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what affects the variables in a language's regional accents?
July 13, 2010 7:50 PM   Subscribe

in english, for the most part, it's vowel sounds that differ across regional accents. in other languages i've studied (italian, hungarian), consonant transpositions seem to be more common. what gives? or am i even drawing accurate conclusions?

this is a hard question to ask because i have so little information to go on. but it seems like the most dramatic feature of various regional english accents is their vowel variation. meanwhile in italian, a florentine might replace the K sound with H, and in hungarian a budapestian might say vayok instead of vagyok (if my vague memory is correct). my understanding is that vowel sounds in italian are mostly the same across the country.

1a. is it true that in some languages, consonants are what vary the most, whereas in other languages, vowels vary more?

1b. if so, what aspects of the language or culture govern or affect this?

2. if that generalization is unfounded, is there a way to explain why a certain language has the variables it does in its regional accents? for example, you'd never find an english accent that consists of dropping K sounds (right?). i imagine it has something to do with what phonemes create meaning or differentiate among words -- we need our K sounds, but in italian, words rely more on unique vowel sounds/combinations?
posted by nevers to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Boston "Southie" accent, and perhaps more so the Maine Downeast accent both are well known for dropping r's.. e.g. "Pahk yo cah in havhad yahd". The strange thing here is that some speakers will actually add random r's to words that don't have them even though they drop them regularly in words that do have them. I've caught my dad saying "Nevadrr" when referring to that place where Las Vegas is, and he definitely intended no irony.
posted by mbatch at 8:15 PM on July 13, 2010


In Italian, at least, there is some vowel differentiation in various regional dialects. Sicilian is the one I'm most aware of, e is sometimes replaced with i and o is sometimes replaced with u -- hence, "padre nostro" in Italian is "patri nostru".
posted by katemonster at 8:19 PM on July 13, 2010


For what it's worth, English has some regional and culture-based differences in consonant pronunciations, although many would just call one of the pronunciations an error.
Off the top of my head:
Dropping initial h sounds.
Dropping final f sounds.
Replacing the "wh" sound with a "w" sound.
Dropping internal dental plosives and either replacing with a glottal stop or slurring the two syllables together entirely (e.g. Oh no you di'in't)
Replacing t with d (boddle o' beer.)

I'm sure there are tons more, but you get the idea.

I disagree about adding and dropping r sounds though. The r in "rest" is a consonant, but the r in "hurt" or "Nevader" is part of a diphthong--a vowel sound.
posted by agentofselection at 8:20 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Regarding English's regional treatment of consonants, I learned a new term for dropping the r in this thread.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:20 PM on July 13, 2010


sorry, completing my thought: is "patri nostru" in Sicilian.
posted by katemonster at 8:20 PM on July 13, 2010


As far as my ears tell me, it's primarily the palatized consonants which differ in Hungarian, which isn't probably as big a change as you'd really think - just a slightly different placement of the tongue. Otherwise, it seems to me to be a pretty uniform language (having been throughout pretty much every area where Hungarian is spoken), aside from local word differences. A lot of languages have similar slight differences, such as the "ch" in German.

In my native language, Serbo-Croatian, there's more difference in vowels than consonants - typically in the relative elongation of vowel sounds.

My guess is that it doesn't have anything to do with what phonemes "create meaning," so to speak, but rather historical and regional cultural influences. This certainly would describe many of the regional accents in English and how they handle vowels (and it also is part of the reason that English spelling is so oddly inconsistent.)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:30 PM on July 13, 2010


What about the stereotypical New York mobster accent? That seems to be mostly consonants, e.g. "d" for "th", "w" for internal or ending "r", dropping internal and ending "t"s.

