Accentuating Accents: The Linguistic Hierarchy In the hierarchy of foreign and domestic accents, where does your accent fit in? A discussion of which accents came out on top in a ranking of favorites, and how different accents are perceived.
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Accentuating Accents: The Linguistic Hierarchy

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Accentuating Accents: The Linguistic Hierarchy

Accentuating Accents: The Linguistic Hierarchy

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Every time we open our mouths, we say volumes about who we are and where we're from. The flat vowels of the Midwest, the snappy patter of New York City, the varieties of drawl that characterize the South. And, of course, American English is seasoned with all sorts of exotic flavorings from just about every dialect of every language imaginable.

Many of those newly arrived in this country worry that their accent will embarrass them, and people who move from one part of the country to another are concerned that they'll sound like a rube or like somebody who's putting on airs. There is, in fact, a hierarchy of accents, foreign and domestic. Where does yours fit? Do you speak differently in different circumstances and why?

Later in the hour, we'll talk with a young man who spent years on death row for a crime he did not commit. But first, the hierarchy of accents, and we need to hear from you. Where does your accent place you? When does it work for you and when not? Our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is accentlessly, at

We begin with Dennis Preston. He's professor of linguistics and languages at Michigan State University. He's with us today from the University Relations Studio at Michigan State. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor DENNIS PRESTON (Linguistics and Languages, Michigan State University): Thanks very much. Good to be here.

CONAN: And if there's a hierarchy of accents, what's at the top?

Prof. PRESTON: Well, it depends on which hierarchy you're on. There's a regional hierarchy. Some regions are thought to speak better or be more pleasant. There's obviously a social status hierarchy. Sometimes working-class speech serves us well, sometimes upper middle-class speech serves us well. So from the work we've done, though, in attitude surveys all over the country, we find, unfortunately, that New York City and the American South have a tendency to be at the bottom of the prestige hierarchy, that is when language correctness is considered. New England's very often at the top of the hierarchy, but it's too snooty for a lot of people. And so the great fiction that there is an accentless or unaccented Midwest - which, of course, is a terrible fiction - very often puts Midwesterners at the top of the hierarchy, whoever Midwesterners are.

CONAN: And however they may define themselves. And you excluded upper-class accents. I mean, the - I guess I grew up in and around the city of New York, and we always used to call it Long Island lockjaw.

Prof. PRESTON: Well, us socio-linguists have never been able to study upper-class accents very well. We just don't have enough money…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PRESTON: …to pay respondents from that social group. We also find them to be very conservative and not, frankly, very interesting in the ebb and flow of American dialects. As dialect and accent change happens, it bubbles up from the bottom. And the old guys at the very top of the social heap, they're kind of like dinosaurs as far as we're concerned.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Also, we keep hearing that American accents are becoming homogenized by factors like, oh, radio, television and movies.

Prof. PRESTON: Nothing could be further from the truth. Every time you go to a Civil War movie, and the Northern generals speak Northern, and the Southern generals speak Southern, you should get up and walk out of the movie because it's a lie. Northern and Southern accents in American English are much further apart today than they were 100, 150 years ago.

You don't learn your accent from the movies. You learn your accent from the people you hang around with: your peers, your siblings, your parents. And certainly accents - maybe some other aspects of language, vocabulary - have homogenized a little bit, but certainly accents are alive and well and very distinctive in American English.

CONAN: And when we say - you say that there is, you know, some accents - New York and Southern accents, or at least some New York and some Southern accents, are perceived - because there are some Southern accents that sound really charming, and then some that are almost unintelligible.

Prof. PRESTON: Well, I think that what happens is that when people caricature accents, they very often caricature them prematurely - that is without actually listening to an accent. So they simply caricature the speech of a region in what I would call their mind's ear rather than in their real ear. And for example, Northern attitudes to Southern English, I think, have changed dramatically over the last 50 years.

When I was a kid, very often there was a "Gone With the Wind" caricature of a kind of crinolines and mint juleps Southern Accent that was a little aristocratic and maybe well thought of. This has been completely replaced by Beverly Hill - "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Dukes of Hazard"-type accent, and so now Southern accents are really at the bottom of the pile.

