The New England/East Anglia Connection

Salem Witch TrialsA commonly held assumption is that New England accents are cousins of East Anglian accents in the UK. It’s an impression shared even by non-linguists, as this interview with British actor Tom Wilkinson from some years back attests (he discussed hanging out with Maine locals while shooting In the Bedroom):

“The accent they have, the broad Maine accent, is much closer to an English — it’s like a brother to the Norfolk accent. Those guys could walk into somewhere in East Anglia and people would think they were local.”

So is there a clear connection between the two?

The reason for the supposed similarity is that many of the original New England settlers reportedly hailed from East Anglia. I can’t comment on this claim; my knowledge of historical demographics of this sort is hardly robust. I would note, though, that when I researched the Salem Witch Trials in high school, the ancestries of its participants struck me as more diverse than that. Many bold-faced names in Salem had family from London, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Somerset, Norfolk, and any number of other places.

It is certainly true that both a New Englander and an East Anglia might utter the classic phrase ‘Park your car in Harvard Yard’ similarly: with a centralized or fronted [a] sound that might give the impression that ‘park’ is pronounced like ‘pack.’ This feature is shared by many other accents, of course, so this alone doesn’t immediately invite comparison.

Likewise, both East Anglia (well, most of it) and Eastern New England are non-rhotic, meaning the /r/ is dropped at the end of words like ‘car’ and ‘better.’  Again, not a very compelling piece of evidence.

Like a lot of trans-Atlantic comparisons, this one seems to work best when you’re comparing rural, isolated accents and not metropolitan ones.  If you compare a Bostonian to someone from Norwich, you’re unlikely to find much common ground.  But listen to this Maine Lobsterman from the far East of the state, and I can see how Wilkinson’s statement makes some sense:

Then compare this to an old (and possibly not entirely authentic) recording of a man from Norfolk:

See any similarities? I like to exercise caution with claims like these, since so much has changed about the English language since the time of the Massachusetts Bay colony. I defer to anyone who knows a bit more about early American immigration patterns.


Posted in American English | Tagged | 15 Comments

Bidder Budder Badder: The Extent of T-tapping

Letter TAmericans like myself ‘tap’ the ‘t’ in between vowels.  This means that the ‘t’ in ‘butter’ is pronounced not with a /t/ sound, but rather with the ‘r’ consonant in Spanish ‘pero.’  The common impression, though, is that ‘t’ becomes ‘d’ in American accents: ‘bitter’ sounds like ‘bidder,’ ‘bit off’ like ‘bid off,’ and ‘cutter’ like ‘cudder.’

Yet Americans have no exclusive claim to this feature.  London is known for its glottal ‘t’ (to put that very crudely, the ‘t’ in ‘butter’ becomes something of a ‘grunt’).  Yet it’s clear that t-tapping is also common in the city, as J.C. Wells makes clear in his Accents of English:

Indeed, there is another variant which also has a strong claim to be considered ‘typically Cockney,’ namely the voiced tap … The use of [ɾ] appears to be connected to the rate at which the person is speaking, since [ɾ] does not occur in slow speech, in hesitation, or before pause.

This strikes me as true of several British accents*.  To cite one example: in a transcription of an Estuary English (London) speaker in the International Dialects of English Archive, the transcriptionist notes the use of a tapped or voiced ‘t’ in the phrase ‘put on.’

And in Received Pronunciation, I’ve observed that it’s possible for the consonant to be tapped at the end of a word in rapid speech if the next word starts with a vowel (for example, in the phrase ‘A bit of luck’). Wells’ take on this (at least circa 1982) is that it is a matter of frequency: ‘occasional’ t-voicing is acceptable in RP; ‘frequent’ t-voicing would place an accent in the ‘Near-RP’ category.

