The curious case of the missing accents

I have long been a fan of Mark Twain. One of the characteristics of his writing is the use of “eye dialect” – spellings and punctuation intended to phoneticize the speech of his characters. Many years ago I noticed a curious thing about Twain’s eye dialect – that is, he rendered few or no speech differences between Northern and Southern characters. His Northerners all sounded a bit Southern by modern standards, and his Southerners didn’t sound very Southern.

The most obvious possible reason for this could have been that Twain, born and raised in Missouri before the Civil War, projected his own border-state dialect on all his characters. Against this theory I could set the observation that Twain was otherwise a meticulously careful writer with an excellent ear for language, making that an unlikely sort of mistake for him. My verdict was: insufficient data. And I didn’t think the question would ever be resolvable, Twain having died when sound recording was in its infancy.

Then I stumbled over some fascinating recordings of Civil War veterans on YouTube. There’s Confederate “General” Julius Howell Recalls the 1860s from 1947. And 1928-1934: Recollections of the US Civil War. And here’s what jumped out at me…

…those veterans, Northern and Southern, both spoke as if they might be pronouncing Twain’s relatively uniform eye-dialect! Some Northern-Southern split was present, certainly, but it was very subtle compared to the regional differences one would expect today – I can spot it myself, but I think many moderns would find it imperceptible.

Mark Twain’s ear is vindicated. Fascinating…and this came together with a video I’d watched a couple of years ago on the survival of Appalachian English. It may have been this one. I remember thinking then that the eye dialect I’d read in old novels (not particularly Twain’s, though including his) suggested that speech features we would now mark “Appalachian” – or, somewhat disparagingly, “hillbilly talk” – used to be widely distributed not just in the rural South but in the rural North as well.

The second thing I noticed about the recorded speech of Civil War vets, after the absence of really pronounced North-South differences, is that it seemed to me to retain more phonetic features we would now think of as Appalachian than either modern Northern or Southern dialects do. I couldn’t quite pin it down, because I’m only an amateur phonologist, not a really trained one – but there was something about the vowels…

The third thing I noticed was pretty funny. I’m listening to these Civil war vets talk and something tickles my awareness. I think “I’ve heard their accent before. Where have I heard their accent before?” It took me a few minutes, but I finally twigged: it’s the “old-timer” accent from movie Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s! Not the more modern Northern and Southern accents of the audience-identification characters, but the speech of the grizzled old prospectors and mule-skinners and other bit characters supposed to be from a previous generation.

That is, Hollywood actors of that time portraying men who would have been in their fifties through seventies during the cinematic “Old West” era (1865-1895 or so), gave them the speech pattern I was recognizing in Civil War veterans who survived long enough for the actors to use them as models of pre-Civil-War dialect. It’s a nicety that probably would not have been lost on the movies’ first-run audiences.

More and more interesting. Now, if you look up the history of the Southern accent you’ll find that dialectologists know quite well that the Southern accent we know today is a post-Civil-War development. Wikipedia: “Older Southern American English was a set of American English dialects of the Southern United States, primarily spoken by White Southerners up until the American Civil War, moving towards a state of decline by the turn of the nineteenth century, further accelerated after World War II and again, finally, by the Civil Rights Movement. These dialects have since largely given way, on a larger regional level, to a more unified and younger Southern American English, notably recognized today by a unique vowel shift and certain other vocabulary and accent characteristics.”

What doesn’t seem to have made the standard account is that the differences between Old Southern and Old Northern used to be quite a bit less obvious – in fact I think there might be room for doubt that those actually constituted high-level groupings at all before the Civil War. It might be there were just a lot of smaller local dialect clades, mostly much less divergent from the border-state accent of Mark Twain (or, for a more modern example, Johnny Cash) than corresponding regional accents are today.

That’s certainly what the sound recordings are telling me. It’s what I thought I originally saw in Twain’s eye dialect. And in the broad sweep of history it wouldn’t be surprising. Linguistic uniformity over large areas has normally only happened as a result of recent invasion and conquest; settled humans rapidly develop geographically fine-grained and increasingly sharp dialect differences.

Or did, anyway, until cheap travel and modern mass communications. Those exert a counter-tendency for dialect distinctions to flatten. I briefly lived in Great Britain in the late 1960s; I can certify that a typical modern speaker of British English such as The Mighty Jingles sounds a great deal more “American” than his counterpart would have in 1968-1969. Listening to British comedy makes it clear that even today’s Brits consider the 1969 version of British Received Pronunciation stuffy and old-fashioned. There is no doubt in my mind that TV and movies did that.

The New Southern accent seems to have developed in two phases. First, early, post-Civil-War local differentiation from the border-state-like old-timer dialect they had formerly shared with much of the North, up to about World War One. Then, a convergence phase (well documented by linguists) in which speech became less regionally differentiated across the South as a whole. Again, you can get a chronological read on the second process by listening to movies from different decades set in the American South and comparing those to the live speech of Southerners today.

Americans, if they think about such things at all, tend to assume that rural Southern speech is archaic because the South still has an image as a backward-looking part of the country. But these videos I’ve been watching seem like evidence that New Southern has diverged more from “old-timer” pre-Civil-War American English than Northern speech has. Wikipedia hints at this when it speaks of a “unique vowel shift” in New Southern. They’re implying that New Southern isn’t archaic at all, it’s actually innovative relative to Northern dialects.

I have to think that this reflects some sort of reaction to the disaster of Reconstruction, Southerners grasping at a common linguistic identity that would differentiate them from bluebellies, carpetbaggers and scalawags. (For my readers outside the U.S., it is a fact that residual Southern bitterness about the postwar Reconstruction period of military government tends to eclipse resentments about the Civil War itself.)

What probably happened is that Southerners adopted the most archaic and divergent features of the dialects in their region and generalized them in an innovative way. One of the pioneering studies in sociolinguistics documents a similar process on the island of Nantucket as year-round residents sought to differentiate themselves from a rising tide of tourists and summerbirds. Nantucket permanent residents today sound more like crusty Down-Easter fishermen than they used to.

