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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, fire language out of a cannon.
Coming up in today’s show: ACCENTS. I’m asked very frequently to make episodes about accents, and I’ve always been reluctant, not because I think accents are not interesting, but for reasons I’ll try to explain later. Anyway, I was listening to the excellent podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz, which is about sounds, and they had an episode about the evolution of accents which I enjoyed very much and thought was very interesting, and I’m pleased to say they've allowed me to share it with you today.
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On with Evolution Of Accents by Twenty Thousand Hertz, hosted by Dallas Taylor.
[Montage of various accents in movies]
DALLAS TAYLOR: I love accents. Every time I hear someone who sounds different from the way I speak - [CLIP] - I take notice and wonder where they were born, who influenced their upbringing, and sometimes whether or not I could speak like that.
Quick note: any accents you hear in this episode are not necessarily “the best.” I know that people are fiercely proud of their accents and have strong opinions about what constitutes an accurate depiction. So for better [CLIP: “My name is Nelson Mandela”] or worse [CLIP: “Get in me belly!”] we’re just gonna have fun with this.
[Dallas attempts English accent] For all English-speaking people, our language started somewhere — ok, that’s terrible, but it’s the best I can do. While the evolution of our language took many centuries, Early Modern English, the version used by Shakespeare, dates from around 1500. And modern English - pretty close to how we speak now - came along about a hundred years later, right about the time the British began colonizing North America.
So I’m curious, did the American colonists from England originally have a British accent? But first, I wanted to speak with someone who’s an expert on accents.
ERIK SINGER: I'm Erik Singer and I'm a dialect coach. An accent is just the sounds of a particular variety of speech: the sound system, the pattern, the pronunciation. A dialect is the larger category. A dialect basically includes things like syntax and word order and even lexis, kind of those individual items, different ways of saying things, different ways of referring to something: whether you call it pop or soda or coke, that's a dialect feature.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Simply put, dialect is more what you say, accent is how you say it. Erik has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. He helps them fine tune the speaking portion of their performances when they take on the role of either a real-life or fictional character with an accent. He’s studied and trained for years to be able to both do accents, and also teach them. I asked him what some of his favorite accents are to perform.
ERIK SINGER: Depends on the day; depends on how I feel, because there's a big part of that. Let's see, just to pick a few that I definitely have an affinity for. My mother is Swedish so I love Swedish accents. One of things I love about Sweden is the food and the culture, it's something I have a great affinity for. So I make my own herring and aquavit.
Got great affinity for southeast London. I like doing Xhosa - even if you can't get the clicks in there when you're just speaking English.
Xhosa is an indigenous language to South Africa. Nelson Mandela was a Xhosa speaker and South Africa has 11 official languages and Xhosa is one of the biggest.
If you think of very stereotypically French accent, the lip corners tend to be sort of pulling in towards the teeth, they're advancing a little bit. If you think of a sort of very stereotypical 1950s kind of RAF colonel sort of thing, it's the opposite. The jaw is very high and the lip corners tend to spread a bit.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Erik is pretty talented, but everyone has their kryptonite right? I wondered which accents are harder for him to perform.
ERIK SINGER: Welsh accents tend to be tricky for American actors. We generally haven't heard a lot of Welsh. I just never had the opportunity to work on a Geordie accent, which is Newcastle.
ERIK SINGER: The other thing that can make an accent difficult to acquire is just kind of psychological and identity stuff. It's an act of the imagination, taking on an accent. So there are these very, very technical aspects to what an accent is, how those sounds are formed. But you can't do it if you can't imagine yourself as somebody who speaks that way. It's your mind, it's your imagination, it's your heart. And so, if it's hard to imagine yourself as someone who speaks with a given accent, it's going to be a lot harder to get there.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Ok, so back to my initial question: what did British colonists sound like when settling in North America in the 1600s up to, say, 1776?
