Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What is your American accent?

Traditionally, linguists would say that most Americans speak with a General American accent. What is meant by General American is a very particular dialect: one of the old, boundary-less dialects of the English language that Americans picked up in order to be better understood. Most Americans describe the accent as “plain,” “boring,” and “featureless.” It's very common for General American speakers to say “they don't have an accent” (this is a myth of language peculiar to American English speakers as everyone has an accent, but that's a tale for a different time).

Calling General American a single, concise accent may not be such a good idea. Which region of America speaks the real General American? Instead, General American may be more appropriately described as a collection of habits and traits of speaking that people choose to adopt on top of their regional dialect. Put more simply, people with regional dialects often speak with “flatter” accents but never truly lose their regionalisms.

In Massachusetts, for instance, despite the fact that many Southies of Boston now speak in accent closer to something outside of New England, they still retain their regional words like the adverbial use of wicked (as in, “that movie was wicked awesome”), casual r-dropping (think “pahk the car in hahvahd yahd,” which is formally called non-rhoticism), and a sporadic intrusive r ("sodir" not "soda"). 

So what does that mean for you and me? Well, many people incorrectly assume they speak a “pure General American.” This is not really true. First, as outlined above, there is no ironclad definition of General American, as every interpretation of General American is subject to regional idiosyncrasies. Second, contact through travel and pop culture can color your speech. Third, dialects change over time, even within a lifetime. The third point is often a bit surprising, but language change is happening all the time, everywhere. No exceptions. If you travel to Ohio, for example, you will see that the English language is already in flux: speakers under 30 years of age will pronounce words like strength as shtrength. Ohio's new accent, where [s] is reduced to 'sh' before [t] is common habit of language change that linguists call lenition or consonant weakening. It may interest you that this same thing is happening in parts of England.

I thought it would be fun to play an accent game of sorts. Granted, it won't be as exciting as a real game, but it may be fun to hear your regionalisms. Because most readers will have traveled in their lives, I am guessing none of you will a particularly distinct accent. My hypothesis is that most of you will have General American accents with various habits and features picked up from the places you moved to and the people you have interacted with.

Below will be a series of questions to answer and things to speak. To complete this test, you will need to record yourself saying the answers. I believe vocaroo.com allows you to record and upload audio messages. You can reply with a link to the audio message for your answers. Because I might get each Vocaroo link mixed up, I will ask you to state your name at the beginning, as well as short biographic information.

The overall goal is that I'll tell you what regional accent you have, as well as point out any inconsistent or unusual features to your speech. 

I have arranged a fun test for you. There are many tests online, including some very good ones, but each have their particular problems. I have designed this test for American English speakers (English speakers from the United States). So my apologies to the rest of the Anglophonic world. 


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