Now here’s where it gets even more interesting. I’m pretty sure I know how the New Southern dialect features got propagated and uniformized: through country music! The documented emergence of New Southern from the early 1900s seems to track the rising commercialization of country & Western music exactly. Badge of regional identity, check. Plausible widely-disseminated speech models, check. I think we have a winner!

I don’t know if the sociolinguists have figured this out yet. I have not seen any evidence that they have.

All of this turns many of the assumptions most Americans would casually make about our dialect history on their heads. And it means that Twain, had he not died in 1910, would have found New Southern as it evolved increasingly alien from the speech of his childhood in 1840s Missouri. But Twain didn’t live to see the country-music drawl and twang take over the South. Just lucky, I guess.

UPDATE: I found the closest thing that exists to a recording of Twain speaking. It was an imitation of Twain done by a gifted mimic who had been an intimate friend of Twain. It has the tempo and something like the cadence of modern Southern, but the vowel shifts we now associate with Southern are absent or at best only very weakly expressed. I think that supports my other observations.

90 thoughts on “The curious case of the missing accents

  1. That would not explain the still-persisting regional differences _within_ Northern and Southern speech, though.

    I can tell someone from Bahston from someone from Noo Yawk by the accent. Hell, it’s not hard to differentiate Jersey City and Brooklyn and they’re, what, 30 miles apart?

    With Southern accents, Dust Bowl sounds distinct from Lower Alabama from Appalachian Piedmont from Savannah. (Nawlins is its own thing and always has been).

    From what I remember of Huck Finn, Huck talks differently than Tom Sawyer. Certainly the black characters have thick accents. I would suspect in Twain, characters like his audience — that is, well-educated white people — get the Standard English dialogue, and that accents are used as (non-normative with respect to the audience) race and class signifiers. I would be leery of concluding that therefore his audience sounded the same and that their spoken speech sounded like Standard English.

    That’s not to say that mass media does not homogenize accents, and that sounding Southern as a differentiator isn’t a thing (I find, for me, it is much more choice of vocabulary and phrase than of vowel; your mileage may vary), and that today’s Jackson, Mississippi accent in the mouth of a white doctor doesn’t sound quite different than a white doctor in Jackson would have sounded in 1860.

    • >That would not explain the still-persisting regional differences _within_ Northern and Southern speech, though.

      What’s to explain? We know that, as a rule, geographic dialect difference in settled peoples (not nomads or invaders) tend to increase over time. We therefore shouldn’t expect dialect areas to become completely uniform unless the homogenizing influence of modern mass media always dominates that fragmenting trend.

      >From what I remember of Huck Finn, Huck talks differently than Tom Sawyer. Certainly the black characters have thick accents.

      Yes, but those distinctions seem more class-driven than region-driven.

      • “We know that, as a rule, geographic dialect difference in settled peoples (not nomads or invaders) tend to increase over time.”

        Indeed, and this worked to create aidible differences at very small scales.

        Remember My Fair Lady? Profesdor Higgins, who could identify the part of London a speaker grew up, was modelled after a real linguist/phonetician Daniel Jones who was known to be able to do this trick.

        I remember that people in my European provincial town in the 1960s/1970s could identify people from each neighboring village from their dialects.

        The great unifyers were radio and television, but even more the movement of people.

  2. Don’t overlook a Margaret Mead effect.

    My wife was raised in farming/small town Georgia south of Macon. Her normal speech was somewhat traditional. At one time my wife was paired with a reasonably upper middle class (English usage money but not landed) English woman with a second in greats from Oxbridge. They were working on site legal discovery in Northern California Their speech was much alike. It happened that when a listener learned where one of the two was from that listener assumed the other was from the same background in the same place because the accent and usage matched closely.

    Her brothers had the same speech patterns and went to a good seminary though only one was ordained. Reasonably fluent in biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek among other things with an educated diction and speech pattern. Except when they felt a draft and started acting like Hee Haw was highbrow in their redneck culture.

  3. I remember thinking that the eye dialect I’d read in old novels (not particularly Twain’s, though including his) suggested that speech features we would now mark “Appalachian” – or, somewhat disparagingly, “hillbilly talk” – used to be widely distributed not just in the rural South but in the rural North as well.

    I suppose this matches the “extreme form of Yankee dialect…thought long extinct” rendered by H.P. Lovecraft in “The Picture in the House” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”–both supposed to be rendered by New England survivors from the 18th or 19th centuries. (There’s some of it in “The Dunwich Horror” too…supposed to be spoken in a backwater where you might expect an older accent to hang on.)

    • >I suppose this matches the “extreme form of Yankee dialect…thought long extinct” rendered by H.P. Lovecraft

      Possibly, but I am not sure of that.

      One of the complications here is that though Old Northern and Old Southern were not very divergent and seem to have formed a dialect continuum with less of a Mason-Dixon break in it than we’re used to, individual speech communities at either extreme end of the continuum might still be very divergent from the other end and what was spoken near the middle. And Yankee dialect would be at or near the Northern end.

    • I always thought of Lovecraft’s “Yankee dialect” as more of what you might hear in rural Maine these days. I can’t think of another example, except maybe something like Boston combined with West Texas, if you can imagine such a thing

  4. Hearing about the speech of farming/small town Georgia south of Macon, I wonder if the transatlantic divisions in speech are not more vocabulary and grammar rather than accent. I just gave up DuoLingo (Pittsburgh, PA) which seemed to be trying to teach me US vocabulary and grammar rather more than French – and so switched to Memrise (east London).
    I picked up a bit of Texan in my 1950s childhood from a USAF family who lived down the road and remember my father telling me that “gotten” was early English English usage. I can still hear the mum of the USAF family saying “You’all come back” when we left after a visit.

    • > I wonder if the transatlantic divisions in speech are not more vocabulary and grammar rather than accent.