"Dees guys ain' from New Yawk, whaddya wannus ta do wid'em?"
posted by fings at 8:31 PM on July 13, 2010


To answer your second question, sound change, which is responsible for both accent variation and the historical development of spoken language, follows particular patterns (although these are post-facto descriptive rather than predictive) - I'm not familiar with the Florentine accent, but it sounds like a type of lenition. Lenition, incidentally, also occurs in some English accents (butter > budder is technically termed intervocalic alveolar flapping), so the same class of changes do occur in English.

To answer the first question, I've never seen a quantitative comparison between consonant and vowel change across languages, but I suspect that consonant change is easier for an outsider to notice (vowels change on a continuum and are notoriously difficult to pin down).
posted by Paragon at 8:36 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


IANALinguist (and this is only partially related), but I'd suggest that to a certain extent it derives from the natural evolution of spoken languages.

Take for instance the tuscan (especially florentine) gorgia where the k, and to a somewhat lesser extent the t and p sounds are 'muted', so 'casa' (house) is pronounced 'hasa', 'lato' (side) is pronounced 'latho', or 'capo' (head) becomes 'capho'.

I'd suppose it is somewhat related to that process that evolved latin words in anglosaxon languages such as father (lat. pater), mother (lat. mater) or horn (it. corno)

It's probably older than italian itself: Catullus' carme 84 begins:

Chommoda dicebat, si quando commoda vellet
dicere, et insidias Arrius hinsidias,
[...]
Credo, sic mater, sic liber avunculus eius,
sic maternus avus dixerat atque avia...

(Arrius used to say 'chommoda' for 'commoda' and 'hinsidias' for 'insidias'. I believe his mother and his uncle - who had been a slave - and his maternal grandparents spoke this way)
posted by _dario at 8:48 PM on July 13, 2010


Offhand, a few other regional/class consonant variations in English:

Formal -ing versus -in, "running" vs. "runnin'"

Irish semi-dental "t" (approaching unvoiced th of standard English)

Working-class London "f" for unvoiced th, "v" for voiced th ("I ain't bovvered!")
posted by Creosote at 8:54 PM on July 13, 2010


I suspect that consonant change is easier for an outsider to notice

And perhaps harder for an insider to notice. Butter/budder and bottle/boddle don't seem very striking to me (I never noticed it until it was just pointed out), but maybe a Hungarian would notice it a lot more strongly and then logs into KérdezMetaszűrő and starts off his question with, "in hungarian, for the most part, it's vowel sounds that differ across regional accents. in other languages i've studied (english), consonant transpositions seem to be more common."
posted by deanc at 8:55 PM on July 13, 2010


When I think about dialects in Hungarian, the first one that comes to mind is Palóc, which is well known for shortening the vowel sounds and using the -á where the more standard dialect would use an -a or an -e sound. It is pretty distinctive sounding in Hungarian, and when my father tries to imitate it, he does so by messing around with the vowels.

The Hungarian the Székely speak in Transylvania seems to my ear to have a lot more -é sounds than standard Hungarian, almost in a drawling fashion.

I'm no linguist, but at least to my ears Hungarian regional accents do seem to rely upon vowel changes, at least to some extent.

Dee's point re: differences in vocabulary is also well taken - this is especially noticeable when speaking with Hungarian speakers in Transylvania (my family is from eastern Hungary), but I have learned interesting new words, particularly agricultural words and floral/fauna names, from people in the western half of Hungary - which today is only a few hours drive away from the area where my family is from.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 9:17 PM on July 13, 2010


Butter/budder and bottle/boddle don't seem very striking to me

Ah, good point. I've read that accent variation tends to occur much more often among allophones in free variation.

Allophones are a bit of a complicated concept: languages divide up their meaningful units of sound differently. So, for example, in English we make no distinction in meaning between the 'p' sound in "pin" and the 'p' sound in "spin", and because we don't make that distinction it's very difficult for us to hear the difference. (If you're interested, the 'p' in "pin" has much more breathy aspiration after it - sounding something like p-hin.) Instead, in this case, we distribute the two sounds automatically according to where they appear in a syllable (complementary distribution). The two sounds are allophones of one phoneme.