ERIK SINGER: There wasn't only one English accent, there were many. There were three other big waves of migration. We all think of the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, and so whatever that accent was then was surely what sort of predominated in those kind of Massachusetts colonies. Virginia - Tidewater, Virginia was settled to a large extent by sons of well-off families and their servants. Then there were the Quakers who came over into kind of Delaware, Maryland area and spread west into Southern Pennsylvania, so there were lots and lots of accents.
DALLAS TAYLOR: I realized that it might be hard to pin Erik down on answer here, but in the most general terms I asked him: what would most of those accents sound like in the colonies at that time?
ERIK SINGER: It would have sounded quite strange to our ears, but I would say definitely American just because this pronunciation or non-pronunciation of R sounds after vowels is such a major feature; it's a huge divide.
ERIK SINGER: The different vowel sounds between things like hat and half, where for us, hat and half - it's the same.
ERIK SINGER: Those two huge things I think would probably give us the impression that all English speakers in England and in the States or the colonies sounded more like Americans do now than like Brits do now.
DALLAS TAYLOR: If many of these colonists more or less sounded American, then how did the accents back in Britain change to what we now know them as today?
WALT WOLFRAM: We have a sort of preconceived notion of what British dialect should sound like, and it's typically without its Rs. You know, so it's not rhotic.
DALLAS TAYLOR: That’s Walt Wolfram. He’s a sociolinguist at North Carolina State University, specializing in social and ethnic dialects of American English. In a 50-year career, he’s written 20 books and over 300 articles on variation in American English.
WALT WOLFRAM: Well, the accents of American English pretty much reflected areas of England. For example, you get people who settled on the coast of Virginia and islands, for example, and in North Carolina on the islands there, and they were very rhotic. That is, they pronounce their Rs in ‘four’ and in ‘war’, and so forth. They were very rhotic, because they came from southwest England where people still pronounce their Rs. On the other hand, there were some areas of England which were becoming quite R-less, because that was becoming the standard in London in the 1600s and 1700s, and so they were more R-less.
DALLAS TAYLOR: This new accent that today is called “Received Pronunction”, or RP for short, may have begun in the 1600s; but it would take a while before it became so synonymous with Brits.
WALT WOLFRAM: But basically, it's simply the standard of London, of southern England, because of the prestige and because of the social class. That became the acceptable sort of norm.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Basically, prestige in accents is in the ear of the beholder. So, speaking of prestige, with all of this r-full and r-less business, did Shakespeare’s plays around 1600 sound the way we imagine them today?
WALT WOLFRAM: If you look at Shakespeare's background, to the extent that we know about him, he actually used Rs. He wouldn't sound like we imagine a British person to sound like at that time.
ERIK SINGER: You go back to Shakespeare and the Rs were really hard. So this idea that some Americans have, I think, that a Shakespeare should always be pronounced in an RP accent, is fine if that's your taste.
ERIK SINGER: But it sounds absolutely nothing like what Shakespeare's actors would have sounded like. [Reads.] Something like that. It was very R-full, really hard Rs, almost a little bit piratical; and it was very fluid and efficient. They left out a lot of sounds.
DALLAS TAYLOR: As accents in England began to change over the next few centuries, so did American accents. But early in the 20th century an interesting phenomenon occurred as they came crashing back together in a brand new accent that didn’t evolve—it was created. From colonial times to the early 1900s - accents continued to slowly evolve in America. But around the 1920s and 30s a new accent popped up, almost out of nowhere.
ERIK SINGER: Well, it's got lots of names. Popularly known certainly as transatlantic, sometimes, Mid-Atlantic, which is weird. But either way, sort of like you were born on an island in the middle of the ocean between England and the US. It used to be called Good American Speech, and before that it was called World English. It is, for the most part, kind of a hybrid accent.
WALT WOLFRAM: For FDR, it was his natural dialect.
WALT WOLFRAM: In a sense, while it had some characteristics that people think of as transatlantic, they were natural to him, which is quite different from an actor, whop, for example, like Audrey Hepburn, who might want to appear to be transatlantic, and therefore be R-less, and pronounce her Ts as in ‘better’.
