Break

Apologies for the light activity around here for the past year. I’ve been extremely busy for some time, and as such, my posting rate has slowed greatly. In lieu of going long stretches without explanation, I’ve decided to take an official break from blogging for the next few months.  I’ll be making a few tweaks to this website in the meantime, and hope to get back once I can commit to writing more frequently.

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“Fillum” in England

Two commenters recently pointed out that fillum (i.e. fɪləm), a quintessentially Irish pronunciation of film, can also be heard in England. Many assume fillum‘s origins to be Irish–along with similar pronunciations of words like helm (“hellum”)–because in certain contexts the Irish language inserts a vowel between /l/ and /m/ in consonant clusters.

Other languages and dialects do this, though, so the feature can create “false positives.” Take South African English, which also features fillum for some speakers. As Raymond Hickey explains (emphasis mine)*:

Branford (1994: 486) in his discussion of English in South Africa mentions the presence of the same feature in Irish English and suggests that it might be a source. But the number of Irish settlers in South Africa was in all only about 1%, so hardly significant in the genesis of varieties of English there. However, Afrikaans shows a similar epenthesis

So while the Irish language is well known for its epenthesis (the insertion of a sound between two others),  fillum can arise organically elsewhere. How much did Irish really contribute?

On my last post, commenter Warren Maguire mentioned early-20th-Century dialectologist Joseph Wright as a good source, so I’ll start there. In the 1905 edition of Wright’s The English Dialect Grammar**, he finds many regions where a vowel is inserted between /l/ and /m/ in this manner. One can find fillum and similar pronunciations for elm (“ellum”) and helm (“hellum”) throughout the West CountryYorkshireand Northwest England

But epenthesis in Irish English extends beyond film and other /lm/ words. Also notable are clusters involving /r/ like farm, earn, girl along with more obscure examples like athlete and petrol. I wasn’t able to find much in the way of Irish-type epenthesis in clusters such as farmburn, and girl in Wright’s work (with one exception for girl in Wilthire). I could likewise find no instance of more vernacular Irish epentheses like those in kiln and children. 

There are many caveats here, though. Non-rhoticity is also more common in England, possibly confusing the question of epenthesis in words like farm. I only had the time and resources to stick largely to one of Wright’s more parsable works (although I tried seeing if there were a few other examples lurking in Wright’s massive English Dialect Dictionary).

Those quibbles are rather beside the point, though, because epenthesis in words like farm and burn doesn’t seem terribly common in Ireland these days. Hickey mentions that epenthesis is “universal in /lm/ clusters” but seems confined to vernacular English in other contexts***. Research seems to bear this out: In her Schwa Epenthesis in Galway English****, linguist Katrin Sell finds epenthesis for /lm/ clusters occurring at a robust rate of 54%, while epenthesis in /rm/ clusters yields a paltry 5%.

In other words, although Irish English features this type of epenthesis in many contexts, it seems to occur most in the very context where it seems most salient in England. So it’s more than plausible that England played a part in fillum.

There’s a difference between influence and origin. I suspect that “fillum” is at the very least influenced by Irish, but it’s not 100% clear if it was borrowed from that language. On the other hand, one can find features of Hiberno-English that are unquestionably Irish loans, most obviously lexical borrowings and Irish syntactic structures. When talking about this pronunciation quirk, alas, the connection is less of a closed case.

*Hickey, R. (2014) Retention and Innovation in Settler Englishes. In: Filppula, Markku, Devyani Sharma and Juhani Klemola (eds). The Oxford Handbook of World Englishes.

**Wright, J. (1905). The English Dialect Grammar. Google Play Edition.

** Hickey, R. (2007). Irish English: History and Present-Day Forms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

****Sell, K. (2012). Sociolinguistic findings on schwa epenthesis in Galway English. New Perspectives on Irish English, 44, 47.

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Posted in Irish English | Tagged | 6 Comments

Irish Linguistic Diversity

A few weeks back, Stan Carey responded to a “most attractive accent” survey which crowned Southern Ireland the most irresistible English. Anyone with a modest familiarity with Irish accents will recognize what’s odd about the survey’s map of sociolinguistic magnetism, which unequivocally treats Donegal as “Southern” (the border between the Republic and NI doesn’t quite correspond to sociolinguistic boundaries). As per Carey:

This phrase [“Southern Irish”] proved contentious in the replies to my tweet, many of which were along the lines of: ‘Oh, do we all have one accent now?’ or ‘What on earth do they mean by Southern?’