New York accents, of course, too, are kind of - have a kind of bi-modality to them. Everybody knows they're some posh stuff and opera and ballet and the United Nations in New York, but that's not the one that appeals most strongly to caricatures from outside New York. I'm afraid it's a kind of thugishness and lower status variety and gives New York a really bad rep as far as accent prejudices are concerned.

CONAN: So more "Goodfellas" than Cole Porter, perhaps.

Prof. PRESTON: I'm afraid so.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is California.

TIM (Caller): Hey, how you doing? Thank you for taking my call. I grew up as a military brat. My father was in the Navy, so I traveled from North to South, and now I'm out in California. But what I noticed was it'll - from moving North to South, North to South in the United States, my accent would change depending on where I was at almost immediately, within probably three to four weeks. So I remember one year I moved from Michigan down to Florida, and in that same year I moved from Florida to Rhode Island.

And when I was in Rhode Island, the kids would, you know - say your name, say your name and, you know, it was Tim Tillman(ph), and I'm from Orange Park, Florida. You know, so I had a really thick accent. But in a few months of living in New England, it was almost completely gone. And now it pretty much follows wherever I live, I pick up the accent. So - and I noticed in California, a lot of people are starting to sound like they're slightly from the South, like from Georgia or the northern Florida area, so it's kind of interesting. And those are people who were born and raised here. They tend to have a slight Southern accent…


TIM: …but that's my comment, and I'm not sure if you've done studies on people who've moved quite frequently, but I was one of those people.

CONAN: Well, Tim speaks to the intense social pressure that children feel to speak as their peers speak. Is that right, Dennis?

Prof. Preston: That's absolutely true. The only thing that's interesting here is that we've got some people like Tim who are really very good and very adept at changing quite rapidly. Now us linguists can still catch them. I mean if I hook him up to a spectrogram, I'd probably be able to trace all of these influences, not simply by ear. But some people change very slowly.

We also know that gender, for example, plays a strong role in this. Northern women who move South tend to change less rapidly than their Northern husbands who move South. There seems to be something masculine about Southern speech. The other thing that's interesting that Tim brought out is he says that that they've got some Californians who are beginning to sound like Southerners. I believe these are actually two independent facts.

I believe that in many parts of California now, the back vowels - vowels in words like hoot and good and so forth - are moving front so that we're getting hoot and good, and these, of course, parallel the fronting of the same vowels in the South. And that may just be what struck his ear.

CONAN: Hmm, all right…

TIM: That's very possible, yeah. But I do say dude a lot, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

TIM: I'm not sure what that says, but…

CONAN: Well, it depends how long you use that dude, that vowel there.

TIM: I'm not quite into bro yet, but, yeah, dude I use quite frequently, daily, so there you go. All right. Well, thank you for your time.

CONAN: OK, Tim, thanks very much for the call.

TIM: All right, good-bye.

CONAN: I also had a sister-in-law who moved from Worcester, Massachusetts to Springfield area in Massachusetts, and her people in her old neighborhood sniffed that she was developing a Connecticut accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PRESTON: Well, you cross the Connecticut River, there's a big difference, of course. East of the Connecticut River is generally R-less, the thing that we associate with stereotypical Boston speech. But cross the Connecticut River, and most of it's R-fral(ph). People no longer say car and here. They say car and here. So it'd be easy to make fun of for crossing just that little river.

CONAN: Joining us now is David Alan Stern. He's founder of Dialect Accent Specialists, a professor of dramatic art at the University of Connecticut. I guess he knows all that stuff pretty well. He joins us member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut, right there on the dividing line, the Connecticut River. Nice to have you on the program.