So what makes American accents unique? I’ll answer that by making a comparison. In London English, the tapped t is only one of a number of possibilities. The phrase ‘bit off’ might be pronounced (for the non-phonetically inclined, forgive the jargon):

[bɪʔ ɒf] (t is a glottal stop)
[bɪʔt ɒf] (t is a glottally reinforced /t/)
[bɪts ɒf] (t is affricated — it becomes a /ts/ sound)
[bɪɾ ɒf] (t is tapped)
[bɪt ɒf] (t is simply a /t/ sound)

… and probably a number of others. Yet of all the times I, as an American, will utter the words ‘bit off’ in my lifetime, I will most likely have used a tapped /t/ every single time. It doesn’t matter if I’m saying the words slowly, quickly, with food in my mouth, or drunk, the tapped /t/ is almost compulsory in my accent.

So in the varieties of British English we’ve discussed, t-tapping is one of several options. For many Americans, however, the feature has near-exclusivity in many contexts, which is why it is so salient to people with other accents.  The question is not so much why Americans do this, but rather, why we’re so consistent about it.

*There are many others, obviously, which I’m not mentioning here.  I’m focusing on accents that aren’t associated with t-tapping/voicing.


Posted in English Phonetics | Tagged , , , | 32 Comments

Auld Lang Syne FAQ

Times Square

Photo: Maria Azzurra Mugnai

Last night was New Years’ Eve, which brings about the yearly revival of the song Auld Lang Syne.  Originally penned by Robert Burns (the melody is traditional), the lyrics are in the Scots language (or dialect, depending on your point of view).  The title roughly translates as ‘times long past’ or ‘old times gone’ or other combinations of ‘times,’ ‘old,’ and ‘past.’

Over the years, I’ve heard the same three questions asked about this tune:

1.)  Why do Americans sing a song in Scots at midnight? The reasons that the song spread are a bit sketchy, but it seems to have been popularized in America by Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo, who played the song during New Years’ Eve radio shows.  That it is sung in a semi-obscure relative of English, then, is rather beside the point: Lombardo’s rendition of the tune was instrumental.

2.) Why do we translate most of the words of the song into standard English, but not the title?  This common misconception arises from the first stanza of the song, which is usually the only one anyone knows:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

Why do we sing in English up until those last three words?

In fact, little is translated here from Burns’ original Scots. This is simply the stanza that most resembles Standard English. (I’d also point out that ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’ isn’t Standard English to begin with). My guess is that not many New Years’ revelers in Times Square sing the words a few bars down:

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.

There is one way in which Burns’ lyrics do get consistently altered, but it’s fairly minor: ‘For old Lang Syne, my dear’ is changed from the original ‘For auld Lang Syne, my jo’ (the last word is Scots for ‘sweetheart’).  There is a more complete translation that I’ve heard sung by choral groups and such, but the point is moot on New Years: I’ve never heard anyone sing past the first two verses at a party.

3.)  Why do Americans mispronounce ‘Auld Lang Syne?’ This is a bit more mysterious than the first two questions.  In Scots, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is pronounced rather similarly to Standard English ‘old long sign’ (really [ɔld lɑŋ səɪn]). Most Americans I’ve heard singing the song, however, pronounce ‘lang’ so it rhymes with ‘rang,’ and pronounce ‘syne’ with a /z/ sound: this results in [old læŋ zaɪn] (or [old leɪŋ zaɪn], given that many Americans raise the /æ/ before ‘ng.’)

I can understand why ‘lang’ is pronounced the way it is (we don’t typically associate ‘a’ before ‘-ng’ with the broad-a in father), but the /z/ in ‘syne’ is odd.  This may simply be a matter of assimilation (the influence of a sound on one near it).  But we have little difficulty pronouncing the ‘s’ in ‘gang sign’ as an /s/.  

So what’s with the /z/?  Simple assimilation, or something else?


Posted in British English | Tagged , | 13 Comments

An Accent Myth? The East Asian L/R Mix-Up


Writing the Korean l/r symbol (Wikimedia)

A few days ago, I watched the American holiday classic A Christmas Story.  At the end of the film, the family of the main character visits a Chinese restaurant.  Being Christmas, the wait staff attempts to entertain their American patrons by singing, in comical accents:

Deck the hars with boughs of horry
Fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra …

This crude joke on the impression that East Asian people, when speaking English, confuse r‘s with l‘s (and vice versa).  It’s a gag repeated in countless films and TV shows (albeit less so, thankfully, in a more politically correct era).  Is this merely a racist stereotype?

