A recent episode of “The Allusionist”, a podcast that deals with words, dealt with accents, and to a lesser extent dialect.  Episode #63, The Evolution of Accents, was broadcast courtesy of Twenty Thousand Hertz, which is a podcast about sound.  Helen Zalzberg, the Allusionist, asked and they agreed to share.

Briefly, the show started with the evolution of modern English – from 1500 to present – and expanded on the English from the 1600s on during the time that Britain colonized North America.

What was pointed out is that Britain has hundreds of accents, and the accent that we think of as typically British, commonly known as Received Pronunciation or RP, is a contrived accent invented with the intent of preventing miscommunication, as Britain colonized the world, between those still on the island and those in the hinterlands.

Going over all of the differences between accents in the south of England, those in the midlands, and those from the northeast is too great a discussion for here, and I’m frankly confused by many of the accents.  What was mentioned casually is that accents serve to differentiate speakers.  We move toward an accent to differentiate ourselves into geographic and social tribes. We resist sameness except within our own group where it is stressed.

So, if you have an accent from the southern U.S. – other than Florida – you will be recognized as a Southerner by English speakers in the rest of the nation, but among Southerners even slight variations are recognized and an individual can be identified as “not from around here.”  The accent serves to identify an individual as having values and a background similar to yours, or not.  The more dissimilar the more suspicious one becomes that you may be different.

Vowel shifts, consonant shifts, word order and the use of different words for the same concept all serve the purposes of accent and dialect to define one.

Furthermore, minorities change faster than majorities in accent and dialect.

Londoners from the poorer sections have had an almost secret language of slang that changes rapidly and prevents those from the outside from knowing what is being discussed.  This process apparently began as thieves and street hustlers moved among outsiders.

In the U.S. the rapid process of vowel shifts that became associated with “Valley Girl” affected the way teens talked and it is now mainstream among those under 50.  Not to be confused with Valley Girls, the Kardashians developed the strangled sound that distinguishes them and their would-be socialebrities from everyone else.

Other minority groups like those in the LGBTQ community have used their own jargon to distinguish themselves from the straight world.  Likewise, African-Americans have had a rapidly evolving speech that has served the same purpose.  Those on the outside use any of these words or phrases at their own risk because the terms rapidly become passe or the meanings change.  Furthermore, some of the words used may be permissible for insiders but derogatory for outsiders.

Consequently, black Americans can call each other Niggah, but white people cannot use the “N” word.  That’s as it should be, but personally, I don’t understand why the word is used at all, in any form.  But, I understand that it is a form of social bonding.  For about a month someone sent me texts thinking I was someone else.  The first one read something like this, “Yo this Britney. This my new number. Wot up,my niggah?”  Finally, after getting a lot of those,  I texted back telling her that she had the wrong number.  Her response was, “You sure?”  Pretty sure.

In the late 1970s my wife worked in retail and became friends with a gay co-worker, Robin.  The two both loved dancing, and Robin came to the house where they would practice disco routines.  We began going to clubs where the two of them danced, and then we got invited to the gay disco clubs.  Consequently, we got inundated with the language.  Some of the gay men used to jokingly call L their little “fag hag”.  We knew what it meant; a woman who hung out with gay men.  Some were socially inept, some had been badly hurt by straight men, and some were homely.  But some were like L. At the time it didn’t seem particularly offensive.  Maybe the term has taken on a different meaning, because I used it recently to make a point and was called down for using a hateful, derogatory slur.  So, the comment was edited.

This is the danger of using “insider” language.  Any outsider runs the risk of getting it wrong.  It may only mark you as “not from around here”, or it may be seen as hateful and offensive.

Accents are difficult to convey in a podcast and impossible in writing.  Dialects can be written, but can get one in trouble.  Mark Twain, who has been called the Father of American Literature, has recently been castigated for the use of the “N” word.  What he did at the time - write the way average Americans talked - was not well received by the Eastern elite, even then, not because of the “N” word, but because it was too vulgar, as in the original meaning of the word, common.  The gift of Twain’s writing is that it directly addressed issues of race and privilege and preserved the spoken language of the average person at the time for future generations.

Even Twain’s wife, Livy, was offended by Huckleberry Finn.  She reportedly read the book, set it aside, and didn’t talk to her husband for several days.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is now considered a classic.

Y’uns have a good day.

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Comment by Maui Surfer on August 8, 2018 at 8:41am

Sorry Dude, you got it all wrong. We take derogatory terms and appropriate them to de-weaponize them. This is why other groups do NOT get to use them, they are weapons to them, whereas these insults are appropriated by us to ease the pain. This has NOTHING to do with Fag Hags, that is just a mean way of referring to women who like to dance and are married, or can't find one, to a man who also likes such activities.

Far more interesting, it appears what we consider Hilly-billy Deliverance type accents are the closest thing to the original English spoken by those who colonized America.

Comment by Rodney Roe on August 8, 2018 at 8:51am

"Far more interesting, it appears what we consider Hilly-billy Deliverance type accents are the closest thing to the original English spoken by those who colonized America."

That's been the thought, although the dialect coach on Twenty Thousand Hertz wasn't so sure.  It makes sense because the people in the depths of the Ozark Mountains and those in East Tennessee and Western Virginia speak very much alike.  My grandfather would have said, "I'd be proud to" for "I'd be glad to" do something, and where I used to live in North Carolina people use "right" to mean "very" or "a lot" as in "We got right much rain last night."  Those usages are apparently holdovers from earlier English forms. 

You may be right. Fag Hag may have been a pejorative, by straights, but by gays.

Comment by koshersalaami on August 8, 2018 at 10:07am

Accents are difficult in writing because, short of Shawvian script or something, writing isn’t phonetic enough. I grew up in New York where the long O is pronounced differently than in Maryland where I moved during high school. I can describe the difference and do it but not write it. At least not easily. And a Hebrew long O is different in a different way. Again, I could describe it, but not quickly. 

Comment by koshersalaami on August 8, 2018 at 10:20am

Another thing you’ll find generally speaking in the US is that the farther West you go, the larger the area that shares an accent. In New York City you can find multiple accents, though probably less so now. The accents also change obviously through New England which isn’t a very big area. That’s probably because they were heavily settled before transportation was easy, so people stayed local long enough to develop distinct accents. In Europe it’s worse because there you get actual dialects in small geographic areas or, occasionally, even languages. 

Comment by Rosigami on August 8, 2018 at 11:20am

This is really fascinating. I think if I didn't become an artist/teacher, I may well have ended up in linguistics. 

Here in Washington State, those raised here recognize my  accent and the BLP's as "East Coast" but most often guess that we're from Boston.

I don't think my Lawn Guyland or BLP's Brooklyn accent sound anything like Bahstin! 

Comment by alsoknownas on August 8, 2018 at 11:27am

I don't buy into the appropriation of certain terms and phrases being an antidote, because the listener cannot be determined, nor can it be known what their reaction to it is.

Lenny Bruce tried that in an effort to reduce the power of pejoratives. I think he failed.

Others continue to do so, but I dislike it no matter who is doing the speaking.

Comment by Safe Bet's Amy on August 8, 2018 at 11:54am

Good post, RR. (...and, no...  you did NOT get "it all wrong, dude"  LOL)

I used to be involved "business-wise" with several people in England.  The differences between the accents and word usage from, for example, a person from Sheffield, a person from Liverpool and a person from South London often makes you wonder if they are speaking the same language (and if it is even english being spoken).

As for the use of derogatory terms, at least in relation to the LGBTQ community (something I know about because I actual am involved in it, unlike others who are just making shit up), like fag hag, fag stag, faggot, he-she, tranny, homo, queer, dyke, etc., etc. etc... you need to look at the sheer number of derogatory terms there are for us. 

Hell yes we are uber sensitive to them.  As a southern white guy you might need to deal with "cracker", "redneck" or "hillbilly", but think how it feels when there are so many insulting words and terms for a thing we have virtually no choice over (et al, I'm a homo... not by choice... but by birth!) that numerous freak'in dictionaries of all of the terms have been written.  

P.S.  You might be surprised, but a LOT of the "insider" use of those terms has gone away.  I think it started to decrease with "outsider" awareness (not to mention our own) thanks to things like GLSEN's Think Before You Speak "That's so gay" educational program and no thanks to things like the terroristic murders at the Pulse Night Club.

P.P.S.  Would it help if we used bigger text on comments to you?  I know you use ZoomText, but would it work better "zooming" a bigger font size?

Comment by koshersalaami on August 8, 2018 at 11:55am

Rosi,
They have some similar characteristics but there are differences if you know what you’re looking for. Both drop R’s, big time. You can really tell the difference in ar’s. It’s difficult to write out the New York version but I don’t have to because you speak it. Essentially, when New Yorkers drop an R in that situation, the vowel compensates for the missing R. There’s a diphthong substitution. In Boston, the R simply never existed. The closest I can spell it phonetically in New Yorkese using “park” as an example is ”poh-uck” run together really fast to make one syllable with the short U being really subtle. In Bostonian, it’s “pack.” 

Comment by koshersalaami on August 8, 2018 at 12:08pm

I’ve listened to a lot of old Beatles interviews lately and one of the things that strikes me about their accent is their short U. In most English, a short U and a short OO are distinct sounds. In Liverpudlian, there is no short U, they use a short OO for both. In most of the rest of English we do that for some words spelled with a U. “Cup” and “put” use different vowel sounds, with “cup” being a traditional short U and “put” being a traditional short OO, rhyming with “foot.” So in Liverpudlian, “put” is what a golfer does on a green and if someone leaves in a huff, you wonder how they got into a horse’s foot. 

Comment by Rodney Roe on August 8, 2018 at 1:39pm

I used to occasionally socialize with a Brit from the midlands who pronounced water as WAH ur, but that doesn't really describe it because as my speech/language pathologist daughter pointed out they substitute a glottal stop for the "t" consonant.  New Yorkers pronounce the word as WAH ter, just like it's spelled.  Where I grew up it was more like wadder. 

Here is a woman explaining the Geordie accent.  Bear in mind she is from Newcastle on Tyne, definitely English.

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