      No, there’s still significant accent difference. Two big ones: British Received Pronunciation, unlike most American dialects, is non-rhotic (drops /r/ except before vowels, with a whole bunch of associated vowel mergers). Also BRP shows a much stronger tendency to drop unstressed vowels than just about any American dialect.

      • No cot-caught merger either. This is something Hollywood actors never get right.

        (It might be giving me a non-default profile picture because it thinks I’ve posted here before under the same name. That’s a mistake.)

        • >No cot-caught merger either. This is something Hollywood actors never get right.

          Unless they’re originally from Philly or NY. Caught-cot merger is uncommon on the mid-Atlantic seaboard (they’re quite distinct in my idiolect) though it becomes so further inland.

          • Oklahoman here: To my ears we always say cot and caught identically. I find it difficult to imagine any other way they could possibly be said and still sound like English. And I’ve studied several other languages (as an amateur) with very different phonologies…. Any suggested youtube videos to demonstrate this alleged cot-caught distinction?

            • Note that I’m from the OKC area, with a lot of my youth up towards Kingfisher. In slow careful speech I can hear a difference between pin and pen in my own accent, but at full speed the two sound almost the same. Which is why we say “stick pin” and “ink pen”.

            • >Any suggested youtube videos to demonstrate this alleged cot-caught distinction?

              His unmerged cot/caught is pretty much the same distinction as mine.

              • My accent fails the “hot-dog” test. I think that test is more evidence of a “lot-cloth” split than the “cot-caught” distinction.

                Also there’s less yod-dropping in most BrE accents. For instance, “new” rhymes with “few”, not “loo”. There’s even less of that merger in conservative RP, where “suit” is pronounced “syoot”, and “suicide” is “syoo-icide”. Many BrE accents don’t exhibit that.

                An interesting result of that, is that “tube” is correctly pronounced “tyoob”, but is usually palatalised to “choob” by most speakers. In contrast to that, AmE speakers usually say “toob”.

              • Oddly in my (Australian) accent “hot”, “dog”, and “cot” all have the same vowel sound, but “caught” has another quite different one.

                Though in Australian English we seem to change the pronunciation of vowels to indicate emphasis.

                I’ve heard it said that we only pronounce important words clearly and mumble everything else, but I think it’s more accurate to say that we abbreviate the vowels in unimportant words to such an extent that they are almost, or even entirely, inaudible.

                One of the clearest examples in my own speech that I’ve noticed is in chanting (in an Orthodox Christian church):

                One of the really common lines is “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”

                So I’ve played with the pronunciation of that line a bit, and the way that feels most natural to me, if written with a site accent, ends up being something like:

                “Glory to th’ Father, ‘nd t’ th’ Son, ‘nd t’ th’ Holy Spirit.”

                Also as well as the first “to” keeping it’s vowel, the “and”s and the first “the” still have a bit of a vowel sound, just not as much as if they where an “important” word.

                In that short sentence there is at least three, possibly four, levels of emphasis/importance, and it seems to me that the main way I show the difference is by altering my pronunciation of the vowels.

                • >“Glory to th’ Father, ‘nd t’ th’ Son, ‘nd t’ th’ Holy Spirit.”

                  In most American dialects, those unstressed vowels don’t disappear. Instead they become vocalized schwa with about the time length of a stressed vowel but missing its color . You’d get it about right if you replaced all the apostrophes with schwa symbols.

              • That comes across as a vexatiously subtle difference, such that I’m not sure I’m not imagining it when I hear it or try to pronounce it myself. I learned to speak English in California, and have lived in Colorado for longer, and so have been immersed in this merger my whole life. That’s no small part of it, I’m sure.

                I do find it interesting that in the northeast-most part of the US, and in Canada, cot and caught have merged, but in the *opposite* direction than west of the Mississippi.

                When I try to pronounce the caught vowel differently as he does in the video, subjectively, it sounds like I’m just pronouncing the cot vowel with an artificial deepness, and it
                feels like caught is further back in the mouth and lower in the throat than the cot. As I sit here, trying to repeat the sounds to myself, it sounds like maybe I’m kinda-sorta-not-really pronouncing caught like court, and affecting a British accent Very Badly.

                This is weird.

                • I’m merged (grew up in Denver), but my dad isn’t. In unmerged American dialects, “cot” has the vowel of “aaah” and “caught” has the vowel of “awww”. I use the “awww” vowel for both.

                  Interjections can be usefull for explaining phonetic concepts, as they often have sounds that do not appear elsewhere in a dialect (I don’t have the “ah” vowel anywhere but in the word “ah”), and also often break rules about what can go where (the vowel in “yeah” can’t usually end a syllable, it has to be followed by a consonant, as in “bad”).

            • Well, in my dialect (Australian English) we have the following rhymes:
              cot, tot, bot, lot, motto, hover
              caught, court, taught, bought, author, ore

              The tongue is at the back for both but the mouth shape and palate position is different. For the ‘cot’ the lips are rounded, for the ‘caught’ the lips are more pursed and the palate lowers.

              Trying to represent sounds with ‘eye dialect’ (a new term to me) doesn’t work too well if you’ve never heard an alternative. When I first read Agatha Christie I was baffled by her depicting lower class people such as servants saying ‘reely’ for ‘really’. How else would you say it, I wondered. It was many years before I heard someone pronounce it in a way that is closer to ‘rarely’ which apparently is the RP form. Similarly for ‘wot’ for ‘what’. Curiously, the only person I know who regularly gives the ‘wh’ words the old RP ‘hw’ pronunciation isn’t English.

              • >It was many years before I heard someone pronounce it in a way that is closer to ‘rarely’ which apparently is the RP form.

                Just for comparison, in most American dialects (certainly in my Mid-Atlantic-Seaboard version of Midland, which is pretty close to “Standard” American) the pronunciation would be better approximated by “rilly”, though there’s a bit of coloration towards “reely”.

              • >cot, tot, bot, lot, motto, hover
                caught, court, taught, bought, author, or

                In American dialects without the cot-caught merger (including mine) “cot, tot, bot, lot, motto” all rhyme, but “hover” rhymes with “lover”. “Caught, taught, bought” and the first syllable of “author” rhyme, but “court” rhymes with “sport”.