Carey quotes me as once saying “Ireland in some ways has too many varieties of English to easily classify into smaller sub-areas.” And I still agree with that statement. After all, Ireland contains accents that range from this (courtesy of County Kerry footballer Colm Cooper):

…to accents like this (courtesy of Dubliner Willo Flood*):

(One day I’ll write a post titled “Why Off-Handed Footballer Interviews Make the Best Dialect Clips.”)

So why all the accents in such a small space? That’s question is hard to answer, since “linguistic diversity” is a somewhat subjective notion. But Irish English is categorically unique among native Englishes. Linguist Rajend Mesthrie describes the difference (drawing from Raymond Hickey)**:

Initially a form of ESL, Irish English (aka Hiberno-English) gradually became a language-shift English, from the 18th century on (see Hickey, 2004). It is an important language in English studies for structural and historical reasons. It furnishes us with a clear-cut example of a language-shift English, in which a host of substrate features has survived, some to become part of an informal standard.

In other words, many Hiberno-English varieties can be described as foreign dialects which became native ones. This is in some sense true of many dialects, I suppose, but in Ireland this development happened on a large scale relatively recently. Even centuries later (in some regions) the Irish language‘s influence on Hiberno-English is obvious, whether through the frequent use of epenthesis (“I went to the fillum at the cinema”) or the ubiquitous velarized rhotic in many parts of the island. [Eds. note: As Warren Maguire points out in the comments, “fillum” has somewhat debatable origins.]

Second-language accents are generally unstable compared to first-language accents. So take this for the speculation it is, but I’m not surprised that a population whose English dialects largely started as second-language lects exhibits some seriously diverse Englishes. Throw in Ireland’s history as one of Europe’s most rural, remote areas, and I think you have a pretty compelling clue as to why there seems such a delightful panoply of speech on an island smaller than Maine.

Of course, Ireland is an exponentially more connected and metropolitan country these days. (You know a nation has changed when a city once described as provincial now headquarters a major division of Apple.) I’ve heard a number of impressions (and sometimes gripes) that Irish English has changed drastically over the past 20 years. But while I see signs of change, I don’t think Ireland is anywhere close to being homogenized linguistically. And thank goodness for that.

*Flood’s name (or rather, nickname) is misspelled in the interview.

**Mestrhie, M. World Englishes and the Multilingual History of English. World Englishes, Vol. 25, No. 3/4, pp. 381–390, 2006.

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Subtitled For American Consumption

I’ve recently discussed the work of filmmaker Ken Loach with longtime commenter Ed. Loach is one of the few filmmakers I recall who commits to featuring local accents in all his films. He often casts non-actors in his movies, resulting in some of the most authentic and consistent native regional speech in British cinema. Of course, this can result in dialogue baffling to outsiders, as with Loach’s Yorkshire-set film Kes:

Loach also directed one of the few English-language films I’ve seen with subtitles for its American theatrical release, the Glasgow-set My Name is Joe:

I saw that film at age 19, long before I developed my accent bug. I found it incomprehensible at the time, but fairly easy to understand as an adult (although some of the scenes of overlapping dialogue, like the one above, are trickier). Loach’s film isn’t unique in that regard. I found Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth equally inscrutable as an adolescent; nowadays Cockney is as tricky to decipher for me as a Walter Cronkite news broadcast. One’s ear changes.

My Name is Joe is not alone in requiring some sort of translation device for American audiences. But I’ve never quite figured out how frequent such occurrences have been over the years. I vaguely recall reading a British voice and speech guide asserting that Americans need translation when watching British television, but I don’t remember Eastenders being subtitled on PBS when I was growing up. I do remember, on the other hand, seeing a copy of the notorious “American-dubbed” version of Mad Max in our local video store. But even in the 1980s Americans made fun of that lunacy.