WALT WOLFRAM: They choose R-lessness. They choose a few vowels, like 'bad' as 'bad' and 'ban' versus 'ban'. They choose a half a dozen features and promote those, and they become sort of associated with this sort of transatlantic, which to a Britisher sounds, "Oh my gosh. That's a bad British accent." And to an American, they may not know the difference, and so it all sounds sophisticated to them.
ERIK SINGER: It conferred prestige. And this is an idea that I think is not with the times now, because this kind of idea of picking a certain group of people or way of speaking and saying everybody else speaks wrong or badly, we’re then telling people who speak non-standard dialect or a lower prestige dialect, you're bad and wrong or sloppy; and that's just absurd on its face.
DALLAS TAYLOR: I assumed that the Transatlantic Accent was just a fad and died out completely. But then there was that little show on NBC called Frasier.
ERIK SINGER: Yes, Niles Crane. So, David Hyde Pierce trained at Yale; and Yale Drama School, like pretty much every American Drama school of the time when he was training, that was sort of the bible. So this good American speech pattern was universally taught in actor training programs long after nobody spoke it naturally anymore. It still is taught in a lot of places. It's still useful for period stuff certainly. If you're going to set a movie in the 1950s and the characters are actors, well, go for your good American speech, absolutely.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Speaking of Good American Speech, there’s a perception in America that some accents are less becoming or desirable to have than others. So a sort of ‘General American’ accent has taken hold.
ERIK SINGER: There's this mythical beast called ‘general’ American, put the general in quotes. It's not one accent, it's more sort of the absence of certain things, which is: it's the absence of particularly regionally identifiable features. So if I say ‘Tom’ or ‘coffee’ or ‘hot’, those are things that are going to stand out to anybody and kind of make them say, "Oh, I know where you're from." So if you don't have any of those, then people might say you sound kind of general American. Of course, there's lots of variations still in there. Half of Americans rhyme the words COT and the words CAUGHT, right? So cot and caught, "I caught an app on a cot." Canadians pretty much all do that.
DALLAS TAYLOR: This “lack of accent”, as you might describe it, can be a bit... boring. I asked Erik if he could give me one of my favorites: an accent from Fargo.
ERIK SINGER: Ooh, Minnesota: so that's very different and I know a lot of people from there are quite sensitive about a stereotypical or exaggerated version of that. And it's not to say that everyone from Minnesota might talk like that but there are people who do for sure.
DALLAS TAYLOR: There are a whole range of regional American accents that have been around for hundreds of years. From New York, to Boston, to Chicago, to Cajun, to a whole variety of Southern accents. But what about newer ones like Valley Girl? Or the Kardashian-esque Vocal Fry?
ERIK SINGER: I think people mean different things by Valley Girl, although there are probably some common features like uptalk.
ERIK SINGER: And definitely vocal fry is a part of that. That's when your vocal folds start kind of vibrating a little slower than they would for like all your voice.
ERIK SINGER: Both of those features actually are really widespread in American speech. Australian accents and Northern Irish accents and Scottish accents very often have a rise at the end of a phrase or a sentence.
WALT WOLFRAM: So what you have today are new dialect areas in northern California, in the northwest, so for example in Seattle and Portland, areas like this, are creating dialects that are regionally distinctive. The point is this: Everybody wants to be from somewhere. And our dialect indicates where we're from.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Isolation is one reason some accents have lasted for as long as they have. One popular theory is that Appalachian English is a preserved remnant of 16th century Elizabethan English.
