Friday, November 14, 2008

More on Accents

First tonight I'd like to draw your attention to an exceedingly cool visitor I've had the last couple of days, Mike Flynn. If you haven't had a chance to look at his comments on Accents, I encourage you to do so; he has also commented on A Crazy Pattern in English and Cultural Diversity in the Future. His Accent comments include some terrific examples of dialects he has used in his own published work, so check them out. Also he has a new book out, The January Dancer, which you can find on Amazon if you'd like.

I thought I'd just add a little something to the accents discussion tonight, in particular about how people hear accents, not just how they utter them.

Early in life we begin to hear speech sounds and learn them. Studies show that children can recognize speech sounds very early, and like them, and pay more attention to them than to simple noises. By the time we are around six, our ability to learn totally new speech sounds usually shuts down, making it hard for us to sound nativelike in another language. During this critical period, what we're doing is processing the patterns of the speech sounds we here and creating phonemes.

Phonemes are not sounds. They are the ideas of sounds. "t", for example, is the idea of a sound, because depending on where it appears in a word, it can sound quite different, but English speakers still interpret it as "t."

I'll give you an example from my daughter. Until the age of three, she wasn't able to pronounce complex consonants at the beginning of syllables, like the "st" in "star." Her solution was to say the word without the "s" at the beginning. The problem was that the "t" in "star" is not aspirated, unlike the "t" in the word "tar." So when she said "star," to many people it sounded like "dar," because in English the voiced consonants are never aspirated.

The thing I find fascinating about this is that she had the "t" sound totally right, but because it lacked the context of the preceding "s," adults had problems interpreting it.

A chaos-theory view of language considers phonemes to be attractors. In the mind of a person who has well-established phonemes, like an adult, this is certainly the case. An adult mind will unconsciously regularize all sounds that closely resemble "t" and call them "t," even if they aren't quite. This is what's happening when the adult takes the unaspirated "t" and calls it "d." It's a really excellent skill to have, because it helps us interpret sounds that are degraded by surrounding noise, or over the phone, etc. But it makes it very hard for us to learn sounds that don't already form a part of our existing set.

Children who are still learning words as well as phonemes can interpret things in the most fascinating ways. Take my mom, for example, who as a child heard "Hail Mary full of grace" and thought it was "grapes" because the world "grace" didn't yet make sense to her.

My son loves Star Wars, and loves to recite things. He had a really interesting interpretation of General Grievous' speech, because of Grievous' unusual accent. He did regularize certain words into words he knew, because at five years old he knows a lot of words. For example, he turned "I have been trained in your Jedi arts" into "I have been dreamed in..." But on the other hand, he also has a very good ear for new sounds, and so he doesn't automatically regularize everything. He interpreted Grievous saying "the Outer Rim" as "The Outer Reem" - because that's exactly how Grievous said it.

I think this sort of thing gives writers great opportunities in dealing with people learning alien languages. I sometimes see hand-waving in stories about the misinterpretation of something that an alien or human said, but it would be great to see people actually dig into the nature of said misinterpretation. It also seems to me that this could be a great point of view tool, because it would enable people to show a contrast between the ways that different characters hear and interpret language.

Dig deeper. It will make your story fascinating.


  1. This is fascinating to me. I grew up in North Carolina, but don't have a perceptible Southern accent. We credit this to two things, the Research Triangle has a lot of transplants, so I wasn't hearing pure Southern for most of my life. I also had a speech impediment, which involved not saying the letter "r" and as most folks realize, dropping the r is a sizable part of the Southern accent.

    Fast forward to me as an adult. Living outside the south I will sometimes find myself, while listening to someone who does not have a southern accent, I will sometimes regularize as if they had one.

    For example. I complimented a friend's handwriting and what I heard her say was, "Thank you, I studied topography in school."

    I said, "Really? Mapmaking gives you good handwriting?

    She looked baffled and said, "No, I studied typography."

