American accents in Brits' ears

Another thread discusses UK accents to some length. As an American I can hear the regional differences and maybe even
take a stab at guessing the region of an accent, if it’s
well enough known, like Cockney or Scouse.

How about the reverse situation? American regional differences are a lot more subtle, yet they do exist. Can
British listeners tell a West Coast accent apart from, say, Chicago? In Fawlty Towers I always thought Mr. Hamilton,the
obnoxious and demanding guest from California sounded more
like a Chicagoan. Anyone know who played him, and if he
was American or English?

The difference between a Brooklyn accent and a Souther accent are hardly sublte. I’m from Northern Virginia, and I’ve talked to people with Southern accents so thick I could barely understand them (a friend’s grandmother, for the curious).


As an Amercan who has been living here for six years I can pretty much confirm that there are a lot of UKers who can’t tell one American accent from another. That’s not to say that all of them can’t: just most of them. I’ve noticed that Americans portrayed on TV all seem to have the same Midwestern sort of accent. (Just to link to the thread you mentioned, I think Daphne’s voice on Frasier might be the American version of this.)

One thing I’ve really noticed in the UK is that, if you don’t have what most people here consider to be “American” speech patterns (which really seem to only be whether you speak unnecessarily loudly) no one will think you’re from the States. In this country I’ve been asked if I’m from Canada, Wales, Ireland, or even Germany, but few people have correctly identified my origin.

Duke said - In this country I’ve been asked if I’m from Canada, Wales, Ireland, or even Germany, but few people have correctly identified my origin.

I don’t know how much sense this makes, but if I am chatting (in the U.K.) to someone whose origin is clearly transatlantic, I might (not always) enquire whether the person is from Canada. It saves time - Canadians are not always pleased to be taken for Americans, and whereas the reverse doesn’t seem to hold true! Same with Australia/New Zealand. Please no-one read too much into this - it is no big deal, it just sort of amuses me.

Just a slight hijack here. When I was an exchange student in Germany, NO ONE in Germany could tell I was an American from my accent. They either thought I was English or didn’t know I was a foreigner at all!

Well, I met a rather inebriated old man in a bar in Yorkshire who immediately tumbled to the fact that I was from the South…

… I was very impressed until I realized he meant the south of England.

I can tell some accents. The southern states are usually easy, as is a very thick Noo Yawk accent to a certain extend. But California and Chicago? I probably couldn’t tell those apart - I woulnd’t know what to listen for, really.

I am however able to tell my Canucks from my Yankees after a few minutes, usually.

There’s also the entertaining little tidbit that if you get far enough into Appalachia (ooo, scary mountain men…kidding, kidding) the accent veers farther from Southern and careens pell-mell into Welsh. I kid you not. Some day I’d love to see a chart of immigration by nationality.

A southern accent’s easy to spot. The only others I (a Brit) can tell are Brooklyn and a broad Califorian - but that’s as much what they say as how they say it (I mean, like…).

When I worked in California people usually asked me if I was Australian!

Bill Bryson made the point in ‘Mother Tongue’ that there’s a lot more variation in UK (and, might I add, Irish!) accents than there is in American ones. Dunno if he’s right, but I guess it’s what you’re exposed to that defines what accents you can ‘hear’.

There’re some US accents that are obvious eg. New York, Boston, Southern, etc. to most ears on this side of the pond, and of course anybody from those areas will tell you that there’re a whole raft of variations within these accents, but without constant exposure to them , I doubt that I’d pick up on them.

As for the trick to not offend Canadians or Kiwis, I do that too! Most of 'em warm to you if you’re right. Considering my reaction on being told by Americans that they loved my British accent, I can see why. Also, I was bemused by the people who said my Irish accent sounded Canadian. What’s all that aboot? :slight_smile:

Most inhabitants of the UK do have difficulty distinguishing between North American accents, apart, that is, from the really easy ones. The reason for this is obvious - most usually encounter such accents only on television or in films in which the geographical origins of actors/characters are not indicated or are unimportant. The accents which are recognised are those associated with particular stereotypes which are so well-established that they are familiar even to non-U.S. audiences.

The same is, of course, true of Americans’ ability to distinguish between British accents.

I can pick out certain American regional accents, but a lot of Americans sound the same to me.

I can hear, for example, that Bill Clinton is from the South, but I couldn’t be any more specific than that based on his accent alone.*

I can identify a New York / New Jersey accent, though I couldn’t distingush any more closely than that and I can identify a New Englander if their accent is very pronounced.

I get the impression that there is less variety of regional accents in America than in the UK. Is that right?

*Yes, yes, I know he’s from Arkansas.

As I’ve mentioned before, Leo McKern on his Rumpole books-on-tape sometimes affects an American/Canadian accent which doesn’t really sound right for either country. It’s slowed-down, loud, and devoid of the usual British accent lilts and tones. But I don’t know anyone who actually talks that way. I love his work, but this seems to be a weak spot.

On the other hand, I’m surprised at how well Bob Hoskins and the guy from Gladiator and The Insider can do perfect American accents.

