Friday, May 20, 2011

Everybody Has an Accent

I confess.  Everyone makes fun of "the Rhode Island accent," as if there was just one way to speak like a Rhode Islander.  Recall, this state is only 30 miles long in one direction and 40 miles long in the other.  However, as anywhere else in the world, in any community, there are as many ways of speaking as there are social groups living there.  When people, including Rhode Islanders themselves, make fun of the local accents, they typically are making fun of uneducated speech--which all over the English speaking world is characterized by saying "dese" for these and "tings" for things.  The other marker of a specifically Eastern New England uneducated speaker is dropping the r if it occurs before a consonant. Educated speakers in their 80's still do that, as do some  educated men in their 60's

 In the U.S., females set the standard pronunciation about 10 years before men start to pick it up. I don't know a female in her 70's--or younger on the East Side of Providence or from tony suburbs like East Greenwich or Barrington who drops her r's consistently any more.  (In rapid or excited speech, they-and I--are likely to have a lapse.)

Still, even if one always pronounces the r wherever it is spelled, one can have a Rhode Island accent.  The differences between accents are mostly differences between vowels.  And yes, Gil, Rhode Islanders say "ahrinj" for orange, "haahrible" for horrible, "kuhrint" for current, "tornamint" for tournament, "huhricane" for hurricane, and "for" for for (as oppossed to "ferr."  We also say "ahnt"for aunt, and some speakers still say "ahsk" for ask, "cahn't" for can't, and "hahf" for half.  I grew up using that low a in almost all the words upper class British speakers use it today, not because I was trying to sound snooty, but because that was the pronunciation in the working class neighborhood I was raised in.  I also used to say "fowah" for four and "shuwah" for sure,  much like speakers from the coastal South.    In fact, when I was growing up, Eastern New England and the coastal South were considered to be the r-dropping dialect group, although vowel pronunciations differed greatly from community to community.  As close as Providence is to Boston, for instance, and although Boston was as r-dropping as Providence, nobody from the area would ever mistake a Providence accent for  Boston one.

Oh, I almost forgot.  Another hallmark of a Rhode Island accent is that one says "how now brown cow" differently from much of the rest of America. Most Americans pronounce the vowel in those words as "aauu" (try the vowel in at quickly followed by an "ooh."  In Rhode Island, it is universally"aahuu" Recall the famous elocution lesson in Singin' in the Rain? I was in high school when that movie came out and I was very puzzled by that scene.  "How else would anyone pronounce it?" I thought, since I pronounced it just as the "elocution teacher did.  Then I went to California and found out how else people did.

Also,although it's not remarked on, another feature of Rhode Island speech is that the vowels in right and ride are pronounced very differently as are the vowels in Joyce and joys.  Linguistically, the diphthong (combination of two vowels pronounced as one) is shorter and said with the tongue tenser before voiceless consonants (p, f, t, k) than before voiced ones (b,v, d, g)  Speakers from other areas also pronounce these diphthongs differently before different  consonants.  If you pronounce writer and rider differently, you follow this rule.

 However, the shortened diphthong, as in out  is almost  as tight as it is in Toronto. I realized this when I was mistaken  for a Canadian as I was "oot and aboot"  Actually, I have a little "uh" before the "oo" in out and about, which Toronto speakers don't. When I was doing dialect investigations in the 1980's in rural Western Rhode Island, I found that these tight, short diphthongs prevalent, even tighter and shorter than in urban Rhode Island.

Finally, are we wrong for saying "ahrinj" for orange, "hahrid" for horrid?  Pronouncing an "aw" for the o's in those words used to be nonstandard.  If you watch movies made before the 1960's, or listen to radio announcers on tapes of old radio shows, you will not hear "awrinj" for "ahrinj."  You'll also notice that most actors dropped their r's.  At one time, Eastern New England speech was the standard, probably because it was the closest to upper class British speech. 

Southern accents were also considered very fine and polite and soft.  Both the coastal South and Eastern New England were settled by aristocratic and educated  British r-dropping speakers.  They must have also said "hahrid" for horrid and "ahrinj" for "orange" because that's how my British colleagues pronounce those words.

Everyone has an accent.  Everyone can find something to make fun of in other people's accents.  Rhode Islanders are often aghast at the Midwestern "eeya" for the a in bad, tag, and mat. But who knows?   Maybe in a generation that will be the new norm.  Not pronouncing r's before a consonant was considered to be a mark of upper class speech when I was a child.  Now it's considered a mark of uneducated speech.


Teri said...

