Accents In English
September 20, 2003 10:21 PM   Subscribe

It's Not What You Say, It's The Way That You Say It: George Bernard Shaw famously remarked that every time an Englishman opens his mouth it's guaranteed that another Englishman will despise him. This website offers a motley and unintentionally hilarious collection of the many, ever-growing pronunciations of the English language. The variety is so wide you could almost be listening to different languages. But is a particular accent still an anti-democratic barrier, strictly revealing your position on the socio-geographic ladder, as it was in the days Nancy Mitford discussed U and non-U vocabulary? Or have upper-class accents in the U.K. and U.S. (note the Boston Brahmin samples), once coveted and preferred, now become the opposite: unforgivable impediments? Does posh speech exist in Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand as it does in the U.K. and U.S.? In other words: Does it still matter? (Quicktime Audio for main and fourth link; Real Audio for third.)
posted by MiguelCardoso (50 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
look, cheap tickets.
posted by clavdivs at 10:37 PM on September 20, 2003

Does posh speech exist in Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand as it does in the U.K. and U.S.?

I don't think there's ``posh speech'' in the US. There might be people who still speak with a Boston Brahmin accent, but outside of Massachussets very few people would be able to tell that accent from a drunken-louts-from-Southie accent.

Wealthy and other high-SES people come in so many different accents that there's no posh speech...

But there probably is the reverse. Speak with a strong southern accent, especially a twangy one, or with a black-English accent (even if you're speaking ``proper''), and people will think you're dumber than you are. It's obviously no unconquerable hindrance, but day to day it can hurt.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:56 PM on September 20, 2003

look, cheap trickets.
posted by quonsar at 10:58 PM on September 20, 2003

Australian accents tend to be delineated by class (though not quite in the rigid English sense of the word), not region. There are regions that stick out (e.g. Adelaide - being founded by English settlers), and one or two pronunciation variants (e.g. castle: cah-stle; cass-tle) but generally (as one of the articles linked below points out) "Two shearers from Cunnamulla and Perth are much more likely to speak in the same accent than a shearer and a stockbroker from the same locality." There's nothing like the regional differences that often immediately identify a U.S. speaker's state/county/city block(!).

Australian accents generally fall into three categories: Broad, General and Cultivated, and linguists have found that over time, as the middle class has expanded, the number of General speakers has increased. There's a bit of a City/Country divide along General/Broad lines, though the private-school-educated landed gentry might be a bit more General or Cultivated.

For overseas readers, and particularly anyone who has ever watched The Simpsons and The Crocodile Hunter, the bastardised version of Australian accents you hear approximates the Broad accent, but no-one really speaks like that. It sounds like someone strangling a Scotsman.

The other interesting thing about our accent that linguists have found is that in trying to maintain our facade of egalitarianism, we'll modify the way we speak depending to whom we're speaking. A General speaker might "broaden" their accent, if they're talking to Broad speaker (e.g. when I visit me folks in the country), and so on. (We're not the only culture to do this, but we tend to do it habitually.)


It's the way that you say it - Sydney Morning Herald (general survey of research into the Australian accent - from which some of the above is lifted).

Decoding the Melbourne iccent - The Melbourne Age (looks at how migrant accents modify Australian English)

Begorrah, Ned, or g'day? - Sydney Morning Herald (did Ned Kelly speak with an Irish or Australian accent?
posted by bright cold day at 10:59 PM on September 20, 2003

clavdivs, I'm sending you my optomitrist bill. That lime green backround, sheesh.
posted by krazykity16 at 10:59 PM on September 20, 2003

Hey, thanks a million, bright cold day for that concise, illuminating explanation - I'd always wondered about Australian accents, read a little here and there, but now I feel I have an idea!

Btw, this gratitude is unaffected by however you pronounce "day". ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:16 PM on September 20, 2003

>A General speaker might "broaden" their accent,
cf. "northerning" their accent
Documentary about U.S. accent differences. A woman from somewhere northerly heading back with her southerly fiancee to visit his folks. The further south they drove, his southern accent crept back into his speech, increasing by the mile. She gradually became more horrified that this man driving her was no longer her man she knew at home. After five, six hundred miles, he had to stop the car, she broke off the engagement, took a bus home and, some months later, still reeling, gushed with maudlin twilight zone enthusiasm.
posted by philfromhavelock at 11:37 PM on September 20, 2003

MC: Nah wurries, mart. :-)
posted by bright cold day at 11:46 PM on September 20, 2003

thank you quonsar, but isn't everything you post a cheap trick?