It also seems like the point of Americanizing that film was to ingratiate Americans more than help them understand the rough-hewn dialect of the Oceanic post-apocalypse. So I’m not sure if there ever was a golden era of “subtitles for Americans”. It seems that would require something like a Golden Age of social realist foreign cinema in American theatres, which never seemed to have happened.

How often subtitles would be necessary these days? I’d like to think all English-speaking audiences are somewhat more accustomed to different Englishes. But that might just be optimistic.

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Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged , , | 24 Comments

Accent Prejudice Isn’t “Prejudice Lite”

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, 1920 (Public Domain/Wikimedia)

I’m hesitant to respond to Gawker‘s “Ugliest Accent” tournament. For those who haven’t read it, the piece is a “March-Madness-style” competition to determine America’s “ugliest” regional English. (Pittsburg was crowned the winner last week.) I’m clearly no fan, but Josef Fruehwald offers great critiques at Slate and his blog, so I won’t spend much time picking apart the piece itself.

What concerns me more than the Gawker gag, though, is its feedback: the way even critical follow-ups treat it as the loving parody it so clearly isn’t, the comments in Fruehwald’s Slate piece that ignore his point and continue with the accent-hating, and the way even people with hometown pride give it an implicit thumbs up. Most folks, even progressives, consider accent prejudice okay. I’m not blameless. I hear these sentiments all the time, and admit they don’t feel as bad as racism, homophobia or other taboo prejudices.

But what I feel is wrong. The fallacy here is assuming prejudices–racism, classism, xenophobia–fit in neat little boxes, some politer than others. In reality, linguistic prejudice is very much intrinsic to the prejudices we abhor. Whether through African-American English‘s centuries-long use as “evidence” of racist pseudo-biology or British linguo-cultural class warfare, language informs bigoted mindsets of all kinds. You can’t extract accent discrimination from its classist, racist, and xenophobic underpinnings. This becomes apparent if we substitute language for, say, one’s appearance (no more arbitrary a target, in my opinion). If I said something bizarre like “I hate the way Irish people look” it would be hard to take this as an incidental, surface-level observation.

When we hear certain accents, assumptions pop into our heads about the speakers’ lives, where they live, what they read, their education level, and their politics. It’s human. And for those who recognize these impulses as irrational, maybe they’re harmless. But if you can imagine even a slightly less principled person than yourself using such impressions to judge someone’s guilt, employment suitability, loan worthiness, or custody arrangement–almost certainly frequent occurrences–you should never participate in accent prejudice. Why do we view as harmless generalizations that can cause such real damage?

Some of it, I suspect, is that we see language as a choice. And yes, language can be a choice. I choose to speak the accent I grew up with most of the time, even though I could talk like David Cameron for the rest of my days. I don’t speak like David Cameron because to do so would prompt concern for my mental health.

But the fact that I speak like a middle-class American instead of the British PM proves my point. To the extent that we choose to speak the way we do, we typically do so for practical reasons. A college professor wants to communicate with people he encounters on a daily basis and convey a linguistic identity. A dock worker from a working-class community desires the same. Like the prof, he seeks to communicate with co-workers and neighbors as effectively and honestly as possible. Why are the professor’s choices understandable but the stevedore’s choices worthy of mockery?

It’s also worth noting that language can be less a choice than we assume. Lynne Murphy demonstrated the curious semi-consciousness of speech acts a few years ago in an interview with PRI’s Patrick Cox:

Murphy: I mean, as I’m talking to you, I can hear a half-dozen things I’m doing that I wouldn’t have done before I moved to the U.K.

Cox: Oh, well tell me a couple of them.

Murphy: Well, I just said attuned [ətʲund], so I put a little on-glide, a “yeh,” at the beginning of my “u,” instead of saying attuned [ətund]. And I hear myself doing these things and not in some sense trying to do them, but as soon as I hear them I notice them.

If someone’s language shifts so noticeably without even trying, why assign conscious intentions to people simply speaking the accent they actually grew up with?

Justifying accent prejudice as criticism or mockery of people’s conscious behavior ignores both the practical reasons for language choices and the ways that language often isn’t a choice at all. But as long as we think “he’s just trying to talk that way” or believe that choosing to talk “middle-class” serves some dubious public good, this discrimination will continue to seem acceptable.