                • Raised in a college town west of the Mississippi and that’s pretty much the way I pronounce things.

                  How come dough and cough don’t rhyme?

                  • Same reason laughter and daughter don’t rhyme. Gallagher did a whole comedy routine about it.

                    English is the serial bastard of Low German, Norman French, Gaelic, Norse, and pretty much every language the British and US diplomats and servicemen ever encountered since, which is to say damn near every language spoken in the whole world (excepting isolated tribes in the Amazon and that Indian island where they kill all outsiders).

                    The very first thing National Spelling Bee contestants say when asked to spell a word is “Language of origin?”. Without knowing that, you have no clue how to spell a word you haven’t seen before.

                  • Because English lost the velar fricative of “ch” in “loch”. In Afrikaans, dough is deeg, with the g pronounced as “ch”, and kug is cough(dialectical). So English lost the sound, and replaced it with other sounds or just outright removed it.

                    • >So English lost the sound, and replaced it with other sounds or just outright removed it.

                      The gh in “knight” had this sound in late Anglo-Saxon. One AS spelling of the word is preserved in the name of the Welsh mountain Cnicht.

                • Interestingly “sport” rhymes with both “caught” and “court” in Australian English (or at least my dialect).

                  “hover” and “lover” are very distinct though.

                  • 1) Say “Rise up lights”.
                    2) Congratulations. You know know how to pronounce “razor blades” in Strine.

                • Now I know how Charlie T feels :-) I’m baffled by how else the word ‘sport’ could be pronounced. I’m at work so I’ll youtube it tonight

              • > Curiously, the only person I know who regularly gives the ‘wh’ words the old RP ‘hw’ pronunciation isn’t English.

                Are you one of those people who pronounces “which” and “witch” the same way? I’m as Middle America as they come (born in southern Nebraska, lived in eastern Kansas since age 2) and I have always pronounced “wh” /hw/. I’ve never thought of it as an RP thing.

                • >I’m as Middle America as they come (born in southern Nebraska, lived in eastern Kansas since age 2) and I have always pronounced “wh” /hw/. I’ve never thought of it as an RP thing.

                  “Witch” vs “which” is subtly distinguished in some American dialects – latter subtly h-fronted, former not. Including mine (Mid-Atlantic-seaboard Midlands).

                • I am indeed. I speak standard Australian English which doesn’t have the /hw/. I was under the impression that this is how posh Brits used to pronounce it, hence my reference to old RP. I know it’s not as common today.

                  • > I was under the impression that this is how posh Brits used to pronounce it, hence my reference to old RP.

                    Americans believe that too. Even in American dialects where wh is sometimes or always /hw/, (over)emphasizing that h is something you’d do if you were imitating or mocking old BRP.

                    • > Americans believe that too.

                      And they’re right. But It had pretty much died out by the time I was mixing with posh people at Oxford in the early 80s. I don’t recall *ever* hearing anybody use it.

              • >Well, in my dialect (Australian English) we have the following rhymes:
                >cot, tot, bot, lot, motto, hover
                > caught, court, taught, bought, author, ore

                As esr replies below all but hover rhyme on the first line. Trying to rhyme the lower line, I find myself trying to force all the “ah” vowel words onto the “or” vowel of “court” and “ore”, or something approximating it.

                Saying this out loud, all of a sudden, a line from Alice in Wonderland makes sense. “We called him Tortoise because he taught us.” Now I understand why that’s funny. While apparently the western US has an “ah”/”not-ah” vowel merger, at least one accent in England at the time Lewis Carrol wrote Alice in Wonderland had an “ah”/”or” vowel merger, or something like that.

                • I pronounce “taught” with the same vowel sound as “tort”. In fact, if I were to pronounce the “us” as a schwa, then “tortoise” and “taught us” would become homophones. Still true for many other English accents.

                  It’s rare in English accents for “o” to ever have an “ah” sound. It may be common in Scotland, Ireland, North America; but in England, it has a sound more similar to other European languages. Also “au” and “aw” are pronounced with a long vowel, and the lips are closer together (this only happens with the “o” if it’s followed by an “r”). Hence “auto” sounds like “or-tow”, and “otto” sounds like “ot-tow”. Also, “often” and “aweful” have different vowels, because modern English accents don’t lengthen the “o” before an “f” or a “th”; that lengthening is found in some North American accents and conservative RP, and is usually referred to as the “lot-cloth” split.

                  • >the “lot-cloth” split.

                    Definitely split in my coastal-Midlands dialect. I think this one is correlated with the cot-caught split; versions of American with one are more than likely to have the other as well.

                  • >I pronounce “taught” with the same vowel sound as “tort”

                    Note that Americans find this merger rather comical. I don’t know why (nor why most other BRP and Strine mergers seem just different, not funny) but it’s so. It’s one of the things we would exaggerate for effect when mocking British dialects.

                    • I think it’s funny because the British eye-dialect, when read as an American eye-dialect, gives a bunch of fully-pronounced American arrrrs.

                      “We call him the Torrrtoise because he torrrt us.”

                  • It does help answer the question I had when I was a young child learning to write and spell. Why all these different spellings for the same sounds? That’s just unnecessary and confusing. Why not just have one spelling for the sound and be done with it?

                    I’m now of the impression that once the different spellings *did* have different sounds, but those sounds have since merged, especially in my combined West-coast/Front range accent.

                    • >I’m now of the impression that once the different spellings *did* have different sounds, but those sounds have since merged, especially in my combined West-coast/Front range accent.

                      Your impression is correct, but the implied recent timing is wrong.

                      The mergers that decoupled spoken English from the spelling of written English are around 500 years old, dating from a period of rapid change in Late Middle English just before the arrival of movable-type printing.