Honestly, thanks for the Cheap Trick link; the picture of Bun E. Carlos is further proof of my "Atkins Observation": "Any former celebrity making a comeback is going to turn out to be either 50 pounds heavier or 50 pounds lighter" (Of course, this does not apply to real people, and any fat former celebrity who dies before his/her comeback is because they DIDN'T lose the 50 pounds... don't know how it works the other way).

Now, what were we talking about?
posted by wendell at 11:58 PM on September 20, 2003

Sorry, I digress...

I've noticed that any politician from the North-East of the U.S. with the "Boston Brahmin" accent is always accused of "trying to sound like a Kennedy".

Sen. Kerry's gotten that accusation, though his Bah-ston accent is quite mild compared to a former California Senator named John Tunney. Now Tunney would have fit in beautifully in a debate with Arianna Huffington (Greek with a touch of Gabor Sister) and Schwarzenegger (Austrian with a dose of steroids). Californians love heavy dialects and accents... <triumph-the-insult-comic-dog> FOR US TO POOP ON!</triumph>
posted by wendell at 12:09 AM on September 21, 2003

Miguel, Canadian is the posh speech!
posted by five fresh fish at 12:25 AM on September 21, 2003

When I took myself (and my Australian accent) to the States a couple of years back, people thought I was either
a) English; or
b) from Boston. (Lots of common vowel sounds, probably stemming from the common Irish heritage. According to the MP3s on the first link of MC's post "Park your car in Harvard Yard" sounds very similar in Australian/Boston (Upper class) accents.)

Not many people picked me as Australian from my accent, though that goes to what people in the US think the Australian accent sounds like (see previous post).

The English can tell Australians in a split second, mainly because there are so many Australians in England (esp. London) to begin with, and they get a lot of Australian TV (our soapies are very popular over there). This may also have something to do with us reminding them in loud overbearing tones at regular intervals that we beat them in every sport they play (notwithstanding the recent aberrant results in rugby). :-)
posted by bright cold day at 12:30 AM on September 21, 2003

"Californians love heavy dialects and accents..."

maybe, but Mayor Hahn kept making fun of Bratton's Boston accent

insert tired "pahk the cah" joke here
posted by matteo at 1:14 AM on September 21, 2003

anyway Bratton joked about his own accent, too
posted by matteo at 1:17 AM on September 21, 2003

matteo, the complete line was:
Californians love heavy dialects and accents... <triumph-the-insult-comic-dog bogus html> FOR US TO POOP ON!</triumph>.
posted by wendell at 2:18 AM on September 21, 2003

Say it right Frenchie, "Chow-dah!"

As far as the idea of "posh" accents in North American speech in general though, I think you need only hear Clinton, Chretien or Dubya speak to put the kybosh to that notion. (Well, actually Clinton's accent wasn't *that* pronounced, Bush's folksiness is probably a conscious affectation, and Chretien... well, you can't even blame it on being a Francophone as supposedly he sounds that bad in French, and IIRC Trudeau--and oddly enough, Quebec separatists like Bouchard and Parizeau--sounded quite good in English.) I do have a pet theory that regional differences are more pronounced in rural speakers, though, and I'd be shocked to see a successful politician or entertainer with a truly pronounced Newfie accent.
posted by arto at 2:40 AM on September 21, 2003

Accent in New Zealand is pretty similar to what bright cold day describes for Australia: three categories (broad, general, and cultivated) divided along class lines, with a couple of regional peculiarities.

However, one major difference from Australia is the growing influence of Maori and Polynesian speech rhythms on (working-class) Pakeha (White) accents. It's pretty marked in parts of the country with high Maori populations (e.g. Northland) and parts of Auckland with a lot of Pacific Island immigrants. This, it would seem to me, is one of the major ways in which class is being inscribed nowadays.