Professor DAVID ALAN STERN (Founder, Dialect Accent Specialists): Exactly, exactly. Hi, Neal, it's a joy to be here and to be with Dennis as well.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. STERN: Yeah, the - that exact move that you just described is a major, major move. I often characterize - Dennis will agree, some people talk about a non-regional accent, and whenever someone says non-regional, I say, well, which region of non-regional are you talking about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: But Springfield, Mass. and north central Connecticut is an area that I characterize in the Eastern, non-regional area. So if somebody is coming from the Boston area into Springfield, they're literally going from an area where there's a harsh Massachusetts accent to a place where someone's talking more like I'm talking now.

CONAN: Hmm. Interesting, there's a cultural divide, too. The Connecticut Valley tends to be Yankee country, really, even in southern Massachusetts. Of course, to the East, that's all Red Sox nation.

Prof. STERN: Oh, yeah. And having grown up actually in New London, Connecticut, which is approximately halfway…


Prof. STERN: …between Boston and New York, right on the old New Haven Railroad, and you not only had half the population of my high school being Red Sox and half of them being Yankees, you had half of them with a Boston influence in their speech and half of them with a New York influence in their speech…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: …depending upon which direction their parents came from.

CONAN: Must have made those intramural games pretty interesting. Anyway…

Prof. STERN: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: …you teach people how to get rid of their accents if they want to. Why do they come to you?

Prof. STERN: Well, this was, of course, back in my private practice days. I'm more university based now. But when I started working in L.A., in basically a Hollywood practice for the purpose of teaching American actors to put on regional and non-native accents, I found within the first month that I hung out my shingle that more than 50 percent of the initial calls that I was getting were people with regional dialects or with the accents of foreign languages who were hoping to be able to play the roles of native speakers.

So my initial fledgling steps into - if you want to call it accent or dialect reduction or modification, or trying to move them toward a less-recognizable identity - was strictly for the purpose of the entertainment industry, of playing roles…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. STERN: …of people who had different accents. Once I started doing that, others in business and professional world - politicians, clergy people - starting coming with the same request. And I wasn't always totally eager to do what they wanted because I found that I was not looking down on their regional speech patterns as much as they themselves were.

CONAN: Hmm. We'll pursue this line of questioning when we come back from a short break. We're speaking with David Alan Stern, the founder of Dialect Accent Specialists, a professor of dramatic art at the University of Connecticut. Also with Dennis Preston, a professor of linguistics and languages at Michigan State University. If you'd like to join the conversation, no matter how you speak, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We all love a good accent. Who hasn't tried on a Connery-style Bond, James Bond? And today we're talking about the hierarchy of accents in this country, what yours says about you. Still with us: Dennis Preston, professor of linguistics and languages at Michigan State, and David Alan Stern, who is a professor of dramatic art at the University of Connecticut. You're invited to join us. Where does your accent place you? Have you tried to change it? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And now let's turn to Kathy, Kathy with us from Denver, Colorado.

KATHY (Caller): Well, good afternoon, Neal.

CONAN: Good afternoon, Kathy.

KATHY: Well, basically, my comment is I'm a trial lawyer in Denver, and I'm originally from the South. And I have noticed with juries that as the trial goes on, my accent seems to become more pronounced, whether I intend it to or not. And afterwards, when I talked to juries about what was important to them and how they made their decisions and what influences them, I've found that lawyers with Southern accents seems - they seem to be trusted more by a jury.

CONAN: Is the "Matlock" effect?

KATHY: I think it is, and it seems to work quite well…


KATHY: …for me, at least.

CONAN: What do you think, Dennis Preston?

Prof. PRESTON: That's a very interesting observation. It's very clear that hierarchies are not all based on this kind of silly scale of correctness, where people talk good and where people talk bad. They're also based on other scales, and we've discovered this in some of our research on attitudes in Michigan, which I think are not very far from this Colorado attitude. There's another scale which has to do with down-to-earthness. It's associated with honesty, reliability, common sense, and to a certain extent, some Southern voices evoke this.

We found, for example, that Michiganders actually preferred Southern voices and Southern speech for a whole bunch of things like honesty, friendliness, and down-to-earthness. And I have no doubt that that's playing a role in these decisions, although she needn't worry about being just emotionally involved to have her Southern speech comes out. It's pretty clear to me…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PRESTON: …that she comes from the homeland and not from Colorado.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATHY: That's funny to me, because I'm intentionally trying not to have a Southern accent right now.