      • Totally agree with Eric here. As a Brit, I’d say the differences in pronunciation and emphasis between spoken American and English English are large, pervasive and seem to be to have increased noticeably over my lifetime. In the last year or two I’ve shifted most of my commute- and drive-time listening from music to audiobooks & podcasts, many of them American. I rarely get through a sentence without noticing something.

        Couple of examples I wasn’t previously aware of: pronouncing the “L” in calm, balm, palm. This one probably related to rhoticity? Two syllable adjective before a noun? American stress is on the second syllable of the adjective, British stresses the noun: chinESE food versus Chinese FOOD. This quite apart from the obvious things, related to the southern accent Eric is talking about, such as making (at least) two syllables out of the vowel in “and”. This I find charming.

        These things tend to strike me more in audiobooks than in conversational podcasts. With an audiobook you get more attuned to the nuances of a single voice, reading formal written text with slightly lower and definitely more precise diction. Seems to bring the differences out.

        British Received Pronunciation was always the dialect of a small elite minority. The Queen is probably one of the few surviving native speakers.

        • Pronouncing the l in calm, etc. is not universal across the US. My dad pronounces it (Iowa), but I don’t (Colorado).

          • >Pronouncing the l in calm, etc. is not universal across the US. My dad pronounces it (Iowa), but I don’t (Colorado).

            I think this one has an east-west gradient. It’s pronounced in coastal Midlands, but I wouldn’t expect to hear it outside coastal cities in the West.

          • The really odd one that I’ve heard from people as widely separated as California and Illinois is assimilation of the off-glide in the o in “both” to the following th, resulting in the pronunciation “bolth”. I’ve never seen any discussion of it in the linguistic literature, so I have no idea where the isolgloss for it lies.

        • >Totally agree with Eric here. As a Brit, I’d say the differences in pronunciation and emphasis between spoken American and English English are large, pervasive and seem to be to have increased noticeably over my lifetime.

          Huh? I said, and believe, that I’ve seen pronunciation differences decrease dramatically since I lived there in ’69.

          >British Received Pronunciation was always the dialect of a small elite minority.

          I guess you’re pretty young. Old-fashioned BRP was widespread across many SESes in Great Britain when I lived there. There were class differences of course but there was much more social pressure to, e,g. abandon regional accents than there is now.

          • The bit I was “totally agreeing with” was:

            >> I wonder if the transatlantic divisions in speech are not more vocabulary and grammar rather than accent.
            > No, there’s still significant accent difference

            … although my perception that it might be increasing differs from yours.

            > I guess you’re pretty young

            Only a couple of years younger than you. Grew up working class in a provincial city in the 60s & 70s, never met an RP speaker until I went to university

            • Replying to myself to add: of course, one makes finer grained distinctions for things one is closer to. See all the people here citing the easily distinguishable (by them) half dozen accents of their home state. So my definition/perception of “British Received Pronunciation” might be a lot narrower than Eric’s

              • >So my definition/perception of “British Received Pronunciation” might be a lot narrower than Eric’s

                Year of observation matters too. BRP has always been a group of closely related dialects rather than a single thing, but as elite speech norms (“BBC English”) have lost their grip the spread in that group has widened. That process was barely beginning in the the 60s. I remember a widespread and rather homogenous BRP when I lived there, but also that there was much less uniformity of dialect even within BRP (let alone outside) when I first returned a quarter-century later.

                To give you some sense of comparative scale, within the Midlands dialect region in the U.S. the range of accents is about as wide to my ear as the class-specific variants of BRP now, but the BRP range used to be quite a bit narrower.

  5. This is interesting to me. I live in New England. In the northeast, we have at least 6 different accents (probably more if you know New York City). Philadelphia is different from New Jersey, which is not the same as New York (there maybe several sub dialects in New York). Then you have your generic New Englander, that is not the same as Boston, which is still different from Maine and Northern New Hampshire. I used to live in Ohio. Ohio itself has at least 3 distinct accents. The generic mid-western accent, a southern accent in the south end, and what we used to call “white trash” which is spoken in almost all rural areas north of Columbus. I don’t mean that disparagingly, it is just what we called it. An example of it is to replace “saw” with “seen” like: I seen a good movie yesterday.

    • There are at least two different New Jersey accents, one found in the North Jersey/NYC region, and one in the New Jersey/Philadelphia region. What many Americans think of as the “New Joisey” accent is the North Jersey one, influenced by Brooklyn. The Philly one is quite different.

      Even today, there is a surprising amount of difference in how speakers sound in different parts of the US. You would think that between mass media and a very high rate of migration, more of this would have smoothed out.

      The differences seem to be more subtle among highly educated people, probably because they are more geographically mobile, and more likely to work closely with educated people from other regions than less-educated people from their own. That’s not to say that there are no regional differences among the educated, though.

      • > What many Americans think of as the “New Joisey” accent is the North Jersey one, influenced by Brooklyn. The Philly one is quite different.

        Yeah, to me the name of the state in the Philly-region accent sounds more like “Juzzy” than “Joisey”.

  6. There are at least five different Texas accents: Houston, Dallas, East Texas, San Antonio/Rio Grande Valley, and West Texas. Austin may be evolving one, but that’s more of a homogenization with California than anything.

    • Is Austin really part of Texas, though, culturally? It feels more like an outpost of the coastal establishment, transplanted to Texas. Though given the number of real Texans who go to UT Austin, and being the seat of state government, it certainly influences the rest of the state.

      • (FYI, I’m a life-long Texan, for whatever that’s worth)

        Austin is it’s own thing. Of the places I’ve visited, it probably most like Portland…which is not super surprising, since one stole the others’ motto, though I haven’t figured out which came up with it first. (And while they are both “foodie” towns, Portland’s barbecue is inferior Sorry, Portland.)

        Austin is still very obviously Texan, however. And like most cities in Texas (except maybe El Paso…I haven’t ever made it that far) it’s very diverse and cosmopolitan, which surprises a lot of non-Texans, who still seems to think everyone wears a cowboy hat, drives a truck, rides horses, and has oil wells in their back yards.

