That Tricky “Oh”



Over the holidays, I watched Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, an excellent miniseries about a beautiful but troubled community in New Zealand’s South Island. American actress Elisabeth Moss plays the lead role of a police detective who has returned to her hometown after a spell in Australia.

I must confess to skepticism about Ms. Moss playing a Kiwi, if only because I’ve never seen her portray a non-American. But I thought she did a good job speaking with a kind of pan-Southern-Hemispheric accent (it’s in the script; characters comment on her character’s accent being muddled). Being a nitpicker, though, I noticed that she used a vowel in words like “goat” and “row” with a vowel a bit more “American” than one would find in either Australia or New Zealand (i.e. ).

Ms. Moss is hardly alone in this, it should be pointed out. As per my last post, one of Dick Van Dyke’s biggest blunders in Mary Poppins was to consistently use an overly back vowel in such “oh” words. Moss’ accent is leagues better than Van Dyck’s, of course, but it’s a quirk I’ve likewise noticed among other Americans attempting British or Australian accents.

One of the more fascinating examples of this “mistake” comes from, curiously, an actor who largely identifies as British. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, see if you can identify his provenance from this interview:

Is he Welsh? An Englishman returning after a sojourn in Ireland? Nope. Rylance grew up in Wisconsin (with British parents), and in interviews has attributed his unusual speech patterns to his upbringing in the Badger State. Rylance has specifically mentioned that*, even after decades of residence in the United Kingdom, he has trouble making the British GOAT vowel (presumably he meant əʊ).

What I think Rylance’s case suggests is that Americans can have a surprisingly hard time consistently producing the type of centralized or fronted vowels more typical of the UK and Australia. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I can attest that these diphthongs challenged me when I was first attempting such accents.

I suspect that a factor is Americans’ general inconsistency with this vowel in our own accents. I’ve heard some Southern Californians, for instance, who’ve pronounced “goat” got where others would pronounce this gəʊt, with fairly significant variations within single speakers. Such fluctuations would be tricky in New Zealand English, I would think, as more retracted variants could compete with the vowel in “caught.” In other words, this may not necessarily be a case of American English being too “conservative,” but rather that Americans tend to be more “liberal” with this vowel.

*I am fairly certain this statement occurred in this article of the New Yorker. Unfortunately, I no longer subscribe, so I’m wary of attributing it to that publication. If anyone can find the original quote, it would be much appreciated!


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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12 Responses to That Tricky “Oh”

  1. Scot Colford says:

    Whoa whoa whoa. Rylance didn’t move to the states until he was 7 or something. Surely, that skews things a bit. Please don’t present him as a native American English speaker.

    • @Scot,

      I wouldn’t say he’s a native American English speaker, exactly (his speech is fundamentally British now). He has, however, maintained that American English strong impacted his accent. What I find particularly interesting is his maintenance of a particular feature of Inland Northern American English, even after spending his entire adulthood in England.

      • Christopher says:

        I probably wouldn’t categorise his accent as “fundamentally British”; his overall vocal placement is less fronted than typical British speakers, and I distinctly hear “American” in his speech. The most distinct “British” features in his accent are /t/ instead of /ɾ/, non-rhoticity and the trap/bath split (although with a slightly weaker realisation of /ɑ/). @1:30, “I mean ‘no, please would you move'” sound very close to GenAm; “glass” and “floor” are close to RP or Estuary but not quite.

    • Ellen K. says:

      According to the Wikipedia article linked, he was 2 when he moved to the U.S. (Or, more exactly, when his parents moved here.) Do you have a source for you claim that this is wrong?

  2. Nico says:

    As an American, I know most sources define the sound as [oʊ] in most American varieties, but for me it’s definitely more of a front vowel. I feel that there’s an intruding /ɛ/ or /e/ before it. I know it’s a trait typical of the California Vowel Shift, but I’m from the DC suburbs!

    • m.m. says:

      well, labov in the ANAE has DC within the southeast fronting isogloss so its not surprising really, as that area was fronting GOAT well before the west haha

  3. Carl says:

    J.C. Wells, former linguist and blogger, commented on the variable GOAT vowel of a speaker from Seattle on this webpage. That page also has a lot of other samples of accents from around the world. I would recommend viewing it with a browser besides Google Chrome.

  4. Pingback: ‘That Tricky “Oh”’ by Ben Trawick | Rakesh Patel

  5. Kendra says:

    Apparently there is a BOLD-BALD (near)merger in some speakers.

  6. Here’s the relevant paragraph from the New Yorker article:

    At the Royal Academy, his fellow-students included Kenneth Branagh. He also took lessons with a vocal coach at the Chrysalis Theatre School. “One of the things I learned as an actor was how to hear,” Rylance said. “It was a revelation. I spent hours throwing words, as if they were boats, into a stream.” He added, “There are certain sounds I can’t say–when I say ‘phone,’ there’s more of an ‘o.’ People think I’m Scottish or Irish, but it’s actually Wisconsin. I was reading the other day how Yeats said he worked his whole life to make poems that could be heard. When I began to play Shakespeare, the words were easier for me to speak than my own language. It always made sense to me.”

    Regarding when he moved to the US, the New Yorker article reports that he was born January 18, 1960, and his family moved to America in 1962. They lived initially in Connecticut, then moved to Wisconsin in 1969. Perhaps, @Scot, you were thinking about the Wisconsin move but not the original arrival in Connecticut.

  7. m.m. says:

    so true about the fronting inconsistency, as even i will still utter GOAT with the old [oʊ] and anywhere inbetween, but youve heard [o] here in the southland? from natives? that usually draws major ‘transplant’ attention

  8. Jase says:

    I came to this blog after developing a pronunciation/accents obsession caused entirely by Ms E.Moss’s butchering of the relevant accent(s) required to play that character.
    Director Jane Campion asks us to believe she was born in NZ’s South Island, and moved to Sydney.
    So why does she sound like a Boston-born resident of West London? It’s ruinous to the credibility of the character, and hurts the show – which I really wanted to like.
    You’re right about the “Oh!” We were coping with Mossy up until a supposedly dramatic scene where she had to yell the word “Johnno!” several times. At the end of that scene I hit pause and we sat on the couch trying to emulate the bizzare hybrid pronunciation that Ms Moss had achieved. Mucking up both vowel sounds and possibly some of the consonants too. “zh’neau?” I still can’t quite capture it.
    Anyway, she does pretty good facial expressions so she has a lot of potential if she sticks to playing Americans.
    (I feel I speak to this topic with quite some credibility, being an Australian with New Zealanders as father, boss, housemate and several of my friends.)