Prof. PRESTON: Then you mustn't say intentionally. You must change that "ih" to an "eh" before nasals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Kathy, I'm just working hard to say Colorado and not Colorado, so.

Prof. STERN: Neal, there's also the question - and I'd be interested also in getting Dennis' take on this - of whether or not when a speaker is under pressure or heavily emotionally invested in something that's happening, whether in those situations the dialect of origin is more likely to come back.

Now I'll give you my - you know, I'll come clean. I don't know whether Dennis has picked up my Brooklyn-ese yet, but, you know, I'm originally from Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, so I would have been talking like this if I'd never left and become a dialect coach. Now I find that even though I make my living making hours and hours and hours and hours of instructional recordings, there are times if I'm a little bit under the gun, when I listen back to something that I've just done and I'll hear I and my and are and things like that coming out that I would have hoped I'd have left behind decades ago.

CONAN: And maybe I listened too much sports radio from New York, but I hear that accent, I'll say Mets fan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Anyway, Kathy, thanks very much for the call.

KATHY: Thank you.

Prof. PRESTON: Well, I don't understand this at all. I mean, the more emotionally involved I become, the less and less I sound like I'm from Kentucky, where I'm originally from. So you can tell right now that I couldn't be very emotionally involved in this, because I haven't switched anything like a Kentucky accent. I'm still talking like the phony Michigander I was earlier.

CONAN: Amy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: And you put a few glasses of wine into my wife and me, and she sounds like a Texan, and I sound like a New Yorker.

CONAN: Amy, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, writes us on e-mail: Not only do I use different accents but different words, depending on the region I'm in. In the Northeast, my home region, a carbonated syrup-based beverage is pop. In Oklahoma, my home now, it is referred to as Coke, one of the only places I've heard what kind of Coke do you want?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'd not heard that. But, of course, David Alan Stern, if it was in Eastern Massachusetts, it would be tonic.

Prof. STERN: It would be tonic, exactly. The first time I - I was actually an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, where I'm now on the faculty. And coming from a different part of Connecticut and meeting Bostonians really for the first time during freshman week having someone say, when I had a Coke in my hand, where'd you get the tonic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Dave, Dave with us from San Mateo in California.

(Soundbite of rattling sound)

DAVE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hello.

DAVE: And I'm originally from Louisville, Kentucky, and I did not - deliberately did not want to sound like my parents and my brothers when I grew up, and I tried to get away from it and somewhat successfully. I don't really sound like them that much now when I go back there. I live in California now, obviously. But when I - I'm a musician, and when I get on stage, and especially when I used to tip a few on stage, it would seriously come out strong.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Again, under stress, David Alan Stern.

Prof. STERN: Yeah…

DAVE: Not so much stress as - no, because I'm not very - I'm not stressed on stage, I'm at home on stage, but (unintelligible)…

Prof. STERN: Stress or a performance mode.

CONAN: Performance mode.

DAVE: Exactly.

CONAN: All right.

Prof. STERN: How can…

Prof. PRESTON: There was a wonderful study - sorry. There's a wonderful study by Peter Trudgill showing the early Americanization of accents in Beatles and Rolling Stones music and how this deteriorated over the years as they got more confidence in using working-class British pronunciation in their songs. But at first, their performance mode - especially the Stones - was very, very much American accents and very much American Southern accents.

CONAN: Well, they were covering a lot of American songs, too, so.

Prof. STERN: And back in '60s, I can remember being in England in the '60s and having middle-aged people say to me, well, you don't have that ghastly American accent at all. Because they were thinking of an American accent as the kind of rock and roll accent: a little bit of Southern, a little bit of African-American, a little bit of East Coast, a little bit of Nashville all thrown in.


DAVE: May I add something?

CONAN: Go ahead.

DAVE: Yeah, well, I notice - and it annoys my girlfriend because I always get annoyed at it - that so many times there seems to be a gratuitous British accent used in American commercials or announcements.

