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Sunday, November 14, 2010

World English vs American dialects: or how European intellectuals are making us all sound the same.

Although I spend most of my time as an amateur linguist and as a translator working with Spanish and Yiddish, I’ve never lost my love of my native tongue; English. Since English is the world’s strongest and most prominent language as well as the international lingua-franca of both the business world and academics, many people lose sight of the fact that English is still an ethnic mother-tongue of the English in Britain as well as the first language of hundreds of millions of others around the world. And like almost all languages (but not Israeli Hebrew), English regional variations enable her speakers to pin down where someone is from. English speakers can also often determine a speaker’s social class (in Britain) and (in the USA) their race from their accent. 

Hundreds of millions of people speak English as a second, third or fourth language around the world but most who’ve never lived in an English speaking country speak a fairly artificial academic form of the language that is from nowhere and yet can be understood anywhere. Obviously such people speak English with accents so upon meeting them you can tell quite clearly that they’re foreigners anyway. But even when they write you often realize that the person is not a native speaker because their grammar is too perfect, “with whom am I texting?”!!! or they use a combination of British and American vocabulary “I had spilled some fizzy-drink in my trunk” (which would sound bizarre to both a Brit and an American). There’s nothing wrong with this of course. They’re just missing the experience of speaking an authentic local English that is actually from somewhere.

The phenomenon of “world English” is societal and generational as much as it is linguistic. I’m always amazed to meet people from one European country who have a close friend from a second European country with whom they can only communicate in English despite it being neither of their native languages. Communication in English is the norm even with college educated people of my generation from different Eastern European countries. A generation ago such friendships, business contacts and romances would have occurred in Russian. An even more stunning example of the strength of English is the fact that it is becoming normal in Europe for two people from different countries upon meeting to defer to English, even when one of them speaks the others non-English mother tongue.

With the strength of “world English” and the development of several competing standard Englishes, native regional and dialectal variations of the language are in a precipitous decline. Regional accents are not as strong as they used to be. Grammatical quirks are being leveled out by exposure to mass media and strangely enough, by exposure to non-native English speakers who possess knowledge of a much more normative form of the language. While the average American two generations ago would have known only his own local dialect, today an educated person needs to possess a knowledge of the standard language and knowledge of a local dialect is considered superfluous at best. Although the differences between varieties of English in America are slight compared to variations found within other languages (with the exception of Ebonics/African American Vernacular English which is quite distinct), I still feel that something is being lost with the decline of regional accents. So to highlight some of these accents, especially for speakers of “World English” who use English on a daily basis but mostly communicate with fellow non-native speakers, I’ve found some audio-clips of many varieties of American English. Although Southern American English is mocked both in the US and in Europe (especially because of its association with George Bush), some varieties of these dialects are my favorites and I chose these clips with the additional goal of highlighting the linguistic diversity of the southern states. So without further ado here are some great examples of American accents.

Arkansas accent.

North Carolina accent.

Atlanta Georgia accent

Philadelphia accent. As I mentioned in a previous post, different neighborhoods in Philadelphia have their own accents (just like NYC and Boston). This is especially true among older lifelong residents. This accent could be Kensington, or Fishtown or (a long shot) South Philly. My own accent is closer to a North-East Philly accent with some interference from having lived in New Jersey for four years now. Nonetheless, few if any people from outside the city could distinguish my Philly accent from a South Philly or Kensington accent.

 West Virginia accent. (Speaker is black.)


 The famous Brooklyn accent.


 Canadian accent: Americans and Canadians can generally tell each other apart but some Americans from the northern Midwestern states speak dialects that sound like regular Canadian English, with the only difference being a few hundred telltale Canadianisms. The stereotypical difference is that Canadians pronounce about like “a-boot.” In reality they say “a-boat”, instead of the American “a-bout.” Canadians also pronounce several dozen words like British English. Among them are progress (pro-gress), controversy (con-trev-esy), schedule (shed-ul, not American skedule), and lever (leave-her). Canadian spelling btw is nearly halfway between British and American.

 For a bonus here’s a real Lithuanian Yiddish accent in English. In New York you hear Hasidic Jews who speak English with pronounced Hungarian Yiddish accents but it’s becoming rarer and rarer to hear English with the telltale Litvak lilt. This was an accent I grew up hearing all the time. 

For those of you interested in learning more about English in the United States, the following are some links from a website about a great PBS series on the topic:  
Here is a quiz from PBS with which you can test how well you can locate American accents

Information on Ebonics/African American Vernacular English.


  1. Bravo! i have the same taynes with klal-english.
    a constant complaint of my students is that they can understand English perfectly when speaking to a german or an italian or whatever, but not when speaking to an American or an Englishman.
    The materials I use mostly come from Britain, in one sense i think they have improved vastly over the years in terms of grammar and vocabulary, (The stuff from Cambridge in particular is very descriptive rather than prescriptive, and has a better mix of spoken grammar vs written grammar)
    But in terms of pronunciation they still seem to expect people to talk like educated englishmen from the 40's (and even educated englishmen from the forties don't even talk like that anymore!)
    (an example from an exercise called "words commonly mispronounced" some people pronounce the "r" in words like "car", "there" "bear", !)
    Unfortunately the students i have now all went to school in the 70's & 80's and whatever materials they were using then, are not the same as the ones I would use now.
    anyway i like bombarding my students with real english in class, so i might use some of your clips

  2. I found your article very interesting and having lived in 34 countries abroad I recognized the strength of World English. Oh' by the way I speak often in Yiddish with my brother who found your site.
    I am the UN representative for Universal Espereranto Association and collect the highlights of the Esperanto movement at EsperantoFriends.blogspot. and welcome you.
    It is my alternative source for international friendship(try Facebook or Ipernity). A truly neutral equal friendship is possible in Esperanto. As a native speaker of English I can't feel this in English with a non-native speaker.