TomH: I suggest that what you think of as a New Jersey accent really is not. I may be sensitive to it, as a former Jerseyman, but a New Jersey accent sounds VERY different from a stereotypical New York accent. And most New Yorkers don’t really sound like the stereotype, either.

TomH said:

I’m not certain that there’s less variety per se… but with the exception perhaps of a few areas (like the NY metropolitan area) regional accents don’t usually change over as sort a distance as I’ve heard described for the UK (10 miles or less). I think that’s partly the result of standardization of language via the media, as well as the tendency these days for Americans to pick up and move far away from the places they grew up in. (BTW, my mother, who grew up in Germany, reports that in the olden days you could also distinguish inhabitants of one town or another just by their accent/vocabulary.)

And thank you, CalMeacham, for pointing out that New York accents and New Jersey accents (yes, plural!) can be noticeably different from the stereotypical “cab driver” accent that Hollywood is so fond of. :slight_smile:

This could be because he is originally Australian & only moved to the UK in his mid-twenties (after WWII). Perhaps having worked so hard to lose his Australian accent to gain an English one so that he could act non-stereotyped roles makes it harder to do another foreign one.

There are definitely patterns. As I’ve suggested elsewhere on the boards, certain names seem to be a little more common in the southern states, and by extension among African Americans, who mostly took similar names at the time they
were emancipated, before migrating to other points in the
U.S. Names like Jenkins, Jones, Robinson (not sure here…help me out Celyn) seem to betray Welsh origins.
The farther West you go the less clear the patterns. The
Midwest farm country was the destination of innumerable Germans and Scandinavians; it’s said that over one-quarter of the family names of Nebraska are German. It seems a lot of immigrants just decided to leap over the developed East Coast and head for the boonies.

Entertaining, perhaps, but not true. While Applachian English differs significantly from other Southern American accents, and may even be said to constitute a distinct dialect, it ain’t Welsh, nor anything much like it. I’ve also heard the contention that Appalachian English is nearly identical to Elizabethan English (or Colonial English, or the London English of three hundred years ago --all equally false). There are words that are still used (or were until recently) in Appalachian English that have fallen out of use in most other regions, leading some listeners to assume that the rest of the dialect is somehow a preservation of an older form of the language, but Appalachian English has changed over the last two hundred and fifty years just as surely and steadily as have the other dialects.

As for the wealth of Welsh surnames in the South and Appalachia mentioned by a later poster, this merely reflects their distribution in the original immigrant populations of these areas; keep in mind, however, that these names are reasonably common throughout Great Britain and have been for some time, so the fact that a Jones’ name originated in Wales doesn’t mean that his ancestors immigrated to America from Wales. And there are plenty of Scotch-Irish names in the South and Appalachia as well (probably far more than Welsh ones).

Hey, I wasn’t speaking from a scientific perspective; just personal. The accents of some of the people with whom I’ve had contact (Blue Ridge, not Adirondack or Ozark) are so thick as to almost be another language. My dad and grandparents have traveled extensively in Wales (not bus tours, either, thank the gods) and I drew my conclusions on what I’ve heard from them. I’m probably wrong; wouldn’t be the first time.

As far as German immigrants go…I helped a friend with a master’s thesis on german immigration patterns in Richmond, VA and Charleston, SC a few years ago, and it’s STUNNING how much German immigration influenced the entire eastern seaboard.

A lot of the immigrants you mentioned were specifically recruited to midwestern and western farmlands by the railroads in the second half of the nineteenth century, who developed the towns and obviously had a vested interest in seeing the prairies and plains become thriving farmland, as this would of necessity mean lots of additional freight and passenger business for them. Posters and broadsheets extolled the virtues of the American frontier, often in quite exaggerated terms, throughout the parts of Europe where (in the opinion of the railroad bosses) “desirable” immigrant farmers were likely to be found (mainly Germany and the Lutheran parts of Scandinavia, being Protestants instead of Catholics). The French, Italians, and Irish, being Catholic, were recruited less frequently if at all (though my own ancestry includes Italians brought to Arkansas after the Civil War by landowners hoping to replace “uppity” emancipated blacks with Italians who could be made dependent on the landowners by advancing the cost of their passage to America and installing them as sharecroppers on terms that made repayment of the advance impossible).

I would recognise differant US accents but would not be able to place them, as another poster pointed out it’s probablly because of a lack of geographical information on US programmes broadcast in the UK.

Americans tend to travel far further than we in the UK so that one accent would likely spread over a wider area.

Many towns and villages in the UK are so small, and the amenities are usually so close by, that many of us don’t travel more than ten/twenty miles in any direction for the vast majority of our lives, even then much travelling is to work and back so we don’t interact much with the locals when we do travel.
When my ship visited the States years ago when I was in the Royal Navy I was amazed at the kind of distance that Americans would regard as local, as in the local pub, the local takeaway etc. You guys regard driving 30 miles for a smallish errand like the weekly shop as pretty normal, I get upset if I have to walk more than 100 yards to the nearest shop and few Brits have to go more than 5 miles to a local shpping mall.
IMHO this is the main reason why our accents change over such small distances.