CONAN: Ah, that…

DAVE: Something to do with…

CONAN: That has to do with our affection, David Alan Stern, do you think, for the British accent?

Prof. STERN: Well, there - I would say that that would have been the case a few decades ago. I'm not sure it's quite as much of an issue now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. STERN: But back in the '30s and '40s and a little bit into the '50s - the early days of what's called the Golden Age of television - much of American drama was done with what show business called the mid-Atlantic accent. I don't know whether that means that you have to be from Atlantis in the middle of the country.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: To me, it just meant a sort of a pseudo-British accent where you pronounced the medial Ts, possibly you said British instead of British…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. STERN: …you focused the sound more in the front of the mouth. You had the R coloration dropping off of here, there, everywhere. And we've gotten much more to the point now in American drama where American actors are not being required to sound like the characters that are not American anymore.

CONAN: Dennis Preston, does your research show that we have an affection for the British accent, particularly that if somebody speaks it, we'll go buy whatever they're selling?

Prof. PRESTON: I don't think so. I think if anything, our attitude towards British English - which is not very discriminating, by the way. We don't really discriminate amount kinds of British accents. But I think if anything we find it too stuffy, too snooty, too posh. So maybe if you want to sell something very expensive that appeals to your posh side, a British accent might do it. But in ordinary communication with most ordinary people in the United States, it'd be something to avoid, I think.

Prof. STERN: In fact I've found that the Australian dialect has replaced the British dialect as the out-of-North-America dialect of choice for selling things in America.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Andrew - Andrew with us from Sacramento, California.

ANDREW (Caller): Good day, mate. (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And there it is. Is that genuine, or is that a put-on?

ANDREW: Oh, no, no. I'm genuine Aussie, yep. And I say my accent would put me at the bottom, I suppose, bottom of the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Prof. PRESTON: Not at all.

Prof. STERN: But not of the social status (unintelligible).

Prof. PRESTON: Not at all in America. Uh-uh, certainly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDREW: I hope you haven't (unintelligible)…

Prof. STERN: What part of Australia are you from?

ANDREW: I'm from a little country village called Young in New South Wales, about four hours from Sydney.

Prof. STERN: It's a really - you've got those intense vowels, a few vowels…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: …where there's only eh, eh in front of the eh.

ANDREW: Uh-huh…

Prof. STERN: And the…

ANDREW: …and I take the tonic, and just finished a glass of water.

Prof. STERN: Water.


Prof. STERN: Australian used to be characterized as cockney through the nose…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: …because of the original founding of Australia by mostly British convicts with London street accents.

ANDREW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. STERN: But what happens in Australia is the back of the tongue comes up quite high…


Prof. STERN: …and the sound stream bounces off of the vellum(ph) of the soft pallet, giving it that sort of twang. It's not - sometimes it'll get to the point where there's a little bit of a simulated nasality, and some of the sound will actually come out through the nose…

ANDREW: Uh-huh.

Prof. STERN: …but mostly it's just that sound stream bouncing off of the soft pallet.

CONAN: And Andrew, how do you find your accent works for you in this country?

ANDREW: I'm treated with lots and lots of respect and fascination. Everybody wants me to talk to them, and I feel very special when I'm here.

CONAN: Hmm, well…

ANDREW: But a British researcher came to Australia about 10 years ago and found that actually there's no regional differences in the accent in Australia, but there is quite a strong difference between the male and female sound.

CONAN: Really? Dennis Preston, have you heard of that?

Prof. PRESTON: Yes. Yeah. Regional distribution on Australia is not very strong, but social class distinction on Australia, male and female, immigrant varieties are very, very strong indeed. But there's not as intense regional distribution. The one variety seems to have covered the whole country. But certainly social class and sex are very, very strong distinctions.

CONAN: Why would there be a difference in sexes and does that manifest itself in this country?

Prof. PRESTON: Oh, my goodness yes. Men and women don't talk at all alike. Men are almost always more authentic representations of the local, regional dialect than women are. Women are almost always - we've found in almost ever socio-linguistics survey we've ever done - more likely to use whatever the perceived local or even national standard is than men. And this is quite aside from say things like selection of vocabulary and so forth. It cuts right across the grammar as well as the pronunciation.


