Mother Goose Rhymes (When Accents Collide)

Humpty DumptyYears ago, I was in a pub discussing a subject I can’t recall. A Dublin acquaintance asked a question that sounded like ‘Was he in coat?’

‘In coat?’ Was this a dialect term I’d never heard? Did he mean ‘Was he in a coat?’ Is there a trend toward eliminating articles in Dublin English?

In fact, the intended question was ‘was he in court?’ There is a recessive trait in local Dublin English whereby some /-or/ words (such as ‘court’) are pronounced with the same vowel in ‘coat.’* (Local Dublin is, despite the city’s renown, a somewhat obscure dialect in America, so I wasn’t well-acquainted with this feature at the time.)

This exemplifies a pronunciation in one accent similar to that in another accent. But are there entire sentences like this?

Such phrases might be called ‘Mother goose rhymes,’ after the book Mots D’Heures, Gousses, Rames, which compiles sentences that sound the same in different languages (the French title is pronounced similarly to Mother Goose Rhymes).

I tried to take a stab at thinking up some ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’ for English accents. Unfortunately, all I could muster were syntactically and semantically bizarre curios. For example, someone with a Chicago accent might say:

Shay locked a plywood door. Doubt her!
IPA: ʃeɪ la:kt ə plaiwʊd dɔɹ dɑɔɾ ɚ

…which might sound like someone from a rural part of the American South saying …

She liked to play. Would our daughter?
IPA: ʃɪi la:kt tə plaɪ wʊd ɒɹ dɑɒɾɚ

Someone with a Cockney accent, might say:

May thought, “awful beer what Tim pours!”
mæɪ fo:ʔ o:fo biə wəʔ tɪm po:z

…which could sound like someone from Edinburgh saying …

My photo-phobia would impose.
mæɪ fo:ʔo: fo:biə wəd ɘmpo:z

Finally, a situation where two accents are close geographically. Someone from Toronto might say:

Ideas’ll capture leaders, no question.
aɪdɪəz l capʃɚ lidɚz noʊ kwɛsʧn

…while could sound like a Buffalo, NY native saying…

I dazzle cops, surely there’s no question.
ai dɪəzl caps ʃɚli dɚz noʊ kwɛsʧn

(Okay, so I got a little lazy with that last one.)

This is a fun exercise, but there are many problems with the above sentences. First, these pairs only sound the same if you completely disregard prosody. (You have to forget that the ‘-ly’ in ‘surely’ is never stressed.) Second, I freely admit that I’m making a half-hearted attempt at verisimilitude. In order to make these phrases sound the same, I’ve employed generic, exaggerated accents.

And it’s here we see the difference between such experiments with languages and those with accents. The pun in the title of the aforementioned French book works because it relies on very general assumptions about the pronunciation of French and English. Accents, though, are distinguished by subtle phonetic nuances. To get ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’ to work, you have to rely on rather theoretical transcriptions that don’t necessarily correspond to how people actually talk.

Anyone else have any good “Mother Goose Rhymes” involving two English accents? (They don’t need to be long sentences.)

*A further explanation: Older accents in Dublin participate in the NORTH/FORCE split. Without getting into the details, this results in certain /or/ words being part of the GOAT set (i.e. the vowel in ‘goat,’ ‘coat’ and ‘code.’). Because, unlike many other Irish accents, the vowel in GOAT has a diphthongal quality in Dublin, this results in the vaguely twangy pronunciation of ‘court’ previously mentioned. You’ll also note that the /r/ is dropped; these words seem more conducive to non-rhoticity in strong Dublin accents.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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19 Responses to Mother Goose Rhymes (When Accents Collide)

  1. AL says:

    This made me think of an anecdote my mom told me once. She’s from Taiwan, and once a group of her friends visited Australia for vacation. At one point, a tour guide freaked them out by saying “Thank you for coming today,” which they heard as “Thank you for coming to die.” Just a word, not a full sentence, but I thought it was amusing.

  2. Elizabeth M. says:

    A nit to pick: It’s not that they participate in the “NORTH-FORCE split”, it’s that they don’t participate in the NORTH-FORCE merger (a later innovation).