I do worry a bit that the 'posh' 'non-posh' dichotomy Miguel alludes to is growing more important here, as wealth inequalities increase and become entrenched. Schools and neighbourhoods are becoming less diverse economically, as formerly mixed suburbs are bought out and gentrified by moneyed Pakeha (and recent business migrants) in a bouyant property market. Those who are being forced out tend to be Polynesian and downwardly-mobile Pakeha; they end up in 'low-cost' housing, and the concern would be that their children (who attend low-status schools in an increasingly polarized education system) are tending to speak a more class-stigmatized form of English than their parents do.

It remains to be seen also what effect the recent major influx of North Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern immigrants will have on accents: it could be interesting.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:43 AM on September 21, 2003

I'm proud that my father, brother, and I can communicate in the almost extinct, archaic Bwonx dialect, but like a lot of New Yawkers (not from manhattan, thank you!) I learned to speak "normal" english based on what was spoken by television newsmen. This actually worked to my advantage when I lived in Boston - employers would comment (in their broad Boston accents) on how nice my telephone manner was.

For a good taste of Bostonian, try Whatayou, Retahdid? A Multimedia Introduction to the Boston Accent
posted by zaelic at 2:52 AM on September 21, 2003

Oops, bad link. Wicked pissah! I guess I am Retahdid!
posted by zaelic at 2:54 AM on September 21, 2003


thanks for the link (the good one), "You've got a better chance of seeing 'Flipper' swimming in Boston Harbor" is fucking brilliant

also, since we're debating posh accents in a Miguel thread, it's hard not to tempted to imagine this:

*cue "Get Ur Freak On"*

Miggy's be puttin it down, I'm the hottest round
I told y'all muthafiltas, y'all can't stop me now
Listen to me now, I'm lastin twenty rounds
And if you want me -- then come on get me now (YES)
Is you with me now -- then biggie biggie bounce (YES)
I know you dig the way I sw-sw-switch my style
Me and Carlos been hot since twenty years ago (YES)
What da dilly yo, now what da drilly yo (YES)
If you wanna battle me then (PEOPLE) lemme know (YES)
(HOLLA!!) Ain't no stoppin me
Copywritten so, don't copy me
Y'all do it, sloppily
And y'all can't come, close to me (YES)
I know you feel me now -- I know you hear me loud (YES)
I scream it loud and proud -- Miggy gon' blow it down (YES)
People gon' play me now -- in and outta town (YES)
Cause I'm the best around -- with this crazy style
posted by matteo at 3:52 AM on September 21, 2003

I'd be shocked to see a successful politician or entertainer with a truly pronounced Newfie accent.

That's even true in Newfoundland itself, really. Consider Newfoundland's premiers, even going back to Joey Smallwood himself, for the most part they all spoke with only a slight accent. By slight I mean compared the near-impenetrable Porte-aux-Basques or St. Anthony (s'nant'ny) accents / dialects, as different from each other as they are from what most people consider to be spoken English.

Then again, John Crosby (former federal Conservative fisheries minister) made special effort to increase the Newfie-ness of his speech. Something which he tones back a great deal when speaking to a group of business people.

In the rest of the Atlantic provinces it's definitely a case of urban / rural. People from Halifax, Fredericton or Charlottetown have the famous non-accent that lets us infiltrate the rest of the country without giving away our origins. But the real interesting accents are found in the country, from the Acadians in New Brunswick and PEI (who have interesting ways of speaking both English and French) to Cape Bretoners who sound like Newfoundlanders who got lost on the way back home, and people from the very Western tip of PEI, who sound very much like I imagine a scotsman would about 300 years ago. (probably with good reason)
posted by Space Coyote at 3:58 AM on September 21, 2003

If french people certainly have problems saying 'The', the example in the webpage is cliché. Of course the guy sounds like a tard and can't seem to speak english, since there are 3 words in proper FRENCH in the sentence.