Prof. STERN: Neal, one of the things - and this based strictly on my observation, not on any research - but it seems to me that one of the male-female differentiations in Australia is that females in Australia are much more likely to use the upward inflections at the ends of the sentences. Sort of mimicking a little bit of the…

CONAN: They have valley…

Prof. STERN: …surfer dude and valley girls speak that's moving very - has moved very quickly from west to east in the United States.

CONAN: Hmm. Andrew, thanks very much and appreciate it.

ANDREW: Cheers, mate. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye. E-mail - this is from Mark in Columbus, Ohio.

Perhaps this has already been asked and answered. I'm wondering if there are audio courses on CD that would teach various British accents. For example, this might be used by actors when the role calls for an accent or dialect.

David Alan Stern?

Prof. STERN: I guess I get to plug my products now.

CONAN: I guess you do.

Prof. STERN: There - yes, I have a series out called acting with an accent. It's 25 CDs for different regional and national dialects of English and also foreign accents. So specifically in answer to that question I have one for a range of standards southern British, a range of - another one for London and Cockney styles. One for the north of England, etc.

CONAN: Hmm. And which accent do you use to try to sell these?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: Well, happily it's my office manager who's doing most of the selling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: Although originally from New Jersey, she speaks in a pretty good non-regional tongue.

CONAN: David Alan Stern is the founder of Dialect Accent Specialists. Also with us, Dennis Preston of Michigan State University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we all learn to speak - how do you teach somebody to speak an accent? For example, where I grew up in north Jersey, my mother grew up in Jersey City. And anytime I started to speak as if I was actually from north Jersey a large red welt would appear on my cheek, which is why I speak the way I speak - and therefore. But how would you teach somebody, a reprobate like me, to speak, for example, Jersey City.

Prof. STERN: Well, of course, Jersey City and Newark are - if we look at the research - are the two cities in north Jersey that are very much within the New York City dialect region. So what I would do - I would start maybe a little bit differently than a linguistic researcher would do. Rather than starting with the specific vowel and specific consonant changes, Neal, I would have you do a sort of a pantomime of chewing gum primarily with the front of your mouth.

If we weren't several hundred miles away I could show you this. But sort of going…

(Soundbite of chewing)

Prof. STERN: Not opening your mouth real wide, but really pumping down with the jaw and lower lip.

CONAN: Jaw and - yay, I see how it…

Prof. STERN: And then starting to follow through with words from that pumping to go, one, two…

CONAN: One, two, three.

Prof. STERN: …three. And then six, seven, eight.

CONAN: Eight.

Prof. STERN: Did you hear? You had - you - for all intents and purposes changed the pronunciation of the A. You put a little A or shwa in front of it. Not because you read that phonetically and not because I told you to do a different pronunciation, but because that physicalization of the jaw brought the tongue into that position. So you were saying great day instead of great day.

CONAN: And strangely stigmata has appeared on my cheek. It's fascinating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STERN: Now, I wish I would say that every single pronunciation change in every target dialect was accessible through a kinesthetic or a muscular change. It certainly isn't. But some of them are, and that would be the way that I would get started.

Prof. PRESTON: Yeah. What we've discovered recently is that visual input is also very, very helpful in imitating the sounds of a foreign language or another accent. We have some interesting current research which shows us that if you actually explain to people what way forms and spectrograms are and let them see these in an active display while they're making their sounds, they can then, in fact, they can modify almost without instruction their internal vocal mechanisms so that they get a match with what they see on a screen.

CONAN: A biofeedback.

Prof. PRESTON: Yeah. So I think these appeal to musculature, appeals to visual imagery and so forth, are probably very, very effective in people learning other languages, other varieties of their own language.

CONAN: Amin(ph)…

Prof. PRESTON: And it…

CONAN: I just wanted to get to this before we got to the break. Amin in San Francisco writes an e-mail.