[Author’s note: I’ve regretfully disabled the comments on this post. This piece has attracted a large amount of vitriol (far worse, believe me, than the negative comments that have made it through). Sadly, I just don’t have the time to moderate.] 

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Scotland, Borders, Secession and Language

Scotland voted against independence last week, an event which got me thinking about how I, as an American, distinguish the UK’s component parts. For me, when I envision Scotland (or Wales, or England), I think of its unique language. Not Scots or Gaelic, exactly, but “language” in a broader sense. It’s a set of dialects (and in some cases, languages proper) that, to this outsider, most form a mental conception of Englishness, Welshness or Scottishness. Of course there’s way more to it than that, but pretty much the first thing that comes to mind when I hear “Scottish” is a voice.

Although I’m a language nut, I doubt I’m alone in this. And language isn’t irrelevant to questions of separatism. The UK’s national borders often correspond to linguistic lines. Although Welsh English is diverse, for instance, it noticeably contrasts (in the South) with nearby West Country English. Northern Ireland has a different accent than the accents to the South (although obviously areas in the Republic, such as Donegal, feature a more Northern dialect):

Wikimedia/Asarlaí CC-BY-SA-3.0 (mod. from the Irish English Resource Center)

The lines dividing dialects there don’t correspond perfectly (especially in the tri-accented County Monaghan), but the border dividing Ulster English from Hiberno-English otherwise cuts pretty closely to a real political boundary. I don’t bring up Ireland here to suggest that it’s exceptional in this regard. It’s merely one of many examples of geopolitical lines corresponding to linguistic ones.

In all these cases, does dialect strengthen a sense of division? Or does division strengthen dialect? I think 20th-Century advances in sociolinguistics lends credence to both possibilities.

Here in the States, though, the opposite is largely the case. Regional dialects rarely seem to confine themselves to any kind of boundaries. I thought about this recently while watching “How the States Got Their Shapes” on The History Channel. The episode in particular surveyed secessionist proposals among the states such as California’s Jefferson movement and occasional agitation to separate Northern Maine from its Southern counterpart.

These movements often run along dialect lines. Northern Maine, for instance, tends to have a different accent than the coast. The former strikes one as more rhotic than the latter when one compares, for instance, the accent of South Maine Senator Olympia Snow to that of North Maine Senator Susan Collins (and Snow’s accent isn’t even that strong):

And that’s just one such example. North Florida is by and large more “Southern,” dialect-wise, than South Florida. The South Midland accent of Southern Illinois definitely contrasts with the canonical Great Lakes English of the state’s north. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has an accent distinct from the rest of the state. And so on and so forth.

Have these dialect differences increased the desire for separation? Certainly there are far more complex economic factors at play, often relating to rural/urban divides. But language is an important way that people express membership, and the pride that comes with a particular accent or dialect can certainly increase one’s belonging to a group.

On the other hand, different dialects may simply be a manifestation of economic isolation. The fact that Southern Illinois has a bit of a twang where Chicago is typically “Northern” might be symptomatic of two areas with little economic interaction, rather than being a rallying point for statehood.

Would linguistic divisions within American states strengthen were a secession to take place? Would the same happen in Scotland, for that matter? We know that dialects (and languages, obviously) can begin and end abruptly at political borders: note the Detroit/Windsor divide. To what degree does creating or erasing borders strengthen or weaken these divisions?

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John Oliver and Contemporary Brumminess

Like many HBO subscribers, I’ve become a fan of John Oliver, a British comedian who brings journalistic rigor to the “news parody” genre. He particularly excels at trans-Atlantic humor, injecting British wit into American jokes (“you’ve constructed a straw-man so large you could burn it in the desert and hold an annoying festival around it”) and conversely satirizing his native Britain in an American register.

Some years ago, I claimed that Oliver (then a Daily Show correspondent) had a Birmingham accent, a statement which prompted some quibbles in the comments. True, Oliver attended secondary school in Bedfordshire and distinguishes pretty strongly between the vowels in “strut” and “foot”. But I actually pegged Oliver as a Brummie before looking up any biographical details, so I don’t think the attribution is totally off.