Oh, Ms Elaine. You are so entertaining! Hope you are back to yourself again...notice I didn't say back to normal. haha. So what kink of accent do I have?
BTW, just met another real nice camper couple from RI. Forgot their city but when I mentioned I had other dear camping friends from RI, they were surprised that other RI'landers came to visit us from all that way. Give my love to B.

Evelyn said...

Jon and I have had a lot of discussions about our respective accents. One thing we've noticed is that he seems to use more distinct vowel sounds than I do, and I can't hear the difference between some of them very well. Some examples are caught/cot and Mary/merry/marry. He claims that he pronounces them differently, and I guess I hear a difference, but it's not phonemically meaningful to me. I think in my speech, I have one vowel that's kind of an average of the ones he uses.

It reminds me of a musical phenomenon. In western classical music, the minor mode has a lowered 6th scale degree, but in some folk music, including a genre I enjoy singing, the 6th is raised in minor. But if a trained musician is listening or singing with traditional folk singers, she will perceive it as somewhere in between the minor and major 6th of western classical music, and it can be difficult for her to sing it at precisely the same pitch. Similarly, I can't really match Jon's vowel sounds for caught and cot.

I sometimes make fun of Jon's "haahrrible" accent, but we enjoy the little differences. They make life interesting.

Ian Michalski said...

Greetings Prof. Chaika,

My name is Ian Michalski and I am a graduate student at Virginia Tech, where I study globalization and international development. I am currently in the process of re-reading "Language: The Social Mirror" which I first encountered back in 2008 for a Sociolinguistics Seminar I took during my undergraduate studies.

I just finished the chapter on dialects which led me to do some searching around on the web, and eventually finding your blog! I chose to re-visit the book because I will be embarking on a reading and research endeavor this summer to prepare for a major research project which will have a language/socio-linguistic focus to it. As a student of the social sciences, I agree wholeheartedly with something you expressed in the beginning section of "Language: A Social Mirror", that language as a variable in sociological/ social science research is so commonly overlooked! I'm hoping to start taking a look!

Anyway, I just wanted to say, that I am really enjoying the book, and perhaps more so the second time around! I plan to visit your blog regularly, as I cannot get enough when it comes to discussions of language! I blame it on my undergraduate adviser, who is a sociolinguist. She certainly provided the initial spark!

Peace and Blessings!

smarthotoldlady said...


On one of my early blogs, back at the beginning, I did a whole post on how some dialects, like Jon's and mine, make far more vowel distinctions than do most American accents do. I haven't seen a recent study of vowel differentiation in the Coastal South, so I don't know if they've participated in what I call "The Great American Vowel Collapse," but the East Coast, by and large, hasn't.

If you watch old b&w movies, you may note the number of vowel distinctions you don't make. What has happened is that the regions with the strongest r-pronouncing make fewer vowel distinctions. Those who r-drop before consonants, or who make a light r, have kept the older vowel distinctions.

The American r is what is called a marked sound. It doesn't occur in many languages. In fact, the only two language groups that I know that have it are Chinese and English. Where marked sounds occur, either they drop out of the language, which started happening in Norfolk, England in the 15th century,or something else gets simplified. In America, retaining the r wherever it is spelled, and making a sharp retroflex r led to collapsing of vowel distinctions.

As for "cot" and "caught," there is great dialectal difference in whether they are pronounced alike or not. For me, they are different, but for Bostonians, they are the same, although Bostonians use a vowel in those words that occurs only there and up the Northeast Coast.

In RI, "cot" and "caught" are pronounced as they are in educated British speakers. Growing up r-dropping, "cot" used to be pronounced much like "cart," and "caught" used to be like "court." Years ago, there was a bumper sticker in RI that read "In Rhode Island, drunk drivers get caught." There was a companion sticker "In Rhode Island, drunk drivers get court." The pun was on "caught" and "court."

Puns are dependent on the dialect people speak, as are rhymes.

You are right that you don't hear the distinctions that Jon makes because they're not phonemic for you, but, if you were to live a while in New York City or Rhode Island, you would start to hear them.

Graham said...

Ok, Miss Elaine, I have wanted to ask this and haven't read this post completely, but felt it was the right place to ask this question. It has to do with accents, but with accents of foreigners when they speak English. For example, you can identify an Indian or Pakistani when that person speaks English. A Frenchman, a Spaniard, a German all have a distinctive accent on English words. So is it because the English takes on the cadence and inflections of the speaker's native tongue. Is it because they "hear" English this way? Is this a silly question that's too obvious to even explore?

smartoldlady said...


