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.


Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Accent Prejudice Isn’t “Prejudice Lite”


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? For those of us who speak “standard” accents, I feel we buy into a comforting myth: because I choose to speak General American English I choose to play the part of a productive American, and someone who chooses otherwise has chosen a feckless existence for himself.

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.] 


Posted in American English | Tagged | 32 Comments

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 (modified 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?


Posted in British English | Tagged , , | 19 Comments

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.


Posted in British English | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

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.


Posted in American English | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

“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.


Posted in American English | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Australian Broad-A


Queensland (wikimedia)

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.


Posted in Australian English | Tagged , | 25 Comments

“Courtney Act” and Non-Rhotic Puns

Courtney Act

Courtney Act (wikimedia)

This season of RuPaul’s Drag Race featured Courtney Act (aka Shane Jenek), a renowned drag performer from Brisbane, Australia. In an early episode, Act/Jenek laments that Americans don’t get the pun in his stage name, which sounds similar to “caught in the act” to Australians (i.e. koːt n̩ i ækt). “Except,” Jenek says (and I’m paraphrasing), “maybe Boston or somewhere.”

I think Jenek’s right, it would take a second or two for most Americans to detect the pun, but not quite for the reason it might seem. Americans generally pronounce the /r/ in “Courtney” where Australians don’t. But the /r/ here occurs before another alveolar consonant, so the difference is hardly as prominent as it would be for Milne’s classic Eeyore pun (made all the more amusing by the vowel lengthening in non-rhotic British “-ore”: eee-aaawww).

The bigger problem is that most Americans use a very different vowel in “caught” than the one they use in “court“, which is different still from the vowel Australians use. The latter tend toward a fairly close “caught” vowel, while the former, especially in the cot-caught merged states, notoriously pronounce the word not dissimilarly from Southeastern British “cart“.

In fact, I think a pun like “cart in the act” would be pretty easily understood by most Americans (and indeed, a Google search produces at least two instances of Americans using just that pun in headlines). The vowel in “-ar” words in my accent is more or less identical to the vowel I use in “-aw” words.1 The bigger issue is that the vowel in “Courtney” and “Caught” are quite different for most of us in the States.

As to Jenek’s comment, I rather disagree that Boston would be the city most likely to grasp the pun. Contemporary non-rhotic Bostonians often make a distinction between the vowels “caught” and “court“, with the former word pronounced with a rather open vowel similar to that of most other American accents. Marked New York City English would probably be a better example, as its speakers tend to use similar vowels for both syllables.

It doesn’t help, of course, that “Courtney Act” is a complex pun that requires an intuitive understanding of English phonetics. To get the joke, you need to know that “in” can be pronounced as a syllabic /n/ and that English speakers sometimes drop “th” after that same /n/. While a pun like “cart in the act” is easy to spot because it resembles the structure of the phrase upon which the pun rests, “Courtney Act” is harder to parse.

1. For phonetics lovers, I generally make only a slight distinction between pairs like “caught” and “cot,” pronouncing the former with something close to Cardinal 5 (ɑ) and the latter with a vowel in between Cardinals 5 and the centralized variant of Cardinal 4.


Posted in Australian English | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Urban Southern English


Photo: David Cole

A reader wrote me recently with a question about his “fading” Southern accent:

I am a native, fourth generation Georgian who has lived in Roanoke, Virginia for two years. Before then I spent three years in Austin, Texas; two in Atlanta; and four in Athens, Georgia– all metro areas and college towns. I’m wondering why my Southern accent has disappeared without me trying to do so. Does living in cosmopolitan areas naturally mute regional distinctions?

In short, yes, living in cosmopolitan areas can in some ways “mute” certain accents. Although there’s a lot more to it than that!

One of the of the most brilliant yet simple concepts in sociolinguistics is Peter Trudgill‘s “gravity model” of linguistic diffusion. A good summary of the principle can be found in William Labov‘s article Pursuing the cascade model:

In Trudgill’s gravity model of diffusion, change spreads from the largest to the next largest city, in a predictable order, the influence of one city on another being proportional to the relative sizes of the city and inversely proportional to the distance between them.

In other words, larger cities tend to influence smaller cities rather than vice versa. Big City A spreads a feature to Slightly Smaller City B, which spreads to Even Smaller City C, which spreads to Small Town D. Geographical distance is not the only factor in the spread of certain dialect features (although it is important); the actual size of the urban areas in question is also relevant.