I largely based my judgment on two features. First, Oliver uses a diphthong in words like “kite” and “ride” with an open, back (and sometimes rounded) first element and a fairly close second element. In layman’s terms, that means “kite” sounds rather like “koyt” to an American, with linguistic descriptions tending to describe it as something like ɒi. Oliver also uses a diphthong for the vowel in “goat” with a very open first element, so that the word sounds a bit like “gout” to an American (ʌʊ ~ ɑʊ). I find that Birmingham comes out a fair amount in this clip:

(Having watched this video after writing the preceding commentary, I’ve noticed at least two other cues that are more obvious in Oliver’s informal English than in his scripted anchor banter: an occasionally tenser vowel in words like “kit” that is typical of, say, General American English and a broad, open diphthong in words like “face”.)

Both sounds can be mistaken for classic Cockney diphthongs, but I find that neither is quite as extreme in contemporary London English. My reason for attributing Brumminess to Oliver is that any time I’ve heard one of these sounds in the mouths of someone under forty, they’ve almost always been from Birmingham (or at the very least the West Midlands)1. Mine is not a scientific observation, especially since I don’t encounter Brummies daily, but neither is it a wildly inaccurate one.

I find it telling, though, that I had to stretch somewhat to find a younger Brummie speaker (I’ve also cited the not-terribly-Brummie TV host Cat Deeley). The fact is, I just don’t readily find examples of the accent in its purest form among people under 40. This recent Conan O’Brien interview with actress Felicity Jones is telling in this regard:

The irony being, of course, that it would probably take even a Briton some time to guess Jones is from Birmingham. Yet she’s typical of most young Brummies I’ve met (admittedly not many) or encountered in the media. Whether this is even remotely a representative sample or not I have no clue. But it’s hard not to worry about the health of an accent that served as Britain’s 20th-Century linguistic punchline.

1. Actually, though, I find another feature of Brummie English more telling. That would be the Dublin-esque vowel which Brummies tend to use in words like “mouth”: ɛʊ. This vowel similar to vowels in London, Australia and Philadelphia with the crucial difference that the second element remains mid or semi-high (those other accents generally lower the second element to ɔə, or ɜ or somewhere thereabouts). This occurred to me yesterday (coincidentally) while watching “The Mind of a Chef” with April Bloomfield. I guessed Bloomfield was from Birmingham after a sentence or so, largely on the basis of this vowel. A big caveat here, though, is that most of these features have traditionally been found in a large swath of the Midlands.

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Iggy Azalea and Ethnolect Appropriation

Influential Blues Singer Leadbelly

A few years back, I was talking to an Irish musician about the American blues. I found it strange that British and Irish musicians, particularly those honing their chops in the 1960s, seemed more taken with the form than Americans. “Well,” the singer said in his inimitable Dublin brogue. “No offense, but youse didn’t give those guys the appreciation they deserved. So all those unsold records ended up on docks across the Atlantic.”

I can’t vouch for this as an economic explanation, but I find the statement touching. Artists like Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Van Morrison revered African-American blues and rock musicians to an obsessive degree. It’s also, to be fair, hard not be ambivalent about this fact. Those artists participated in what might be labeled “cultural appropriation” today, imitating both the style and dialect of commercially unviable artists.

The dialect was crucial. Mick Jagger meticulously imitated blues singers’ accents. When Robert Plant exclaims “oh child, the way you shake that thing,” I doubt he’s using a colloquialism from his native West Midlands. British blues appropriation would have been much less sociologically fascinating without the peculiarity (and, let’s face it, implausibility) of British voices imitating the language of African American Southerners.

But is linguistic theft the same as cultural theft? When people talk pejoratively about “cultural appropriation” these days, it often seems their main beef is with ethnolect appropriation. This came to mind recently in regard to Australian hip hop artist Iggy Azalea, who raps in the style of Southern Hip Hop. This interview interspersed with music clips gives an idea of how disparate her rapping and speaking lects are (ignoring some adopted Americanisms in her speech like occasional rhoticity):

Azalea’s fame has generated a line of criticism typified by this article by Brittney Cooper in Salon:

Iggy Azalea interlopes on this finely honed soundscape of Southern Blackness to tell us “how fancy” she is, and ask “how we love dat.” Her recklessness makes clear that she does not understand the difference between code-switching and appropriation. She may get the science of it, but not the artistry.