But in many languages, these are two different sounds (i.e. they're considered separate phonemes). There are words that begin with one 'p' and words that begin with the other, and changing from one to the other changes the meaning in the same way that changing from "pin" to "bin" changes the meaning in English. To speakers of those languages, the difference is obvious and essential.

Free variation happens when there are allophones that don't follow a complementary distribution - instead, speakers can use one or the other and both make sense. But those choice of one or the other becomes the accent.
posted by Paragon at 9:28 PM on July 13, 2010


for example, you'd never find an english accent that consists of dropping K sounds (right?)

You'll find English accents that drop K sounds in certain contexts. Think of someone who pronounces "picture" and "pitcher" alike, or who pronounces "asked" as "ast," or "except" as "cept."

(And for what it's worth, the Florentine K-turns-to-H thing is also context-dependent. Florentine Italian speakers don't lose all their K's; just some.)

Also, what Paragon says about allophony is right on. There are loads of options in between "Pronounce K" and "Drop K" — some dialects pronounce their K's with more force, some with less, some with more aspiration, and so on. But those variants all sound more or less alike to most English speakers, so we don't notice them (or talk about them, or form stereotypes based on them, or....)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:04 PM on July 13, 2010


I live in Japan (and as we all know, Limposts->∞ Language-or-Foreign-Country Thread = Japan), and one of the more commonly known dialects here is that of Osaka, and one of the most distinctive features of it is that a lot of /s/ sounds have been reduced to /h/ sounds (so, for example, the infamous polite name prefix -san becomes -han). I'm actually told this is pretty common in parts of Spain, too, oddly enough. The vowel sounds nationwide in Japan, though, seem to be more or less consistent in all places, though this may simply be because there are exactly five vowels in the Japanese language.

Just my two cents on the matter.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:36 PM on July 13, 2010


The main difference between English speaking areas and Europe/Japan is that the spread of English is fairly modern and has slightly differentiated into 'accents' while something like Italian developed out of several regional 'dialects' with some differing pronunciations that were mixed together from around 1000CE to come up with a national standard.

You will find more and greater accent differences within the UK (because English has been there longer) than you will find withing the rest of the world (that is except for places like India where the pronounciation is in some ways a pigen)
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 10:59 PM on July 13, 2010


My native dialect of English, Southern Virginia Piedmont, drops a lot of consonants or pronounces them very lightly in non-initial position, especially versions spoken around Richmond. The allophonic features of surrounding vowels, aspiration, vowel length, nasalization, and syllable timing are preserved, so the consonants are "still there," in a way, even when they're not pronounced, and we can understand it.

"Energy," Standard American English ['ɛnɚdʒi] Southern Piedmont [ɪ˜ᵊʒᶦ], "over yonder" [ouᵊjɑ˜ᵊ], "sent" / "cent" [sɪ˜ˀ], "lake" [leːˣ].

There's also some assimilation of consonants before nasals: "pregnant" [pɹɛnːᵊˀ], "bacon" [beˑʰŋː] "isn't" [ɪnː]. (The preceding vowels aren't nasalized in this case, and the nasal is geminated.)

There's a lot of regional, social and stylistic variation in how much this gets done and what consonants are affected. (And, of course, the nasalization sign ˜ is supposed to go over the preceding vowel.)
posted by nangar at 11:43 PM on July 13, 2010


Yep, sorry, disagree with your initial example. The answer to 1a might well be "Yes", but I wouldn't necessarily say that in English it's only the vowels that vary. I come from an English city where the r is often rolled before vowels, the t either disappears or turns into a hard s, and ck turns into the guttural ch (as in Scottish 'loch'). So 'great' can be almost indistinguishable for 'grace', 'frock' can be 'froch', and when I say that my surname is White, people often say "Wise?" (and on one occasion "Boyce?", but he was a bit deaf). I don't have anything like a strong accent, either; it's just that the 't' is a bit of a giveaway. Perceptive readers will have worked out that I'm from Liverpool, whose accent is also distinguished by characteristic vowel sounds.