Blah. Not every french speaking english sounds like the guy in 'Gilmore Girls', please....
posted by Sijeka at 5:01 AM on September 21, 2003

Another accent archive.
posted by Aaorn at 5:31 AM on September 21, 2003

I noticed a long time ago that people in the movies and on television tend not to have a discernable accent, at least to my ears, those ears being Canadian. Yet every American that I have met has some sort of idiomatic way of speaking. For example, an uncle-in-law from Michigan says "goff" instead of "golf". I've always been surprised at the change in accent I heard simply by crossing the border, from White Rocks British Columbia to Bellingham Washington State - the difference is remarkable!

Based on my big screen and small screen observations, as well as my own experiences with regional American accents, I can only conclude that a Canadian accent, while perhaps not "posh", is a desirable thing to have.

Space Coyote, I love the way many people from the eastern provinces speak. Sometimes indecipherable, often nicely rounded and different enough to make me wish I lived there myself. I worked at a club a few years ago that had Great Big Sea playing. I have never heard so many different accents from so many different people having the best time I've seen in a long time. Everybody, including the band, acted as if they knew everybody else. Sincerely, one of the best concerts I've seen.
posted by ashbury at 6:02 AM on September 21, 2003

Alright, call me provincial (or don't, since I'm in the USA), but what are the defining characteristics of Newfie speech. I've heard Canadians use "Newfie" as a perjorative, but I have no idea what that accent sounds like.
posted by adamrice at 7:19 AM on September 21, 2003

an interesting lecture on how one guy became a linguist (he actually was able to free a guy from jail by proving in court that his accent was different from the criminal's, which had been recorded)

...the almost extinct, archaic Bwonx dialect, but like a lot of New Yawkers (not from manhattan, thank you!) I learned to speak "normal" english based on what was spoken by television newsmen.
Hey! almost extinct?!? There are still vast differences between us and people from Queens and Brooklyn (we sound much better!) : >

Also, I had heard that tv speak is almost entirely a generic midwestern accent (Nebraska?)--or Ontario Canadian (which except for the Os sounds midwestern to me)
posted by amberglow at 7:23 AM on September 21, 2003

adamrice, I can't tell you how the accent sounds like, but this page might give you an idea of how it might come across.

posted by ashbury at 7:27 AM on September 21, 2003

Actually, probably the most obvious accent with connotations, is of course the New York accent-especially the Brooklyn and Bronx varieties. I believe some Brooklyn born professor saif that you could have a Ph. D, from Harvard but if you say "fuggedaboutit" on occasion people will still assume your an idiot. I have a Brooklyn born uncle and although he's a very successful educated man, his accent will make most people assume he's the neighborhood bookie.

Budda boom, budda bing, yo.
posted by jonmc at 7:38 AM on September 21, 2003

jon: I think southern accented people too, can't catch a break. I think Clinton helped make it more acceptable, but when I hear some Foghorn Leghorn(wavs) senator going on and on about something, the accent overpowers the content for me.
posted by amberglow at 7:48 AM on September 21, 2003

Foghorn leghorn, heh. Actually the crew at Warner Brother's were something of accent enthusiasts. Mel Blanc created Bugs Bunny's voice by combining what he called "the two toughest accents in the world" Brooklyn and The Bronx. Seem's to have worked. I could certainl picture Bugs struttin' down Arthur Avenue kickin' ass and taken names.

I would also like to add that, on a woman, any kind of regional accent is very sexy, evn the "yoo betcha" Minnesota. Don't ask me why.
posted by jonmc at 7:58 AM on September 21, 2003

For me as a Chicagoan, moving to Texas meant getting used to the fact that just because someone had a southern accent didn't mean he was stupid.

I've encountered accents in Alabama and northern England that were simply impenetrable--the guys in Leeds might have well been speaking Dutch, as far as I was concerned. But the most mystifying dialect (goes beyond accent) to me is in the UP. "Throw the baby down da stairs a cookie why'oncha hey?"
posted by adamrice at 8:27 AM on September 21, 2003

adamrice. Watch, heh, This hour has twenty-two minutes. But even the actors probably even out their Newfoundland speech to sound more like the Rest of Canada. Sometimes "sink" and "fan" become "zink" and "van"; "human" and "humour" sometimes become "yumour" and "yuman"; "f" and "v" are sometimes substituted for "th". But there are many regional variations within Newfoundland.