One side effect of this phenomenon is that you can often find two large cities several hundred miles apart that have more in common with each other, dialect-wise, than either does with the intervening rural areas. A middle-class person from suburban Atlanta probably has a dialect not dissimilar from a middle-class person in suburban Charlotte, while I would be very surprised if a middle-class person from Anderson County, SC, a rural area in between the two, didn’t have a much stronger regional dialect than either. (Although I’m just guessing.) If you look at all cities in America as being interconnected to some degree, it’s probably more likely that “General American” features have spread to the urban South than its rural counterpart.

This is not an ironclad rule, though, by any means. It’s much more common to hear the /r/ pronounced at the end of “car” in New York City nowadays than it was in 1920, even though this feature did not arrive to the Big Apple from a larger city (you can’t get much bigger than New York, after all). In that case, the feature likely came via transplants from many regions of the country that all featured post-vocalic /r/. I do think, however, that the gravity model is a pretty important factor in dialect leveling in Southern cities.

Of course, what may seem to involve “muting” local accents in the short term can end up creating very distinctive accents in the long run. Accents in the cities of Northern England are probably good examples of the gravity model (thanks to the industrial revolution), and those are some of the most distinctive Englishes on the planet. Nevertheless, you’re usually more likely to pick up features more typical of other parts of the country in a large metro area than in an isolated rural one.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 14 Comments

Jim Hawkin’s “Blues”

Source: Beinecke Library

Source: Beinecke Library

I recently read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a story I greatly enjoy as a child. The novel’s pirates speak with a dialect I find puzzling as an adult reader: is it the West Country of the early chapters’ setting (akin to the famed “pirate dialect”)? Are some of the pirates Irish? Is some American English thrown in the mix?

Stevenson was not entirely going for accuracy. The story is so associated with the era of wigs and tri-corner hats that it’s easy to forget the book was written in the late Victorian era, and likely doesn’t reflect the speech of 18th-Century seamen with total verisimilitude. Stevenson wrote about a largely fanciful world, generally speaking. Many adaptations of the film are set in tropical climes, for instance, but the pines, grey trees, and sweltering heat that the author describes suggest a curious mashup of different locales.[1]

I find myself especially curious about the occasional Americanisms which pepper the pirates’ speech. For instance, Long John Silver uses the phrase let her rip, a term we still use in America today and seems to be of American origin. Does US English share this phrase with rural British English, or did Stevenson picked it up during a sojourn in America? He married a native of Indianapolis, after all.

The question is especially complex when young Jim Hawkins speaks of having “the blues:”

If we had been allowed to sit idle, we should all have fallen in the blues but Captain Smollett was never the man for that. All hands were called up before him, and he divided us into watches.

We tend to associate the blues with a very American musical form, but the term’s roots on this side of the Ocean are dubious.[2] A Google Books search yields a fair number of examples similar to Stevenson’s in British Victorian literature, in fact, such as this passage from an obscure tome titled Violet Rivers, by Winifred Taylor:

“I only wish there were an end to all these books, for they’re nothing but weariness of the flesh to me.” And Harry put his hands in his pockets, and gave a great yawn, as if to convince his hearers that he was speaking the truth.

“There’s no use going into the blues over them,” spoke Cecil again. “What can’t be cured must be endured, you know.”

As in the above two passages, many examples I found from the 19th-Century used the construction “in the blues,” or opted for a related adjective like “into.” But the meaning is nonetheless similar to how we treat the word in contemporary English. The term appears similarly in American texts from the period, however. So whether Stevenson picked up the term among Englishman or Americans is anyone’s guess.

[1] A point reinforced by the book’s most famous illustrator, New Englander N.C. Wyeth, who gave the island a rather Maine-like countenance.
[2] Confusing the matter is the fact that “blue” has been an adjective denoting “sadness” since the middle ages. The University of Michigan’s Middle English dictionary lists just such a figurative meaning, with examples such as “Wyth teres blewe and with a wounded herte” from Chaucer’s The Complaint of Mars. We tend to think of “the blues” as being American as apple pie, largely due to the American musical genre associated with the term. But like apple pie (a type of which was eaten in Chaucer’s day), the actual term doesn’t seem as uniquely American as its reputation suggests.

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