Another Perspective

To Accent or No

How we sound says a lot of wonderful things about us -- or some perfectly awful things.

By 11.21.06

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My older son made friends with an English boy in his class a few years back, and we did some visiting with his parents. The parents thought it amusing that their son, Thomas, adopted an American accent for school purposes and spoke like an English boy only in their home.

"I heard him one day," his father recounted, "saying he was going to try out something, and he caught himself saying, 'I'll give it a go,' and instead said, 'I'll give it a try.'"

Cursed with acute hearing, I have bequeathed my boy Bud unaccented speech. Bud talks…well, like Brian Williams. How did I do that? By making fun of local locutions and teaching Bud to hear. I did not stop to consider the ramifications. This has cost Bud in the court of peer opinion. His confreres at school seem to regard him as a snob for correct speech. Massachusetts is like that. If we lived in Texas, would I have equally mocked the local tendency to say "awl" for "oil"? Something in New England speech grates me wrong, and has made me a stickler for diction.

IT HAS TO BE SAID THAT MOST AMERICANS don't hear very well Example: During the runup to the Iraq war, newscasters began to pronounce the name of a certain Middle Eastern state as "Cutter," instead of the formerly accepted "Kuh-TAR." Neither reflects the way Arabs say it, which is "KAH-TAR," both syllables accented in the metric foot called a spondee. The old way of pronunciation comes closer.

Similarly, a co-worker of mine used to make fun of me for what he saw as my affected pronunciation of the word "cassette." "KASS-ette," he'd laugh. I did not accent the first syllable, I simply pronounced it, with the "a" sounded as in "cat." My co-worker pronounced â€" and heard â€" unaccented vowels as "uh." It's a rampant American fault and accounts for our relatively poor performance learning foreign languages. "Effect" becomes "uh-FECT." Cassette becomes "kuh-SET."

Mysteriously, "immediate" does not get pronounced "uh-MEE-diut" but, laboriously, "ee-MEE-diut." Indeed, the presence of labor in speech bemuses me. Many of the characteristics of regional accents are very labor-intensive. Speech usually elides toward the easy. It is much easier to say "and" than the tortured New England "ee-und," much easier to say "ahn" than "oh-wahn" ("on"). Why do these pronunciations persist?

Regional diphthongs identify accents as clearly as anything. "The groin of the grine," say Australian golf announcers, meaning "the grain of the green." "I did that be-foe-ah (before)," says our local pharmacy clerk, with her Maine heritage showing. "Fay-ohn-t'n pin," says the Texan, meaning "fountain pen." Golfer Bobby Jones, from Georgia, and comedian Oliver Hardy, also a Georgian, said "learn" with an unreproducible vowel combination halfway between "line" and "loin."

MY BUGABOO, HOWEVER, IS THE GLOTTAL "T." Around here, you hear it especially in the phrase "at home," which becomes "a' home." A certain class of English speaker, heard especially on the BBC, employs glottal "t's" in a self-conscious way, as a cultural signal of knowingness or savvy or in-crowdism. Listen to a BBC reporter. He will not always use the glottal "t," but will suddenly begin to employ it the more insinuating becomes his tone.

Newly anointed CBS golf anchor Nick Faldo uses more glottals the more clever he becomes, a shame, because he is in fact clever, but the glottals render him almost incomprehensible to an American audience. You're a broadcaster now, Nick. Time for some speech lessons.

To the Pygmalion audience, a glottal "t" indicated a yob. Today's Brits have adopted it as part of a kind of commercial London speech known as "slurry."

WHAT DOES AN ACCENT SIGNIFY? I overheard a girl from Charlestown, who was taking a speech class, say that she had a hard time saying the terminal "r" in "brother" or "sister," instead of her accustomed "brothuh" or "sistuh." "It sounds unfriendly," she objected.

To my ears, au contraire, Eastern accents sound thuggish, threatening, and aggressive. TV and radio commercial producers use those accents to suggest savvy, but usually in a working class character, like a plumber. My wife finds Southern accents threatening, in a macho sort of way. In commercials, those cultural markers, Southern accents signify much the same thing as the working class Easterner: savvy about something nitty-gritty, like motor oil.

I would rather my boys talked like Bobby Jones than Archie Bunker. If I could choose an accent for my own, which I no longer can, I would talk like golf announcer and former Amateur champ Steve Melnyk, like Jones, a Georgian. But I strongly suspect that, like me, over time, my boys will end up talking without any real accent at all. My son Bud has noticed that his classmates' accents are less pronounced than their parents'. Absent some temporary fad, like slurry or Valley Girl, that is the established trend. I am really not sure if that is to be mourned or rejoiced.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.