(And what's UP? Er, I mean, what is U.P.?)
posted by philfromhavelock at 8:50 AM on September 21, 2003

"Yumour" and "Yuman", eh? Where exactly are/were Carl Sagan and Harlan Ellison from? Because that (the yuman sense of yumour, as it were) struck me as the defining characteristic of both their accents.

And isn't U.P. Michigan's Upper Peninsula?
posted by arto at 9:31 AM on September 21, 2003

>the defining characteristic of both their accents.
You are right. Many accents share the same characteristics, though. R-lessness (pahk the cah, as in Australia, Boston, Received Pronunciation, West Indies), h-lessness (as in West Indies, Cockney, Yorkshire, some Australian), yod-insertion (Tjousday versus Toozday as with Received Pronunciation, West Indies), fronting of "th" to "f" or "v" (as in Newfoundland, Cockney and Keef Richards), "water" to "wadder" (as in South Africa, Canada). These are some consonants; the vowels are much harder to define and compare. Dialects are also made of the word choice and local expressions, timing (if it is on the syllable or one the stress of the words), stress patterns, intonational patterns, some syntax patterns and some suffix/prefix and pronoun differences.

My father says "min" for "men," "win" for "when" which is noticed in some southern U.S. dialects. He also says "zink" for "sink," noticed in some Newfoundland dialects. He was born in the Ottawa Valley; he's never been confused for either being from the south or from the east.
posted by philfromhavelock at 11:16 AM on September 21, 2003

And Miguel: this thread would have been a completely different kettle o' fish had ye posted this question on Friday!
posted by philfromhavelock at 11:20 AM on September 21, 2003

Why get stuck on English? I moved to Budapest, Hungary in 1990, after three years living with my relatives in the country town of Veszprem. Hungarian is pretty unified, with few accents or dialects. I got lucky - my Veszprem accent is the one where every vowel goes "awww". Linguists have actually studied my cousin's speech. Nevertheless, Budapest city folk hate countryside accents. Especially coming from a "foreigner" (albeit a third of Veszprem are my cousins...) But when I hear Budapest speakers of Hungarian I cringe - they speak too fast, too nasal, they pepper their speech with misunderstood English and German terms, and worst of all, make fun of country accents like mine.

Any other takes on dialect out there?
posted by zaelic at 12:15 PM on September 21, 2003

Please call Stella.
posted by jjg at 12:38 PM on September 21, 2003


Japanese retains a surprising amount of dialect variation. The Tokyo accent is considered the standard (at least, it is in Tokyo), but regional variations are much stronger than across the USA: I wouldn't be surprised if a geriatric from Hirosaki could not carry on a conversation with a counterpart from Kyoto. Folks in Tokyo even distinguish their accent from Yokohama's, which is barely an hour away on the local train.

In Hirosaki, they speak what is snarkily referred to as "zu-zu ben" ("ben" means "accent"). What are normally "shi" and "ji" sounds are transformed into "su" and "zu". In Kyoto (and the rest of Kansai), other weird transformations take place. The standard "wakarimasen" (lit "I don't understand"), which is informally "wakaranai" becomes "wakarahen" in Kyoto. This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. In Okinawa, the dialect has features of ancient Japanese, and is a complete mystery to me. As is the speech of Tokyo schoolgirls.
posted by adamrice at 2:11 PM on September 21, 2003

Here in Italy, any other dialect other than Roman is damn near impossible for me to understand and even that becomes difficult the farther out into the country you get. The northern Italian accents are, in general, a bit too nasal for my tastes (with apologies to matteo ;-) ). Then again, I learned Italian with the broad Roman accent.