        Austin is certainly culturally different than many other parts of the state (it’s a lot more liberal/progressive, which is both good and bad), but the same could be said of basically every other part of Texas. Texas is big. While everyone educated in the US knows this…most do not grok it. Texas is slightly bigger than France in terms of land area, and has a larger population than Australia.

        Just the DFW area (where I live) is larger than Connecticut (land area again…about double the population). Dallas and Houston are farther apart than New York City and Baltimore. Houston and El Paso are slightly farther apart than New York City and Charleston, SC.

        It’s no wonder that we have a lot of cultural differences. After you go about a hundred miles, stuff starts to change.

        • Recently we had a speaker in who was visiting from El Paso. His accent had a foreign element, unsurprising given his native tongue, and a Texas element.

        • Well, El Paso is not “Texan”. I mean, just for example, there isn’t a good barbecue joint in the place. (If you want barbecue in El Paso, your best bet is to go to an outlet of a multi-state chain like Rudy’s or Famous Dave’s. I was rather disappointed when I moved here and I tried State Line; I haven’t been back.)

          A big part of that not-Texas-ness is a result of the geographic isolation from the rest of Texas (the nearest Texas metro area with a population of a million is San Antonio; Albuquerque, Tuscon, and Phoenix are all closer).

          A good additional chunk is that El Paso as a significant city is largely the product of Fort Bliss, which means a massive chunk of the population in each generation has been people cycled in by the Army from the nation as a whole.

          And part, I suspect, is that Mexico-USA division just psychically overwhelms state identity, given that the area directly borders a Mexican city of twice the population. The sort of “Texas patriotism” that seems to buttress local cultural identity against national media elsewhere in Texas is rather rarer in my experience, and I believe that’s partly because because it feels too secessionist in the shadow of Juarez.

          • Nearly 900. And the bit from 100 west of San Antonio to Van Horn I’ll put up against any stretch you care to name as the most boring stretch of road around.

            • I’ll offer I-70 through Kansas.

              900 miles for I-10 across Texas, huh. I’m rather tempted to do some tuning on my VW diesel and see if I can do it in a single tank.

              • I-70 through Kansas doesn’t even come close.

                The trans-Canadian across the prairies is in the same league as West Texas, but not as monotonous.

                I myself thought of “Vegas to Tonopah” as a contender. Turns out there’s a YouTube video of that trip the other way:

    • I’ve heard there are as many as six, but personally I can hear 4 pretty distinctly.

      – North Texas (DFW area…non-Texans usually do not recognize this; I frequently get asked why I don’t have a Texas accent)
      – South Texas (Houston and coastal areas)
      – East Texas (strip of land along the Louisiana border…strangely it sounds more like rural Alabama or Georgia than Louisiana to me)
      – West Texas (everything West of Ft Worth…this is what non-Texans usually think of as a Texan accent)

      I don’t know that I believe in Austin growing it’s own accent. Everybody from Austin just sounds like they’re from somewhere else (N/S/E/W Texas). I’ve never noticed anything unique to Austin folks’ accents.

      As far as San Antonio/RGV, it just sounds like West Texas to me. I don’t know that many people from down that way, though, and it’s been years since I traveled through there, so maybe it’s changing or I just don’t recall.

      • >North Texas (DFW area…non-Texans usually do not recognize this; I frequently get asked why I don’t have a Texas accent)

        There are two accents in the Dallas area that I’ve noticed:

        1) The local variation of what I call “American Suburban”, which sounds fairly plain to outsiders, but has a few Southern/Texan features.

        2) What I call the “old Dallas” accent: Baby Boomers around here that grew up in the area, and people my age that grew up in Dallas proper, have a very distinct accent that is immediately identifiable as Texan/Southern to the northern ear.

      • San Antonio/RGV is becoming more distinctly Spanish-influenced with the passage of time. The rest of Texas, not so much so.

        Austin’s accent is *mostly* derived form the rest of Texas, but it’s softening gradually compared to the rest of the state…to match the residents’ heads, it would seem.

      • If you want to hear the San Antonio/RGV accent, find a copy of Grim Fandango and listen to the protagonist.

  7. This is an interesting hypothesis, and it certainly seems plausible (even likely), though I feel compelled to point out that you are making fairly broad generalizations based on a small amount of data. Doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but…be cautious.

    Dialects and linguistic change have always been interesting to me. I’m especially fascinated by the drastic changes in dialect/accent in the UK, which is fairly small compared to the US, but has a lot more variation in speech patterns. I can only assume this is because a lot of those speech patterns were set before telegraphs and railroads and telecom and the Internet started the homogenization process. There’s probably a component of “regional” identity at play here as well. Still it’s pretty amazing to me that you can tell where someone is from in the UK with fairly good precision just based on how they talk.

    I mean in the US you can usually tell what state someone is from, or maybe what part of the state (for large states like Texas and California), but everyone in the UK is so much closer together, that it just blows my mind how varied the accents in the UK are.

    • > you can tell where someone is from in the UK with fairly good precision just based on how they talk.

      My best friend’s mother when I was growing up came from north Manchester. She reckoned when she was a girl, in the 1930s, you could localise somebody to about half a dozen streets.

      Of course *she* wouldn’t have been able to do that in Liverpool or London back then, and that kind of extreme fine grained distinction has probably been gone for half a century or more. But I could still tell east Manchester from the rest when I lived there, even as a non-native.

      • >that kind of extreme fine grained distinction has probably been gone for half a century or more.

        I’ve heard a recent report that accents in South Boston are still localized to clusters of streets. But yes, that sort of fine-grainedness is now unusual in U.S. cities.

        There are still distinct outer-borough-specific accents in New York City, though I have the impression they are gradually dying out to be replaced by a more vertical system of SES accents with traces of the borough accents surviving at the bottom.

        In Philadelphia accent is very class-driven. There’s a Black American English accent and a white-working-class accent, but the middle and upper classes speak a “Standard” American almost indistinguishable from other coastal Midlands dialects (and from my idiolect). You know what the WWC accent sounds like if you’ve ever seen the “Rocky” movies. It’s associated with but no longer limited to an area of South Philly dominated by Italian and Polish ethnics.