Your questions are neither silly nor to obvious to explore. They are very important. Note the post on Prelude to the Tower of Babel. I talk specifically about why people have foreign accents. You're spot on that you can tell whether an accent is typically French, Spanish, Indian, etc. Yes, they hear English through the filter of their native languages. They typically are unaware they have an accent at all. We're the same when we choose to learn another language.

I appreciate your comments.

smartoldlady said...


Blogger isn't allowing me to find all three of your comments, so this is the response to your observation that Southern--and all other regional accents--are very innacurate.

People from New England cringed at the "Boston" accent of Cliff and the "Maine" accents on "Murder she Wrote."

The problem is the same as that of foreign accents. People notice something different,but they don't quite know what is different. They literally don't hear the exact vowel sounds made in the South--or New England or Chicago, for that matter.

The dialect coaches hired by the studios are not linguists. They're people who have studied public speaking or the like, and they don't have a clue about how to dissect a dialect's actual features.

Yes, Southern British speakers do a Southern American accent better than other Americans do. That's because the coastal South was settled by the younger sons of British aristocracy who spoke with London upper class speech.

Similarly, Eastern New England was settled by middle class educated speakers from Oxford and Cambridge and still retain pronunciations of the British universities.

Thanks again for your insightful comments.

Yes, I am aware of the quote about humans being more like the angels. I wish it were true. Considering how horrible humans act, the most I can say is they are potentially more than angels. But who is more loyal, kind, and loving than a dog? (I have a new blog on Don't know how I'll have time to handle a second blog, but I'be been studying dogs for a long time...

Do you celebrate the 4th of July as we do in New England?

I was in Charleston, SC when they celebrated the firing on Fort Sumter with a Secession Ball, and we saw two re-enactments of the Confederacy taking over forts and the like. The re-enactors I spoke to would still like to secede. They made a big deal of lowering the Union flag and raising the Confederate one. I thought perhaps they didn't celebrate the 4th as we do.

Graham said...

No, we celebrate the 4th as you though probably not as fervently as a New Englander with the full understanding of your heritage. My brother-in-law is from Rhode Island. He and my sister will be in Connecticut this week to visit his mom who's moved there. He loves the 4th and takes it very seriously.

I love the 4th although I am not a big fireworks person especially when one hears loud noises fired outside in the street till midnight by people who probably aren't even aware of why they are celebrating.

I'm sorry if I sound jaded, but children whooping and hollering in the streets when they should be in bed with parents who should know better, doesn't sit well with me. OK enough of my rantings! =)

I did read your excellent post about The Tower of Babel and I think you have answered my question about the accents that foreigners have when they speak English.

My daughter married an Indian from Bangalore (he has been in the states for 14 years) and they live in Oklahoma. His English is excellent - he has worked very hard to acquire an "accent free" English or at least that is what I thought. I find Indian speakers and Pakistani speakers to be some of the hardest speakers to understand, but he is very "easy on the ear."

Of course he learned English in school there so your explanantion of young speakers hearing the phonemes makes perfect sense as to why his English is so much better than an older person learning English at a later time in life.

I'm afraid it won't be good news for my daughter. She would like to learn his native language Kannada, but she will always be speaking it with an accent. Right now she doesn't have the opportunity to really learn it, but she gets to hear it when he calls his mom.

The other day they were in Dallas at an Indian store. She heard an Indian couple speaking and she thought it might be Kannada. Ken was able to talk to them. The couple had met no Indians (they moved here a few months ago) who spoke their language so it was very encouraging for them!

My daughter Leah may have the chance to learn it when they have children. She really wants their children to be bilingual. And we are hoping that time won't be too far off.

Interesting side note: my son-in-law's name is Kenaz Thomas. Kenaz is an Old Testament name (though not that well known, Caleb's father was Kenaz)and Thomas was his father's only name. In his culture the son often takes the father's name as his last name.

Ken's people are Christian. They are a group of Indians who have been Christian for some generations. The legend is that the disciple Thomas went to share the gospel in India. Many India Christians have the last name Thomas. So my Indian son-in-law's name sounds more Jewish than Indian :)!

As for your experience in Charleston, there are many in the south who still feel pretty strongly about the War Between the States. I for one am proud to be a southerner, but am also thankful that we lost. Can't imagine where our country would be without that defeat!

However, bad feelings have arisen from the fact it seems that we are the only Americans who can't celebrate our heritage without being made to feel inferior. It's too hard to explain here and I've already written enough. I'll have to wait another time.

Have enjoyed your comments to my questions. I have been too remiss in reading your blog. I start back to school (kindergarten parapro) the end of July so I will try to take advantage of my summer reading! ~Danna

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