comes from lower class accents in England at the time Virginia was colonized. If you pay attention, the accent of Liverpool, England, long considered 'low-class', sounds pretty phonetically similar to this 'high southern' accent..." Mystery solved.

Oct. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Judith from Katonah NY

As a Chicagoan born and bred, I assure you that "Warshington" is NOT a from my home town.
I do work with people from the Metropolitan area that add "r"s to words, as in "warsh" for the word "wash" and remove "r"s as in "draw" for the word "drawer"

Oct. 16 2009 01:37 PM
Glenn from Manhattan

Warshington, DC is a Baltimore pronunciation

Oct. 16 2009 01:36 PM
Cheryl from nyc

"WARSH" for "wash (as in WARSHington, or WARSH the car) is also common in my home region of the lower mid-Atlantic states (So. Delaware, Maryland's eastern shore, tidal Virginia).

Oct. 16 2009 01:36 PM
Scott from Brooklyn

I pride myself on having dodged my family's accent. Born in the northeastern tip of Oklahoma and raised in the "heart of the Ozarks," I should sound like Huckleberry Hound. But I was an English major, I watched a lot of television when I was a kid and I've lived in New York for fifteen years. Most people don't know where I'm from.

One Thanksgiving, I got into a cab in Brooklyn in a hurry. "I'm going to the Pathmark on Flatbush," is all I said.

The cabbie (whose accent I don't remember, but likely sounded very "New York" to me) said, "You sound like Mickey Mantle!"

"I was born five minutes from where he grew up. How did you know that?"

"I'm a Yankees fan and I had to go to Commerce, Oklahoma, to see where he was from."

You can't escape your roots, I guess.

Oct. 16 2009 01:30 PM
denise from Williamsburg, NY

I am noticing younger women speaking in a very nasal tone and much lower in tone. A sort of masculination of their voice. I find it grainy sounding. Any thoughts?

Oct. 16 2009 01:27 PM
Amy from Manhattan

How much of an overlap is there between the influence of class & of place of origin on accents? Are certain accents associated w/poor people because those people left places where they couldn't get good jobs or because they moved to places where they couldn't get good jobs?

Oct. 16 2009 01:26 PM
Ian from Brooklyn

There was a study done at the University of the Caribbean about a break up into dialects (much like in middle ages Europe after the Roman Empire when the romance languages emerged) happening worldwide, in conjunction with political breakups, For example, in the Brazilian favelas, areas of Kingston, Jamaica, etc. where political power is held by gangs and there is in each case a corresponding new dialect that develops.

Oct. 16 2009 01:25 PM
John Weber from Jersey Shore

A show on NPR last night reported on a business starting to hire translators for people in Glasgow Scotland. People who speak English need a translator to understand people from Glasgow. The Scotts are thrilled, not offended, and they seem to be embracing the dialect.

Oct. 16 2009 01:23 PM
Daryl from Brooklyn

Most 'Burghers' (as in Pittsburghers) still have their regional dialects, e.g., Yinz (for You or You all) and Dahn Tahn (for Down Town) and Stillers (for the Pittsburgh Steelers).

Oct. 16 2009 01:22 PM
CJ from NY

I disagree. No one believes I was born in NY. All of my peers have a NY accent.

Oct. 16 2009 01:22 PM
Anna From Manhattan from Lower Mnahattan

I think it's really interesting where accents come from. I grew up in Manhattan (father jewish from Coney Island, mother from midwest) I don't have an accent except the Manhattan double T thing you noted in the Newark sample, but my sister and father say the word ORANGE ARE-ange and I and my mother say OR-ange, or sometimes ornch (as in ornch juice)

Oct. 16 2009 01:21 PM
peter from Brooklyn

I can immediately identify second generation New York Hispanics and Chinese by their accent. It is slight, but nonetheless noticable in things like inflection, pronunciation, slang, etc.

Oct. 16 2009 01:20 PM
thatgirlinnewyork from manhattan

i was amazed this week when one of wnyc's new newsreaders said both "manhattan" (with swallowed, back of the throat Ts), and "dubya N Y C" in her signoff. is this like the BBC allowing more diversity vocal quality?

Oct. 16 2009 01:20 PM
Jill from westchester

I grew up in Rochester and I love hearing that upstate New York accent -- eg, Tim Rusert (rest his soul) and Wolf Blitzer. Listen when Blitzer says "e-Caaaaaaah-nomy". It's a classic.

Oct. 16 2009 01:20 PM
Edward Lewit from Long Island

Where did the accent on the automated subway announcements come from?

Oct. 16 2009 01:19 PM
Jill from New York

Why not discuss the accents of the two "experts" on the show (especially the seemingly younger one)? Their speech patterns undeniably belong to the group of all college-educated Americans under the age of 45, characterized by slovenliness, pomposity, pseudo-sophistication, phoniness, and gratingness of a sort that would put one off one's sushi for a month--unless of course one belongs to that increasingly vast category oneself.

Oct. 16 2009 01:16 PM
Brian from Inwood

As a former military brat, I moved around the world every 3 years, a habit which I still hang on to. Originally from North Carolina, I had a southern accent as a child. However, since I've grown up my southern accent is completely gone. I've noticed my accent changes if I stay in a certain place for an extended time. Also, I learned how to speak portuguese in Brazil while I lived there for 3 years and I've been told by strangers my "Rio" accent is flawless.

Ok, the real question I have is, after a few more than few beers, why do I revert slightly to my southern accent?

Oct. 16 2009 01:16 PM
Alan Goldberg from New York, NY

Is it possible the Brooklynese "Youse" was originally just a second person plural of "you"?


Oct. 16 2009 01:16 PM
Hugh Sansom from Brooklyn NY

I think there is an island of the coast of the Carolinas the residents of which are called the "hoigh toiders". The islanders' accent is very reminiscent of some parts of Britain.

I've heard a handful of recordings from the late middle 19th century, including Walt Whitman. I love Whitman's work, but his voice sounded very much "mid-Atlantic" -- not at all what I expected from a quintessential New Yorker.

Following up on the speculation about some US accents being suggestive of an older British accent: What we think of as a standard US accent is not unlike what you might here in Somerset.

Oct. 16 2009 01:15 PM
dannyiselin from woodbridge, nj

Is there a recognizable standard Afro-American accent that defies regional boundaries here in the US? Is there a sociological reason for this, if such is the case???

Oct. 16 2009 01:11 PM
mac from manhattan

can we say something about all the people in the u.s. who insist on pronouncing words that have an 's' and a 't' together as if they were 'sht'? eg. 'adminishtration,' 'shtrategy,' shtreet.'

Oct. 16 2009 01:10 PM
George from Bay Ridge

I can attest to Liza's question: as a Brooklyn native, I don't speak in a stereotypical Brooklyn accent.

How does class, gender and race affect one's accent?

Oct. 16 2009 11:25 AM

Would you ask your guests to discuss why some people end up with heavy regional accents, while others who grew up in the same region end up with hardly any accent at all?

Oct. 16 2009 11:21 AM
Glenn from Manhattan

The mid-Atlantic Baltimore Wilmington, DE and South Philadelphia is a pretty funny accent and has endured even when sandwiched between New York and the deeper south. We're still a tribal people, living in our little villages, because people speak like their peers, to be accepted.

Danny DeVito did a good Baltimore accent in 'Tin Men' and look at any of the old John Water's movies for a really thick Baltimore accent. The long 'O's are pronounced in the front of the mouth.

Oct. 16 2009 10:14 AM

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