Cooper’s linguistic focus here suggests to me that she takes issue with Azalea’s dialect imitation more than anything else (I’m hardly the first to point out that when you remove Azalea’s vocals, her hit Fancy sounds more like Gwen Stefani‘s Hollaback Girl than TI). The focus on accents and dialects which accompanies this debate exemplifies the intensely personal nature of language.

Yet it also, curiously, exemplifies the superficiality of language. While Azalea full-scale dons African-American English’s syntax and phonology, what she actually raps about is rather culturally nonspecific (at least from what I’ve heard). A few hip-hop tropes aside, “Fancy” reads like a universal party anthem. Come to mention it, Azalea occasionally raps about topics far removed from any American experience. Note this stanza from Change Your Life:

We spend our Winters in the Summer of Australia
Eating crumpets with the sailors
On acres without the neighbors
We fast-forward four years more
We long way from piss-poor

Lyrics like that evoke my startled reaction upon hearing Van Morrison sing about “the train from Dublin up to Sandy Row” like a Delta bluesman or Robert Plant sing likewise about England’s druidic past (not that I’m saying Azalea is on par with those guys). It also, in a way, reminds me of Trudgill’s great example of a non-standard-English speaker discussing academic geography. To wit, how you say something doesn’t always correspond to what you say, culturally-speaking. Dialects, like all language varieties, have near-infinite expressive capacities.

It’s valid to criticize appropriation in the music industry. But a distinction needs to be made, I think, between appropriating surface-level linguistic features and appropriating cultures. Of course, it isn’t always an easy line to draw.

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“Fargo” Redux: Dialect Work in TV’s Renaissance

When Fargo was released in 1996, “Minnesota speech” was largely unknown to the majority of the American populace. With a handful of exceptions, the dialect had little representation in popular culture. The film’s appeal lies not only in the quality of its direction and acting, but also in its exposure of a novel culture and regional voice dwelling in our country’s north:

As such, the dialect is unique among staples of regional humor. When an Englishman jokes about a Scouse accent, it’s likely he has heard actual Liverpool natives speak. Americans imitating New Yorkers probably have exemplars like Jimmy Cagney or Robert DeNiro in mind. Minnesota accent humor, by contrast, feels second-hand. Few cast members of the film were Minnesotan, and the actors’ larger-than-life accents gave birth to wilder exaggerations (e.g. 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous).

Which brings me to the FX Network’s TV series Fargo, which relates to the world of the film without quite being a sequel. Like the movie, the series centers around a mild-mannered Minnesotan who becomes an unlikely criminal (Martin Freeman‘s Lester Nygaard to William H. Macy‘s Jerry Lundergaard) and a police officer who hides a sharp mind under layers of polite Scandinavian reserve (Allison Tolman‘s Molly Solverson to Frances McDormand‘s Marge Gunderson). As you can tell from rhyming last names, the parallels are not quite accidental[1].

In both the film and series, local characters’ speech contrasts with that of criminal outsiders with out-of-place speech patterns (Billy Bob Thornton and Adam Goldberg to the film’s Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare[2]). The juxtaposition is underscored when Thornton tricks gullible police interrogators by donning a flawless “stage Minnesotan” accent, a wry comment on the two decades of mock North-Midwesternese we’ve been exposed to.

That being said, I find that “the accent” doesn’t factor into the show as heavily as it did in the film. The voice and speech work is subtle enough, in fact, that when an actor does go “full Minnesota” in the series it seems out of place.  Tolman and Freeman are particularly restrained with all the monophthongal o’s and North Germanic inflections, keeping the accent more of an undercurrent than a deluge (although McDormand and Macy were likewise subtle compared to later attempts).

But I’m not sure the film’s top-billed players solidified the accent’s mythology in the first place. What really fixed the accent in the minds of those who saw the film, I think, were all those detailed bit parts inhabiting strange worlds unto themselves (who can forget Steve Park as Mike Yanagita?) On the show, smaller roles seem mostly filled out by day players, with something akin to marked Canadian Prairie English as a substitute lect.