    • Point taken! IMHO seeming ahistorical ‘mix ups’ like ‘NORTH-FORCE merger,’ ‘FOOT-STRUT merger,’ or even (in some contexts) ‘COT-CAUGHT split’ are not totally out of line in informal conversation. Such phrases usually arise when people describe synchronic states, as opposed to diachronic processes. I’m fine using a phrase such as ‘dialect x lacks the FOOT-STRUT split,’ but I question whether it’s necessary to insert a parenthetical about a centuries-old vowel shift when introducing such concepts to people the first time.

      • Elizabeth M. says:

        “I’m fine using a phrase such as ‘dialect x lacks the FOOT-STRUT split…”

        So am I. Ditto with “NORTH-FORCE merger”. Just not “FOOT-STRUT merger” or “COT-CAUGHT split”.

  3. Kelly W. says:

    Finding entire sentences like that is quite a challenge. But I have heard words that sound similar to other words said in a different accent. One that I hear on the Internet all the time (in fact it may be a meme now actually) is that beer can in an English accent [bɪə kan] sounds like bacon in a Jamaican accent.

    One thing I like to do sometimes at Sound Comparisons is try to find words that sound like other words in different accents (or languages). Maybe that makes me crazy. I don’t know. Anyway, if you listen to the Belfast guy there say head, red and ten it sounds similar to had, red and tan respectively in a Chicago accent. You have to try to forget the person is actually from Belfast and imagine they’re from Chicago for this to really work though. Also, nail there sounds like Neal/kneel in almost any other accent. And of course there also words that sound unexpectedly similar to the same word in very different accents. But these are both subjects for a future post.

    • Kelly W. says:

      That should be had, RAD and tan. Sorry 🙂

    • Nice point! In terms of rhyming accents, the centering diphthong ɛə is a particularly good starting point. It can appear in ‘bed’ in Belfast, ‘bad’ in Chicago,’ ‘bared’ in British RP, and ‘bade’ in Western Ireland. It’s quite versatile!

      • Kelly W. says:

        It can also appear in both ‘bad’ and ‘bared’ in (non-rhotic) New York City accents. ɪə is good starting point too, as the ‘bacon’/’beer can’ example illustrates. Southern American ‘is’ and RP ‘ears’ also sound similar.

  4. NemaVeze says:

    There’s a scene in Neal Stephenson’s _Cryptonomicon_ where the American mathematician Daniel Waterhouse arrives at Bletchley Park and remarks that he hears people saying “woe to hice,” and he feels bad for “hice” / wonders what it means.

    • That’s a good one! I think that’s a mix up due to old RP pronunciation of MOUTH words which have something of a KITE-like quality.

      • NemaVeze says:

        IIRC Tim Curry has that pronunciation. In the “Time Warp” song in Rocky Horror, it took me the longest time to figure out that he was saying “he’s just a little brought down” because it sounds more like “broad dine.”

  5. Steve says:

    ‘Was he in coat?’ sounds like the way some U.S. southerners say ‘Was he in court?’

  6. Lane says:

    Some longish sequences can be homophones within a single idiolect. Mark Liberman recently told a fun story on Language Log. He was trying to get a staticky old TV to work.

    Friend: “Did a little little little help.”
    Mark: “Huh?”
    Friend: “Diddle it a little. It’ll help.”

    • I have quite a few of those myself. Like Liberman’s story, many of mine relate to the ‘flapped r t,’ one of American English’s biggest sources of confusion. It can render everyday sentences into babbling nonsense: just a few minutes ago, my wife had to ask me to repeat myself after I said something that sounded like “I didda bidda swell” (“I did a bit as well”).

  7. Randy E says:

    From a Slate article, the following quote:
    “But when you hear someone refer to “bosses with the antennas on the tap,” and realize he or she is talking about buses that have antennas on top, the drastic nature of [the Northern Cities Vowel] shift becomes clear as a bell. Or a bull, perhaps. You see the problem.”

    Is that the sort of thing you’re asking about?

    The quote is from this article