You mentioned people love the sound of a different accent. And as an Irishman living in America who used to live in England, I have to agree with you based on my experience of chatting to girls in bars. People are attracted to those of the opposite sex who are from somewhere far away. And the attractiveness of a different accent could be nature's way of preventing inbreeding.

Dennis Preston, what do you think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PRESTON: One of my students is recently working in the southern part of China, where, in fact, one of the regulations is you must marry a woman from a village whose dialect is different from yours. We also speculate that linguistics in some areas, in some regions - in the Valpei(ph) region in the upper Amazon in Brazil, for example, you must marry a woman from a village not who speaks a different dialect but who speaks an unintelligibly different language.

So this phenomenon - I think that probably this speculation is quite correct. It's one of the many devices that we use to avoid I guess what we might euphemistically call too close marriage.

CONAN: David Alan Stern, in the days when you went to bars and chatted up girls, what accent did you use?

Prof. STERN: Well, of course, depending upon how many I'd tipped back it was probably my original Brooklyn-ese. But if I'm at cocktail parties it's usually other people who are asking me to put on the different accents, rather my making the decision to do it myself.

CONAN: I see.

Well, we'll take a couple of more calls on this when we come back from a short break. We have to go to that now, but we'll also be talking when we come back with Shareef Cousin who was sentenced to death at 16 only to be exonerated two years later and released. He'll share his story and talk about a new documentary project coming to PBS. So stay with us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: Right now we're talking about American accents with Dennis Preston, a professor of linguistics and languages at Michigan State University. And David Alan Stern, founder of Dialect Accent Specialists and professor of dramatic art at the University of Connecticut.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Priscilla. And Priscilla's with us from Tucson, Arizona.

PRICILLA (Caller): Hello.


PRISCILLA: Hi. Well, I started studying English when I was 10 years old in Brazil. And when I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts I spoke English with a very thick Brazilian accent. And I had a hard time understanding their English there.

After living in Worcester for nearly six years I developed a different accent, and as I would pronounce party and here and there. And after about three years a lot of people in Worcester would have a hard time to figure out what kind of accent I had because I spoke different from Brazilians.

And I moved to Tucson like a year and a half ago. And people would approach me thinking that I'm Mexican, and when I started speaking with them they would look at me with a funny face and say, where are you from. Because you don't sound like Mexican. I'm like no, I'm not Mexican.

You don't pronounce RE's either like in Boston. And I'd say yeah, well, I lived in Massachusetts for a while. I've never had problems with my accent. People usually understand me pretty well. I think the only time I've had a problem was in some remote area in Alabama.

CONAN: Yes. But I suspect you don't order (unintelligible) anymore.

PRISCILLA: I'm sorry?

CONAN: You don't order (unintelligible) anymore. You now speak with a much more textured tone, more Arizonan.


CONAN: Yeah.

PRISCILLA: I don't know, but I really don't have a - I don't have a problem with anybody understanding my English.

Prof. STERN: Well, Priscilla, you're certainly not dropping your Rs (ahhs) like they would Worcester.

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PRISCILLA: No, I think I pronounce the Rs now, don't I?

Prof. STERN: Oh, you certainly do. Uh, huh.

CONAN: I wonder, Dennis Preston, can you hear the Brazilian base there, though?

Prof. PRESTON: Well, the homage to the (unintelligible) Brazil - yes, of course, I can hear some Brazilian Portuguese, but it's pretty far in the background. And Priscilla's exactly right. I mean, her fluency in American English is quite good. My guess is most native speakers of English would detect what for them would be a kind of undifferentiated foreignness and it would be difficult for them to determine where she was from.

Prof. STERN: I agree completely. I mean, Priscilla's speech would probably be characterized by most as a slight accent from somewhere. And when people are really acclimating themselves with American English, I think one of the first things that makes native English speakers more comfortable with a non-native speaker is not necessarily even the pronunciation of the individual vowels and consonants, but whether the inflections are moving in the direction that the listeners are used to hearing.

Whether the rhythm of the language - some languages that are in a totally different rhythm, and if a speaker of that accent simply starts to elongate the syllables and change the pitch some, then a native speaking listener is going to become much more comfortable with that speech pattern.