And that underscores a larger difference between the two media: the limitations of North American television itself may factor into the accent’s lack of prominence. I recall Jon Hamm once saying something to the effect that TV is like a moving train that you can either move with or get run over by. It’s an environment, in other words, of single-takes and non-existent rehearsal (Martin Freeman has actually said something about this specific show to that effect).

As such, I’m not sure it’s the greatest environment for ace dialect simulation. That may be why many of the great regionally-focused American shows of the recent “Golden Age” of TV either didn’t get overly fussy with accents–as in the case of the The Wire and Mad Men–or cast actors with an intimate understanding of the dialect in question–e.g. The Sopranos.

That’s not to say there isn’t good work of this kind on TV; Orphan Black and The Americans have really well-honed accents that serve an important dramatic purpose. But I suspect it’s harder to get an entire cast on the same page with a regional twang than is possible with a film or play.

[1] The first two syllables of “Solverson” aren’t the most subtle, either.

[2] I could never tell if Stormare’s casting was intended to tip a hat to Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage, or if he got the part because he plays such a great bad guy. Given the Scandinavian surname of his character, Grimsrud, I suspect the former.

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Australian Broad-A

Queensland

Queensland (MCavilia / Wikimedia / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Speaking of Shane Jenek/Courtney Act (the Australian drag queen that served as the topic of my last post), I noticed that he uses a “short-a” in words like dance, France, and demand. That is, Jenek pronounces “dance” with the same vowel as “pan” (æ), instead of using the vowel in “harm” (a or ɑ). This is apparently typical of Queenslanders, as this lovely dialect map at Maquarie University’s website reveals. South Australians, meanwhile, tend to use a “broad-a” in at least some of these words. Why the discrepancy between the two regions?

It’s worth pointing out that even in Australian regions that use broad-a in such words, the phenomenon is less uniform than it is in, say, Southeast England. Linguists Barbara and Ronald Horvath study this very factor in A Geolinguistics of Short-A[1], and find that while Adelaide natives generally always use the broad-a in “plant”, this is common but not uniform with “advance” and broad-a in “dance” is fairly unusual (it occurs about 27% of the time).

Much of Australia’s early British/European settlement occurred throughout the 19th-Century, a span coinciding with changes in attitude regarding the broad-a in words like “dance” and “demand”. As Joan Beal points out in English dialects in the North of England: phonology[2] (later quoted by Wikipedia), this sound was “stigmatized as a Cockneyism” for a large part of the century.

Indeed, one notes the change in attitude when comparing elocution books from the early part of that period to those of the late Victorian. John Walker was apoplectic over such pronunciations in 1816’s Principles of English Pronunciation, asserting that “every correct ear would be disgusted at giving the ‘a’ in these words the full sound of ‘a’ in ‘father'”. This contrasts with an American (no less!) pronunciation manual from 1885, William Phyfe’s How Should I Pronounce, which claims that “a proper use of this [broad-a] sound indicates a relatively high degree of culture in the art of pronunciation”[3].

Getting back to Australia, though, the question is why some regions and speakers shifted to (or perhaps preserved) this vowel where others didn’t. One might be tempted to find some type of socioeconomic explanation, but the Horvaths find this at best a weak predictor. For instance, they found a 68% incidence of short-a in “advance” among working-class Australians compared to a 57% incidence among middle-class Australians. As I mentioned, Australian English’s formative years were during a period of short-a/broad-a instability, so it’s hard to pinpoint what the historical factors were that led to one region adopting one pronunciation while another didn’t.

Regardless of why, though, it’s worth noting this striking difference between the two areas. By comparison, a region in the United States where people similarly pronounced “dance” with a broad-a would stick out like a sore thumb (my ears certainly perk up when older New Englanders use this phoneme). Australian English is fairly young compared to its cousins, but that doesn’t mean it lacks unique regional accents.

1. Horvath, B. M., & Horvath, R. J. (2001). A Geolinguistics of short A in Australian English. English in Australia, 341.
2. Beal, J. (2004). English dialects in the North of England. In E. W. Schneider & B. Kortmann (Eds.), A Handbook of the Varieties of English (pp 113-133). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
3. Phyfe is actually referring to “intermediate a,” a sound between “father” and “man” typical of a lot of old-fashioned American stage dialects or Mid-Atlantic English. It’s the same phoneme, but with a slightly different phonetic quality.

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