        For my English and other foreign readers: don’t be surprised if you have trouble telling American accents apart. Within what the linguists call the “Midlands” area, which is easily 75% of the U.S., local variations are so small that you almost have to either be a trained phonologist or have a trick ear to parse them – even native speakers are often unaware. Only the New England and Southern areas are really distinct in the way that (for example) different British or German regions are, and even there you won’t see more than very minor differences in morphology, or even large variations in vocabulary.

      • > you can tell where someone is from in the UK with fairly good precision just based on how they talk.

        Even I’m not hopeless at that, and I’m not a native. The difference between non-rhotic dialects south and east of the Gloucester-Dorset line and the rhotic ones north and west is easy to spot. Also I can readily recognize West Country or Yorkshire or Scouse, and the Edinburgh Scots accent is really audibly different from the Glasgow one.

        Now, admittedly I’m a bit of an outlier, having Frodo ear as I do and an active interest in cataloguing these. But these accents average much more divergent from each other than a random pair of regional dialects in the U.S. is – to find comparable differences in the U.S. you’d have to set, say, a Texas accent against a Boston one, going right to the extremes of our regional variation.

  8. Tech generally is often accused of erasing regional differences as it connects diverse communities. But commercial radio entertainment may have intensified some differences. Just as Our Host mentions “old timers” in movies, characters (by which I mean both the actors and the caricatures they portrayed) differentiated themselves by accent. So Phil Harris (Jack Benny’s band leader) performed in a broad and exaggerated “Southern” accent while Rochester (Jack Benny’s general servant) performed in a broad and rude “N*gro” dialect. Listeners could either protest the portrayals or embrace them — and it appears they’ve embraced them in much the same way modern radio listeners in certain communities embrace the “authenticity” of rap, or country, performers.

  9. >Listening to British comedy makes it clear that even today’s Brits consider the 1969 version of British Received Pronunciation stuffy and old-fashioned.

    Speaking of old-timey RP, try soaking your brain in a Churchill recording (preferably something on the theme of “it’s bleak, but we’re not screwed”), then crack open the Lord of the Rings and start reading one of Gandalf’s “it’s bleak, but we’re not screwed” speeches. The sound of it is *amazing*.

    >No, there’s still significant accent difference. Two big ones: British Received Pronunciation, unlike most American dialects, is non-rhotic (drops /r/ except before vowels, with a whole bunch of associated vowel mergers).

    For prestige dialects, this is more true than it used to be. Recordings from the first half of the century show that American prestige dialects were more eastern than they are now, and non-rhotacism is more common to this day in the east, plus the manufactured, deliberately non-rhotic, transatlantic broadcast dialect is no longer used.

    >Also BRP shows a much stronger tendency to drop unstressed vowels than just about any American dialect.

    Plus, stress locations are often different, and which vowels are dropped changes, compare American “Lab-rih-‘tore-ee with British luh-“bore-uh-‘tree.

    (Then of course, there’s Dexter’s lab: “Didi, get out of my luh-bore-uh-tore-ee!”)

    • I have observed that the southern boundary of the non-rhotic dialect area in New England has shifted north during my lifetime. Non-rhotic accents were more common than not in New York City until the 1980s but after that the mix started changing rapidly and younger New Yorkers are now mostly rhotic.

      Historically the non-rhotic area extended clear down into Northern New Jersey, but nowadays you hear that only in very isolated communities and among very old people.

      The Philadelphia area, where I live, has always been solidly rhotic.

  10. > suggested that speech features we would now mark “Appalachian” – or, somewhat disparagingly, “hillbilly talk” – used to be widely distributed not just in the rural South but in the rural North as well.

    I think you are conflating multiple ethnicities when you talk about the “rural south”. The people who settled the coastal lowlands (and who owned the big plantations, had slaves, all that) were primarily English/Anglo-Irish aristocracy. The people who settled the Appalachians (and, later, places like the Ozarks, extreme southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, etc.) were generally of Scottish and Scots-Irish descent and generally did not own slaves (or, indeed, pieces of land large enough to require any outside labor at all, paid or enslaved). Very different people, very different accents.

    The two dialects don’t really have that much in common (other than being perceived as “southern” by damnyankees). The most prominent difference (just as it is in RP British and Scots dialects today) is rhoticity. The plantation owner dialect has very soft r’s, while the hillbilly dialect has haRRRD RRR’S (not as much so as a Scottish burr, but the rhoticity is way more prominent than it is in a lowland dialect). TV and movies are notorious for getting this wrong.

    • >I think you are conflating multiple ethnicities when you talk about the “rural south”.

      I’m aware of the difference. What you call coastal-lowlands Southern is close to the sociolinguistic “Old Southern”; the isolated survivals of the latter tend to be in areas where the old planter-aristocratic families held on to some status after the Civil War.

      New Southern, on the other hand, has a lot more Borderer DNA in it. Admittedly this is hard to tell because it innovated so fast after the Civil War – the New Southern vowel shift, in particular, bulldozed over a lot of older features.

      That’s how I read the evidence, anyway, and I’m pretty sure the academic dialecticians would be with me on this.

  11. After reading about his background, Clemens is an interesting case.

    His father was descended from Cornish landed gentry in Virginia, while his mother (who his father met and married in Kentucky) was Scots-Irish, so he would likely have heard both “southern” dialects as a child. His father was a lawyer, while his mother’s family was apparently best known for distilling whiskey. :-)

    And, of course, growing up in a Mississippi River port town, he would have likely heard every accent or dialect that was then present in the United States… everything from pure Scottish to Cajun French. :-)

  12. Who is the earliest-born person whose voice we have a recording of?
    Possibly it’s Florence Nightingale, born 1820. Of course she wasn’t
    American.