For years before coming here, I heard many peopele comment on how lovely and sing-songy the Venetian accent is to hear. My best guess is that either these people fell into the canals and swallowed the water or they were smoking some serious crack. The Venetian accent is like an Italian version of Fargo on steriods.
posted by romakimmy at 3:03 PM on September 21, 2003

My mother was born in the Lombardi region of Italy. When my girlfreind met my grandparents and watched them argue with my mom(they are Italian after all) she commented that they all spoke Italian with a French accent. I had never thought of it before, but it's true, My grandfather sounds like that old Cajun dude with the suspenders who used to have the cooking show. But kimmy, in Italy not only every region and village, but every household, has it's own dialect.
posted by jonmc at 3:10 PM on September 21, 2003

romakimmy, always the brilliantly perceptive American abroad, is right: the Venetian accent and, in general, Italy's northeastern accents (Venice, Padua, you name it) have something inherently unnerving, even for fellow northerners (like me)

it's like everything ends with a question mark, and even if there's some awesome literature coming from that peculiar language, the cadence is too much for most Italians. Southern Italian dialects (Calabrese, for example) can sound almost extraterrestrial to the uneducated ear, but northeastern cadence is really too much for many Italians -- and an easy caricature, too
posted by matteo at 3:47 PM on September 21, 2003

If you're looking for "posh" English accents in Canada, you're probably looking towards Toronto, and maybe (english) Ottawa. Some Canadians would consider (and don't take offence at this) BC/NFLD accents... hmmm... not-posh.

BTW: Chretien speaks so poorly because he has some form of muscle disorder (notice the mouth?). I don't know which one. I read an article on it once, and supposedly, with training, he'd have no more problems. He refused, and so we have to listen to his terrible speech patterns.
posted by shepd at 4:22 PM on September 21, 2003

Da liddle guy from Shaweenigan has Bell's palsy.

The stereotypical "poor" accents in Canada are Ottawa-valley Ontarian or Maritimer, both of which tend to involve a fair bit of slurring and sound similar enough. I was born and raised in Toronto, but my mother's family is from Cape Breton, so I'm given to expressions like "Sa fughin thing an' a af", which confuse Torontonians but seem to make perfect sense to native Kingstonians (where I'm currently living).
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 5:06 PM on September 21, 2003

An easy way to spot a Torontonian from his or her speech is to listen for the nasally whine that occurs at the upper inflection of most vowel sounds.. think Neil Young. Other Ontarians don't seem to have that, that I've noticed.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:49 PM on September 21, 2003

I thought the easy way was to listen to what they're saying. If it's all "me me me" and is on the verge of denying the existance of any Canada beyond the city limits, it's a Torontonian talking...
posted by five fresh fish at 8:57 PM on September 21, 2003

Is anyone besides me sick of the "cracker" accents of the current and last U.S. presidents, our last vice-president and some of the current presidential candidates? The only one whose voice annoys me more is Joe Lieberman with his nasally whine - I just can't stand it, yo.
posted by Lynsey at 9:30 PM on September 21, 2003

Posh American accents? Think Mrs. Howell on "Gilligan's Island" or actress Doris Packer (widow Fenwick on "Beverly Hillbillies", among many other roles). Though I've never met anyone in real life who speaks that way.

While travelling through the UK, I found the Birmingham ("Brummie") accent almost unintelligible, and an Aussie I met in Liverpool seemed to never unclench his teeth while speaking.

The so-called Chicago accents portrayed on the "Ditka's" sketches on Saturday Night Live were more appropriate for Milwaukee, IMHO.

And yes, "UP" refers to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (where I'm a proud LP-er). I've heard many excuses/explanations for the Yooper accent, but whatever the reason, it's almost a language in and of itself.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:54 PM on September 21, 2003

An interesting sideline to accents in the UK is how working class speech has been adopted by people to prove their credibility.
Whether it is the staight acting gay man to prove how butch he is or the posh sloane ranger to show their streetcred.
posted by dprs75 at 6:09 AM on September 22, 2003

dprs75: All hail king Mockney
posted by seanyboy at 7:44 AM on September 22, 2003

Speaking of Foghorn Leghorn, it took me exactly 1 second to realize that the person speaking in the 'Southern' samples was putting on that accent. Those sound absolutely crap, actually.

This is the same Hollywood-Southern enunciation that drives everyone from the actual US South nuts. I'd hardly call those accent samples representative of anything, and certainly not worth keeping for research purposes.

I half expected one of those samples to be "Belvedere, Come here, Boy!"
posted by yellowcandy at 9:23 AM on September 22, 2003

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