PRISCILLA: Yeah. Well, I'm usually like - as I'm still single and when I meet guys they're like I love your accent.

CONAN: Then keep it. It's working for you.

PRISCILLA: Yeah. Don't lose it. I'm like I don't know.

CONAN: Priscilla, thanks very much for the call.

PRISCILLA: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Richard in Jacksonville, Florida.

Please demonstrate the Jamaican accent and explain why it sounds so familiar with the rural Irish accent. Words like face - he says - are pronounced the same by both peoples.

David Alan Stern?

Prof. STERN: I would say that the word face would be pronounced the same by a Jamaican and a northern Irish speaker, like Gerry Adams, who was on the news about 45 minutes ago. So in Jamaican they're going to say it's a great day in Jamaica with that upward inflection as the A turns into a double or triple vowel.

And in Northern Ireland, it's a great day in Belfast, with that upward rising inflection and the extension of the vowel as well.

CONAN: Yeah, but that's a Catholic Irish Northern accent.

Prof. STERN: Not exclusively. Although…

CONAN: You could pretty well, Belfast, you know, then you can…

Prof. STERN: Ian, it's true that Ian Paisley who's also in the news.


Prof. STERN: Didn't have nearly the harshness of that sound but a lot of Protestants in Northern Ireland will really have that heavy Northern sound as well.

CONAN: Well, my producer is from Kingston and she's rolling on the floor with laughter. So anyway, let's see if we can get one more caller on the air. This is Bob. Bob is with us from California.

BOB (Caller): Yeah, hi. My wife and I always have an argument about accent. And I say that it's all relative that to someone from the South, I would have an accent or someone on the radio would have an accent to them and she goes: no, that's just how people talk and this person with us in the South only has the accent.

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CONAN: So I guess the question being is there a standard American accent? Dennis Preston?

BOB: Right.

Prof. PRESTON: Well, I supposed that what we have to admit is that, of course, some accents are more prejudice against than others. This has to do with class. It has to do with ethnicity, and it even has to do with regional stereotypes. I supposed we'll have to admit that there's a kind of pseudo or phony general American accent. It's not the case by the way that most national news announcers use it. They're clearly identifiable. I can tell you where Dan Rather came from. I can tell you where Katie Couric came from. I can certainly tell you where Peter Jennings came from and so forth. But there is this idea that the better educated a speaker is from a region the less likely they will show profoundly regional characteristics.

So I wouldn't say that there was one standard American English but there is a tendency for speakers from different regions to fall together a little more to higher up the educational scale. But the idea that there is a single accent, a single pronunciation of standard American English is simply not true. So in this case, and I hope they don't find anything sexist in this, I think the winner is the man in this discussion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much. And, David Alan Stern, would you agree with that? That there's no standard, real standard American English?

Prof. STERN: Oh, clearly there isn't. I mean, drama schools for years have been trying to insist that there is. But, as I said a few minutes ago, anytime someone says I want to learn a non-regional American, my response will be the flavor of non-regional that comes from Massachusetts or the flavor that comes from central California or the flavor that comes from certain parts of the Great Plains. Something is always identifiable.

But as Dennis said, there are some areas that are not as clearly identifiable to the general public as others. So, you know, I know that he is - somebody listening to a given speaker. I know that she's not from New York, I know she's not from the South, I know she's not from Boston, but I'm not sure where. So that, sort of, becomes the operational definition of non-regional for a lot of people.

CONAN: Okay. Well, thanks very much for that. David Alan Stern, the founder of Dialect Accent Specialists, professor of dramatic art at the University of Connecticut, with us today from the studios of our member standard Hartford, WNPR. Thanks very much.

Prof. STERN: Thanks, Neal. It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: And Dennis Preston was with us from University Relations Study at Michigan State University, where he is a professor of linguistics and languages. Thank you for your time.

Prof. PRESTON: Thanks, Neal. Enjoyed it.

CONAN: And when we come back we'll be talking with a man who spent years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

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