    As an aside, it’s interesting that we have (in Hell’s Angels)
    full-color sound movie footage of an actress who died more than
    80 years ago (Jean Harlow). It’s also interesting that the movie
    Gone With the Wind was released closer to the Civil War than to
    the present, and plenty of Civil War veterans saw it, but that an
    adult actress who acted in it is still alive (Olivia de Haviland).
    Ironically, the character she played died in the movie.

    The Civil War wasn’t really all that long ago. The last veteran’s
    widow died in 2008, and at least two veterans’ children are still
    alive. I’ve been using email for more than a quarter of the time
    since the Civil War. And Confederate memorials and flags are still
    a very hot issue.

    Getting back to dialects, several of Ayn Rand’s close followers
    “caught” her Russian accent despite not knowing a word of that
    language. And plenty of airplane pilots “caught” Chuck Yeager’s West
    Virginia drawl, despite having no connection to West Virginia except
    perhaps sometimes flying over it at 40,000 feet. Yeager is also still
    alive, having outlived all seven Mercury astronauts and the much
    younger actor who portrayed him in The Right Stuff.

    I’ve heard the claim that RP (“BBC English”) came from one 18th
    century stage actor.

    As for Country/Western music, note that there was no radio
    broadcasting until 1920. Phonograph records existed, but I’m not sure
    how common they were. I have a book from 1908 that purports to be a
    catalog of all phonograph records ever; I could check it for anything
    that looks Country or Western, though I’m not sure I could tell. Any
    famous names I should check it for?

    • >And plenty of airplane pilots “caught” Chuck Yeager’s West
      Virginia drawl, despite having no connection to West Virginia except
      perhaps sometimes flying over it at 40,000 feet

      There’s more to that story. The Yeager drawl turns out to be well adapted for intelligibility over noisy radio channels.

      Also it was pretty consciously adopted as an in-group signal. One of my regulars tells a story about his flight instructor warning him his natural accent is just enough like a Yeager drawl to make other pilots think he’s much more experienced than he is, and he shouldn’t do that – it’s dangerous. So there’s an actual taboo, socially transmitted, against talking like Yeager unless you can cash the checks that dialect is writing.

      >I’ve heard the claim that RP (“BBC English”) came from one 18th century stage actor.

      David Garrick. Considerable truth to that story. Influence the King’s speech, get the Court imitating him, get London imitating the Court, and we’re off to the races. Damn shame, too – Garrick smashed the phonology of BRP into such a mushed-up mess of dropped vowels and blurred consonants that it’s only begun to recover some crispness in the last 40 years under the influence of American media. Aided and abetted by the fact that the Hanoverian king at the time could barely speak any English and was thus unaware that Garrick was a terrible speech model.

      • Aided and abetted by the fact that the Hanoverian king at the time could barely speak any English and was thus unaware that Garrick was a terrible speech model.

        That is hilarious.

    • > Who is the earliest-born person whose voice we have a recording of?
      Possibly it’s Florence Nightingale, born 1820. Of course she wasn’t
      American.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vqvq-f-UtU

      This is believed to be the voice of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, born in 1817, and inventor of the “phonautograph”. This device traced sound waves onto a soot-covered sheet of paper. He had no way of converting the trace back into sound.

      Thanks to modern tech, though, the phonautograph traces can be converted back into sound.

  13. Northern Englishman here. Listening to the BBC in the 50s and early 60s I heard only full-strength RP or comic characters who spoke a bit like me or in Cockney (sometimes as “mock Cockney” as Dick Van Dyke!). When I first came to London it struck me that RP is a sort of posh-Cockney. There are (or were?) equivalents in other big cities like Liverpool (posh-Scouse) and Glasgow (sometimes called Bearsden, after a district of the city). To hear almost full-strength RP listen to prominent Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg. London accents have changed a lot since I arrived in 1979 and most younger white working-class Londoners show influences from Jamaica and perhaps other ethnicities while younger black Londoners retain some of their ancestral speech but are much more London-sounding.

  14. I suspect that the trauma associated with the civil war and jim crow eras may have caused people to deliberately differentiate their speech from northerners, as a mark of political affiliation – to signal support for republican (northern) or democrat (southern) parties.

    As a tourist I noticed obvious differences in dialect between upper and lower class people (as indicated by their dress, anyway) with the “rednecks” sounding much more southern and the tour guides sounding more northern. These people live in the same city, so it isn’t regional – it has to be peer pressure or something. You see a guy in overalls and a ball cap, and you can expect to hear a southern accent. Guy in Dockers and a tie, you expect northern.

    Folks who aren’t familiar with that region may not realize that there was substantial southern and secessionist sympathy in Missouri, with some armed raids by locals to steal guns and other supplies for the southern cause. Travel to/from the “northern” state was facilitated by riverboats, so there were probably lots of people with southern connections/ancestry/family ties there.

    The point is, there are some deliberate, conscious (and sub conscious) choices by individuals as to how they speak, for reasons unknown, but probably for group-membership signaling.

    • >obvious differences in dialect between upper and lower class people

      Everywhere in the U.S. the dialect of the upper class tends to assimilate to “Standard” American English (SAE) – that is, North Midlands.

      Certainly true where I live – upper middle class and above speaks a mid-Atlantic-Seaboard version of Midlands that is extremely close to SAE, while the “Philadelphia accent” of, e.g. Sylvester Stallone is a working-class thing.

      (I’m not from Philly originally, but my idiolect is pretty much identical to elite-speak here except for a very slight New York flavoring.)

      So…

      >probably for group-membership signaling.

      Yes, this is not breaking news.

  15. Listening to those civil war recordings, the accents show features that I would characterize in the modern day as variously British or Canadian.

    However, one issue I’ve always had evaluating accents in old recordings is that something about early 20th century recording technology seems to have distorted certain frequencies badly, which introduces a characteristic sound that makes it difficult to say what’s accent differences and what is just the recording.

    Do older folks that had more exposure to such recordings in youth have an easier time with that?

  16. That’s a nice piece of scholarship. I have absolutely zero training in linguistics, so I can’t evaluate it, but the logic is strong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *