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.

Views: 596

Comment by koshersalaami on August 8, 2018 at 1:44pm

New York isn’t Wahter, it’s more like wawder or sometimes wawduh. (I grew up with it and still often speak it. There’s a recording of me at about four years old with an accent thick enough to cut with a knife.)

Comment by Rodney Roe on August 8, 2018 at 1:49pm

Of course, in the Britain up to WWII accent was a mark of social class.  One was immediately put in a box as soon as they spoke.  The wars did a lot to erase class lines, and if you will note actors in British series use their own accents.  No more rain in Spain talk.  For a real challenge tune in to the Shetland series.  I really enjoyed it for two reasons; the scenery was starkly beautiful and the various Scots accents were at times almost impossible to sort out.  If you do tune-in check out Detective Sergeant MacIntosh (tosh).  Her accent is not to my ken at times because she spoke quite rapidly and the vowel shifts were extreme.  Detective Inspector Jimmy Peres, by contrast, was definitely Scots, but much more understandable.

Also, if you like words, their histories and usages check out The Allusionist.

Comment by Rodney Roe on August 8, 2018 at 1:57pm

kosh, the Liverpool short 'u' being an OO may be similar to the usage in Ohio where ah and au are indistinguishable.  Don and Dawn are pronounced the same.  That is the same for me about pin and pen.  They both sound like pin.  Dog and hog sounded like dawg and hawg, but in the Piedmont of North Carolina the two do not rhyme.  Hog is pronounced "hahg" and dog is "dawg"  We put both hawgs and dawgs in the pin.

Comment by Rodney Roe on August 8, 2018 at 2:04pm

Amy, thanks.  Your comment spurred this post, as you are no doubt aware.

AKA, I also find the appropriation argument a bit of self-delusion.  It comes across as self-loathing whether it is meant that way or not.  Some people, perhaps as a result of a version of the Stockholm syndrome, take on the attitudes of their captors or oppressors, and that is what it sounds like when minorities use the derogatory terms of others themselves.

It's as if I said, "know what I mean my peckerwood?"

Comment by Rodney Roe on August 8, 2018 at 2:19pm

@Amy, it's not necessary.  I write in large text because I can read it, but it wraps and stays all on the screen in Word.  For things that I'm reading I'm constantly using shift+ Caps lock +rollerball to enlarge and decrease the size of images and text on the screen, and i deal with having to move the field back and forth to see everything.  Thanks, anyway.  Very thoughtful of you.

I can fix most everything except websites that use cute color schemes with things like chartreuse on pea-green.  I can't find a color scheme that will create enough contrast to sort it out and I have to switch to the doc reader function which means that i often don't bother.  If I'm trying to look something up I often just go to another site.  Another option is to copy and paste into a word document where I can sometimes create contrast.  I'm more challenged by to much brightness and not enough contrast rather than size.

Comment by koshersalaami on August 8, 2018 at 2:33pm

I’ve spent a lot of time in Ohio, including part of last weekend. It’s where my wife is from. I’ve seen a lot of Don/Dawn pronounced the same. 

Have you looked at Merry/Marry/Mary? In a lot of America, they’re the same word, a lot like I’d pronounce Mary. Where I grew up, they’re all completely distinct from each other. Merry has an e like in “get,” marry has an a like in “cat,” and Mary rhymes with Hairy. 

Comment by Maui Surfer on August 8, 2018 at 6:01pm

Kosh --- "In Europe it’s worse because there you get actual dialects in small geographic areas or, occasionally, even languages."

Welcome to Hawaiian Creole English, my second language. Google it for kicks if one gets bored. I guarantee you that you won't understand us when we get to yappin' ...

SBA --- you may be queer, and for that I will never call you anything but what are, mahu, but, you are still a fucking haole, a classic one too, plain and simple, and that is why local haoles in the Islands appropriate that word the way US Black do the N-word, but, this is sooooo far above your pay grade as to hardly be worth typing it out.

Comment by Rodney Roe on August 9, 2018 at 6:35am

@kosh, mary/marry/merry are all the same in the western part of Arkansas.  We once had a preacher from Kentucky who pronounce Mary in two distinct syllables, like, Joseph and  MAY ree weren't married.  I can't remember whether he pronounced merry and marry differently. 

About the short I/e identity.  pin rhymes with pen, hen, den and wren where I'm from. I used to work with a woman from Buffalo and the latter all rhymed and were different from pin.  My daughters who have lived all over differentiate all of those as does my wife who spent her early years in Detroit.

I really enjoy listening to all of the variations. I interned with a guy from Portland, Oregon who asked if I would like a rut beer.  He seemed to be devoid of the long oo vowel sound, but the u in rut isn't exactly right.  It was like oo without pursing your lips.

Comment by koshersalaami on August 9, 2018 at 9:56am

I’ve heard “root” pronounced with a short oo which sounds Like what you’re talking about. 

One thing I’ve noticed is that the Great Lakes seem to have a similar accent if you’re close enough to the water. Buffalo is surprisingly similar to Chicago. Not that the Great Lakes states are all the same. Southern Ohio is close to Kentucky and you can hear it, even if the Ohioans look down on the Kentuckians across the river. My father in law would use words like a’comin’. That’s partially generational - my father in law grew up farming and I didn’t hear that in his kids. Wisconsin has its own accent which is oddly harsh, and Minnesota has its own, with that weird intense long O, might be a Scandinavian thing, and I gather there’s some of that in North Dakota. 

Comment by Maui Surfer on August 9, 2018 at 10:26am

Hawaiian Creole= Brother, Bruddah, Bro, Brah, Blah, Blallah, and a few more ... better know them all if you want to join the discusion with the crew around the fire, cooking up today's catch. Yumm.


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