It is true that several Asian languages and dialects do not distinguish /r/ from /l/ the way English does.  But it’s important to note that the nature of this non-distinction differs depending on which language we are talking about.*

You hear perhaps the most striking of these mix-ups among Japanese speakers of English.  The Japanese language has no English-type /l/ or /r/, but rather a single consonant that lies in between the two. It is post-alveolar like an English /r/, but a lateral consonant like /l/. So Scarlett Johansson’s question in Lost in Translation– Why do they switch the “R”s and the “L “s here?–isn’t quite right. Nothing is being ‘switched.’

The Korean language doesn’t technically distinguish between /l/ and /r/; instead, there is an l-type sound and an r-type sound that are allophones of the same phoneme (i.e. alternate pronunciations of the same sound.) So my impression is that Korean speakers can grasp this split a little more easily than Japanese speakers.

Then there are languages that simply have /l/, with no clear equal to English /r/. Such is the case with Cantonese.  Assuming the befuddled carolers from A Christmas Story were native speakers of that language, they would have had little trouble la-la-laing. But if they spoke some other Chinese dialects/languages, then the scene would be (sort of) accurate.  For example, Wu Chinese reportedly has a single r/l-type sound similar to that of Japanese.

The bottom line? The r/l mixup is not exactly a myth, but is still wildly over-generalized. This varies even within dialects of Asian languages (the Southern Vietnamese would probably have no trouble with /r/, but it might vex someone in the North). Specificity is key when discussing a region with hundreds of different languages!

*I’ve confirmed the details with three online sources each: at least one academically inclined website, Omniglot, and as a final back-up, Wikipedia.  There’s a lot of variation within languages and dialects, though, so corrections and exceptions are appreciated.


Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged , | 31 Comments

Drunken Speech

Pint GlassSpeech changes during intoxication. We slur, we stammer, we curse.  Our normal, everyday speech patterns differ markedly from our drunken idiolects (the word’s similarity to ‘idiot’ never seemed as apt as it does in this context.)

You may wonder, then, if anyone has studied ‘drunken’ accents and/or dialects in much the same way they study more, uh, ‘orthodox’ linguistic classifications. And indeed, there is a 2001 study entitled Effects of ethanol intoxication on speech suprasegmentals by Harry Hollien and colleagues*.

Hollien, et al., administered controlled amounts of alcohol to a group of young adults, and quantified the aspects of their speech that changed the drunker they got. One of the more prominent things found to shift during intoxication is the ‘fundamental frequency’ of one’s speech; roughly speaking, that suggests that the pitch of your voice gets higher the more you drink. (Perhaps the origin the semi-apochryphal notion that ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ began as a drinking song; those high notes are hard to hit).

The researchers also found a decrease in the subjects’ speaking rate as they become more intoxicated. There seems a specific point at which this slowing of speech occurs: men slow down the most at a blood alchohol level between 0.04 and 0.08; for women, this occurs between 0.08 and 0.12.

Finally, the researchers found that the most striking impact of alchohol on speech was an increase in ‘nonfluencies.’ That is, people stammer, stutter, and trip on their words a whole heck of a lot more when they’ve had a few too many. Just how much does this intensify? The researchers found that in the severely intoxicated, the rate of these ‘speech errors’ nearly triples.

You may note something unintentionally funny about these findings. After all, that drunk people speak at a higher pitch, more slowly, and more haltingly is not a set of observations you need to be a trained acoustician to notice. (I also giggle when I imagine a group of serious scholars carefully monitoring the behavior of a group of drunk twenty-somethings). Still, it’s fascinating to see these observations quantified.

Something that isn’t mentioned in the study is what I find to be the most salient feature of ‘drunken speech:’ hypercorrection. Drunk people, aware of their intoxicated state, often overcompensate by overenunciating evvvveerrry ccconnnsonnantttt and vowel. Perhaps this relates to the higher rate of stuttering and stammering: when you put such pressure on yourself to pronounce everything perfectly, you’re bound to trip up!