    Ah... the brain.

  2. I suppose that mapmaking would give you good handwriting, though. You make me wonder how you pronounce your r's now - from the "had" I conclude that you are. So does that mean your speech therapist trained you out of your southern accent? :-)

    I also have another friend from North Carolina who doesn't have much of an accent. Perhaps she was from the same region.

  3. Ah! Yes, I forgot to type the last part of the speech impediment story, which is that my speech therapist did indeed train me to pronounce them, thus wiping out a big marker for Southern accents.

  4. This is something I've been wondering about. My three year old son's obsession of the moment is "Fireman Sam" on PBS. This is a British import, and the most interesting thing about it to me are the sheer number of dialects they manage to get on screen, some of which I don't even know what they're supposed to be. He had a previous obsession with "Kipper" (another British show) and picked up some odd Britishisms (Biscuits and torch) but said these things normally. With Fireman Sam he has picked up a couple of words (Norman and Super-Soaker), that he drops the r's on, but rather than sounding British, he suddenly sounds like he's from N. Jersey or Brooklyn. I guess because that's closer to the rest of his speech patterns than southern or British? I don't know, but it totally cracks us up.


  5. The Turkish language has trouble with diphthongs at the beginnings of words. Instead of dropping the initial consonant, they add a vowel. So Greek Stamboul became Is-tam-bul; Smyrna became Iz-mir; Stephen became Ist-van, and so on. I suppose "star" would become "is-tar."

    I remember going to a play one time in (iirc) Innsbrueck, Austria. It was a German version of Oh Dad, Poor Dad! Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad. This became O Vater, Armer Vater! Mutter Hing Dich in dem Schrank und Ich bin so Krank. But the play featured a supporting character called (again, iirc) The Commodore. In the English language version, this character was played with a broad French accent. In the German version, I understood immediately that he was speaking German with a broad American accent. He accomplished this by pronouncing "w" like "w" and "z" like "z", not umlauting, vocalizing final "d", etc. So "wie geht's" would become "wee gates". "Hund" would be pronounced "h-uh-nd" instead of "hoont." Und so weiter. (Or should that be oont zo viter?)

    Speaking of t, I encountered an odd t in Chennai India: the tip of the tongue is placed in the middle of the hard palate and is pulled away very sharply. I don't know if this was a Hindi accent or a Tamil accent. (Or Telugu. My friend spoke all three.)

  6. Mike,

    Sounds like that might have been a plosive "t"... I hear those in Vietnamese sometimes, I think, where it's almost like a click because there's an enclosed air space created between tongue and palate.

    Spanish has similar troubles with initial complex onsets, but instead of "i" like the Turkish, they add "e." I'm sure you're familiar with many of the effects of this. The Spanish word for Spanish, for example, which is Espanol not Spanol...

    In Fawlty Towers the foolish character of Manuel, who spoke Spanish in the English version, got an interesting treatment when the show was translated into Spanish. He suddenly became Italian!

  7. Oh, and I almost missed K! (sorry).

    I think what you're seeing in your son, and the funny impression you get, comes from the idea of accent features. A lot of the same features occur across accents, and the accent as a whole is defined by a co-occurring constellation of these. So if only one feature gets picked up, and the whole relation of the whole is lost, then the general impression of the speech will end up being different.

  8. In Fawlty Towers the foolish character of Manuel, who spoke Spanish in the English version...

    Don't mind him; he's from Barcelona. [G]

    One time teaching in Vienna at a UN gig, my colleague, who was Spanish, got in a discussion with one of the students, who was from Venezuela. The Venezuelan wanted to know how in the world Spaniards knew when to lisp their s and z. Every rule he'd been taught had too many exceptions! You just have to memorize the words, quoth my friend.

    Spanish Americans don't lisp their s/z, so either their ancestors came from non-Castilian regions of Spain, or else that particular pronunciation came into use after the colonization of the New World.