Bizarrely enough, the characteristic Liverpool consonants made it much easier for me to follow a Moroccan chap being interviewed in standard Arabic on al-Jazeera one time. Moroccan Arabic does a lot of the same things, especially the t decaying, so to speak, into ts; this chap was certainly speaking the same educated standard Arabic as his (Egyptian?) interviewer, not straight-up Darija (Moroccan 'dialect'), but the trace of Moroccan accent in his consonants made a definite difference to me (never been to Morocco).

Arabic, anyway, also varies greatly in both consonants and vowels across the different regional accents: the nasal twang of Damascus affects both, for example. The q (ق) goes missing as often as the h goes missing in English, but in other places it hardens into a g. As these consonant variations take place, they affect the vowels around them too.

Data points rather than a systematic answer. Sorry!
posted by lapsangsouchong at 12:59 AM on July 14, 2010


is there a way to explain why a certain language has the variables it does in its regional accents?

In the UK a lot of the dialect influence comes from other languages - so Old Norse in Yorkshire and the Northern Isles, Gaelic in the Highlands of Scotland and so on. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the sound variables came from the same source.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:44 AM on July 14, 2010


Check out the Texas plosive /b/, boy.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:38 AM on July 14, 2010


ok, everyone, you've convinced me that there are plenty of consonant-related variations in english accents. i still maintain that vowel shifts are the most dramatic (see the auto-linked related ask.me question below, "You cawl thayt a noyf?" which refers to a particular english accent solely by its vowel variations), but i don't need any more english consonant-shift/drop examples.

i am still interested in folks' experiences with accents in other languages, and also any answers to question 2: is this something linguists have studied? i wanna know if the consonants that get dropped take more effort to pronounce, if they're the ones that occur most (or least) commonly, if they tend to occur at the beginning or end of middle of words (or what effects that variation: in english we might drop the c in picture, but we'd never drop an initial c). i'm more interested in linguistics-based info (or, more likely, links/references to where to find out more) than anecdotal observations here. thanks y'all!
posted by nevers at 6:32 AM on July 14, 2010


is there a way to explain why a certain language has the variables it does in its regional accents?

In the UK a lot of the dialect influence comes from other languages - so Old Norse in Yorkshire and the Northern Isles, Gaelic in the Highlands of Scotland and so on. It wouldn't surprise me if some of the sound variables came from the same source.
I wonder if this is one big part of how accents develop, and the vowel/consonant part is just how different the "new" language's sounds are from the old one. Consider, say, France being taken over by perfidious Albion - everybody begins to learn the English of their new masters but they speak it with a "French" accent, complete with uvular Parisian 'r'. Let us suppose that after a certain number of generations French people began to speak English as their native language but their model was their parents who spoke it as a second language and thus with a "French" accent. The French accent would therefore be seen in a few generations as simply a regional accent. Well not entirely but youse get my point.

Supposedly the stereotype New York th --> d or t (dese guys) arose because the original Dutch couldn't get the "th" sounds of the new owners- the British - correctly and pronounced the th as d or t. In fact I notice that many Dutch people, even when they speak excellent English, will often pronounce "these" as dese or "those" as dose. But it could just be a story. The "th" sounds are supposed to be difficult for non-native learners to pick up. Kind of like English's Parisian "R".
posted by xetere at 9:34 AM on July 14, 2010


: is this something linguists have studied? i wanna know if the consonants that get dropped take more effort to pronounce, if they're the ones that occur most (or least) commonly, if they tend to occur at the beginning or end of middle of words

Yes, this has been studied. I think the area you are looking for is historical linguistics - for instance, I have a book on the history of the French language which goes through the vowel and consonant shifts that occurred between Latin and modern day French.
posted by jacalata at 9:41 AM on July 14, 2010


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