*H. Hollien, G. Dejong, C. Martin, R. Schwartz, and K. Liljegren, “Effects of ethanol intoxication on speech suprasegmentals,” Acoustical Society of America Journal, vol. 110, no. 6, pp. 3198–3206, 200.


Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged | 8 Comments

Happy Holidays!

Hey, all! Posting here has been a bit light due to the holidays. I’ll have a post up tomorrow.

Till then, I’d like re-post something I had up here some time ago, this lovely ‘Night Before Christmas’ spoken in Jamaican Creole (courtesy of

Happy Holidays!


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Pop vs. Soda

Soda Jerk

Photo: Matthew Vanitas

In my native New England, using ‘pop’ to refer to soft drinks is unthinkable.  So midwestern!  Having many relatives in the midwest, of course, I was often treated to this difference between our respective dialects.  Which is why I’m enamored with this dialect map of words for ‘soft drink’ created by Matthew T. Campbell. (It’s large and detailed, so I won’t post it here.)

You will notice that there are actually three ‘soft drink’ synonyms in America: Soda in New England and Northeast, pop in the midwest extending through to the Pacific Northwest; and ‘coke‘ in the American South.

Two out of three of these words makes sense given the histories of soft drinks in their regions.  The soda fountain arrived on American soil in New Haven, Connecticut, hence the word ‘soda’ was probably more entrenched in the vocabulary of the Northeast by the time that Coca-Cola emerged in the late 19th-Century.

The South, of course, is where Coca-Cola originates.  Its ubiquity may very easily have resulted in this particular brand being synonymous with soft drinks of all kind.  (Much as Band-Aid has become synonymous with small bandages).

Which leaves the onomatopoeic ‘pop’ native to dialects of the Mid- and Northwest (so named, apparently, because of the sound made when removing a cork from a carbonated beverage).  The word, in reference to soda, dates back at least to the early 19th-Century. One of its first appearances is in reference to ‘ginger pop,’ an earlier term for ginger ale and similar beverages, here mentioned in a cookbook from 1824, entitled Cookery and Confectionary:

Ginger pop. One pound of loaf sugar, one ounce cream of tartar, one ounce of ground ginger, one gallon of boiling water; mix together; when nearly cold, add one spoonful of yeast; strain and bottle it; tie the cork over, and in six hours it is fit for use.

What this suggests is that the Northeastern and Southern terms for soft drinks are perhaps more innovative than ‘pop.’ The soda fountain apparently remained confined to the Northeast until the 1830s, and Coca-Cola didn’t arrive until even later. Still, I find it strange that American dialects are so clearly divided in this respect over a hundred years later.


Posted in American English | Tagged | 29 Comments

Chicago [shi-KAW-go]

ChicagoSome of the most intriguing dialect mysteries involve place names. One of the more peculiar of these head-scratchers is the local pronunciation of ‘Chicago.’

The Chicago accent, being affected by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, pronounces ‘ah’ words with something of a fronted or centralized ‘a’ vowel (IPA [a]).  To an outside ear, this can result in ‘father’ sounding as if it were pronounced with the vowel in ‘cat.’  Naturally, one would assume that ‘Chicago’ would have a similar ‘a.’

And yet, as any Chicagoan will tell you, the local realization of the word is ‘shi-KAW-go‘ (i.e. [ʃɪkɔgo] or [ʃɪkɒgo]) with the vowel in ‘flaw.’  Why this very notable exception?

There is nothing in the etymology of the word that explains this.  Quoth the always excellent Online Etymology Dictionary:

Named from a Canadian French form of an Algonquian word, either Fox /sheka:ko:heki “place of the wild onion,” or Ojibwa shika:konk “at the skunk place” (sometimes rendered “place of the bad smell”).

Both of the Native American words associated with the city don’t indicate why ‘aw’ is found in the local pronunciation. It’s probable, then, that the ‘aw’ derives from the intermediary French word that gave the town its name.

One possibility: ‘Long a’ in Quebec French is typically a back vowel (sometimes rounded and/or diphthongized) not all that dissimilar from the vowel used in the local rendering of ‘Chicago.’ Although the ‘a’ in this word shouldn’t be a long vowel under French elongation rules, it’s possible that the French-Canadians who adopted this word made some type of attempt to keep the lengthened ‘a’ of the original American Indian word.