WALT WOLFRAM: Well, it's true and not true, okay? The true aspect of it is that there are certainly older retentions of the English language. For example, in Appalachian English, the prefix like, "He's a'huntin' and a'fishin'." That certainly is an older English phenomenon that has been preserved, as are pronunciations like, you know, "twiced" and "onced" for "once" and "twice." There are certainly older pronunciations. The problem is that at the same time, Appalachian English is changing and becoming a dialect unto itself, and so there are lots of things that are actually new in Appalachian English. It's sort of like, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, you know, something blue." A few years ago a crew from BBC came to visit the island of Ocracoke.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Ocracoke is an island off the coast of North Carolina.
WALT WOLFRAM: Someone had said, "Well, that's where the really Elizabethan, Shakespearean English is found." And it's true that they do have some older features that were around at the time of Shakespeare. They say "thar" for "there" and so forth, and they also say for "high tide" they say "hoi toide," which is a little more British and older. So they have some traits that certainly are remnants of former days.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Many people throughout their lives supposedly “lose their accents” or have them transform into a different one. When a southerner moves north they often start to lose that classic southern drawl. Could some accents be dying out?
ERIK SINGER: There are some sounds and languages generally that are a little unstable, that are a little more likely to be changed or dropped into something else as language change goes on. And we have two of them in English, it's the two different TH sounds like in ‘this’ and ‘thin, one is a voiced, one is unvoiced, right? And every time we see those in languages, they eventually morph or change or get dropped over time. You can definitely hear that in what's called multicultural London English, which I love, kind of a V or an F sound instead.
DALLAS TAYLOR: A good example of this is the way some Londoners say ‘mother’ and ‘brother’ as ‘muvah’ and ‘bruvah’.
ERIK SINGER: I think I've come across predictions that by 2150, English won't have those sounds at all. So, that's always ongoing. New accents are always coming and going and merging and splitting and distinguishing themselves from each other.
DALLAS TAYLOR: Every time I hear someone who sounds different from the way I speak it reminds me that the world is vast and diverse. It’s a collection of people with different ideas, different cultures, and different identities. These identities began thousands of years ago, and they’re still with us.
ERIK SINGER: Because we evolved in this social, communal small groups and so, you have to be able to recognize and distinguish your people from the other people. We've grown very, very attuned to these minute differences, even if we can't say technically what they are, we're like, "Oh, you're not one of me," or "You're my kind of guy." Just coming back to the idea that accent is identity, it's a way of encoding and signaling almost completely at an unconscious level for most people, who they feel like they are, who they want to be seen as, what group they feel like they belong to. It's the richness and the variety that is so fascinating and so deeply human.
WALT WOLFRAM: Dialects are identity. They index where we come from, who we are, where we're going, and so in a sense, to be without a dialect is to lose something of your personal character, your regional identity, and your sense of who you are, and the communities that you come from. They're about as critical as any other aspect of diversity. This would be a much less interesting place if everybody spoke the same way.
HZ: Thanks very much indeed to Twenty Thousand Hertz for sharing this piece with the Allusionist. It was produced by Dallas Taylor, Kevin Edds, Sam Schneble and Jai Berger. Twenty Thousand Hertz is a terrific show - hear all the episodes at 20k.org or via your podblaster of choice.
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I hope you enjoyed Twenty Thousand Hertz’s investigation of accents. Like I said, I’ve been trying to unpick my reticence about covering accents on this show, and on my other podcast Answer Me This, where we receive many questions about accents. And I think these reservations come down to something that was touched on in the episode. My accent comes from me growing up in the town of Tunbridge Wells in Kent, which is one of what are collectively known as the Home Counties, in southeast England. There’s a sort of generic Home Counties accent, which homogenised much of the variety of accents within that area - not completely, but much - and further afield; it became a culturally dominant accent in Britain at the expense of accents from other regions, which became diluted or lost entirely, deliberately or not. There’s a lot going on here with class, economics, education - so many presumptions and prejudices are roused by accents. So my feeling is, as the owner of a culturally dominant Home Counties accent, there's a danger that if I talk about accents, it can sound like I'm judging them or being a snob - and of course I want to save that up for the words someone chooses to use, not the accent they say them in! (Obviously it’s more complicated than that.)
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