But that’s just one possibility of many. Anyone have more information on how ‘Chicago’ got its distinct pronunciation?


Posted in American English, Uncategorized | Tagged | 46 Comments

Leeds or Manchester?

Turning back to the world of accent minutiae, a reader emailed me with a conundrum regarding the difference between Leeds and Manchester accents. This concerns ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke, from Salford in Greater Manchester:

I like to think of myself as quite good at identifying English accents, yet I would have no way of telling whether [Clarke]’s from closer to Leeds or Manchester.

Here is a clip of Clarke speaking:

The accents of Leeds and Manchester sound very similar to me, although Northern England is notorious as a region where adjacent suburbs speak ‘different languages.’ The difference I’ve noticed the most between the two cities is found in what we call GOAT words: ‘go,’ ‘flow,’ ‘road,’ etc. In Leeds, there seems a tendency for this to be a monophthong, while in Manchester, this seems more typically a diphthong.

(To review, monophthongs are single, ‘pure’ vowel sounds, so GOAT might be something like goht, while diphthongs are combinations of two vowel sounds, so GOAT might sounds like goh-oot, guhoot, or geh-oot depending on your accent.)

I have at least one (slight) piece of evidence to back this up, courtesy of the British Library. In 1999, the BBC conducted a nationwide survey of English dialects* entitled the Millennium Memory Bank.  This includes an interview of a man from Manchester named Cyril, born in 1923, who exhibits consistent diphthongization of the GOAT vowel (rendered [ɔʊ]).  In Leeds, the survey profiles a group of teenagers who consistently use a monophthongal vowel for GOAT ([ɔ:] or [ɵ:])**.  So while it seems diphthongal GOAT was a part of Manchester at least by the mid-20th-Century, monophthongal GOAT is still going strong among the youngest natives of Leeds.

My impression is that when people from either city move away (or in more ‘non-local’ accents) diphthongs are the norm regardless of where one is from.  Hence Leeds celebrity Angela Griffin uses more of the ‘Manchester’-style diphthong:

It’s unclear to me why there is a difference in this respect between Leeds and Manchester. Any thoughts from locals of either city?

*Well, more a sample of English people talking than a dialect survey.

**The transcriptions of someone at the British Library, not mine.


Posted in British English, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 30 Comments

Accent of a Contrarian: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens


Christopher Hitchens passed away yesterday. His controversial life is far beyond the purview of a blog about dialects, yet I can think of few people with an accent as inextricably linked with their personality. Here is a brief clip of Hitchens speaking a mere year ago, in a video post on Vanity Fair’s website:

Technically, there is nothing unusual about Hitchens’ accent; he attended the Leys School and Oxford. As such, he speaks crisp, non-regional Received Pronunciation.

And yet Hitchens lived in the United States since 1981. I have known few Brits who have spent such a long time in America without making some accommodations to American speech, even if slight. There are usually a few r’s where they wouldn’t normally be, some slight erosion of the ‘trap-bath split,’ intonational patterns more typical of this side of the pond.

And yet Hitchens kept his accent intact in a way that most cross-Atlantic transplants do not (or cannot). He maintained features that one would expect to unconsciously fade. For example, up until late in his life, he still used the ‘smoothed’ triphthongs typical of British RP (i.e. ‘power’ sounds almost like ‘pa’).

Even among the British who keep up a jet-setting lifestyle, accents can waver. Anna Wintour, another titan of journalism, is what I think of as more typical:

I don’t think Hitchens was entirely unaware that his accent remained strikingly English. Some years back, in a notorious appearance on a talk show hosted by Bill Maher, Hitchens mocked fellow guest (and that point, American resident) Elvis Costello by saying he sounded Irish*. Perhaps this critic of all things insincere found insincerity in those who fit their accents to their surroundings.

One’s speech changes naturally due to accommodation. It says something about Hitchens that mindlessly accommodating to someone else, even linguistically, was to lose one’s independent identity.

*I haven’t seen this clip since it first aired: there may be a more complex dig that I’m not getting.


Posted in British English | Tagged , | 15 Comments