Speaking in accents other than your own.

Why is it that when we speak in an accent other than our own and we really think about doing it just the way we perceive others sound, others laugh at our lame accents?

I always thought I could pull off a reasonable British accent. Similarly, a decent Southern ( American ) accent and a few others.

I hear how others speak and then try to mimic the syntax, emphasis, tone and so on. It’s not an obsession, just something that pops up when appropriate.

How does one go from sounding awful to others but great to one’s self, to sounding exactly like a native speaker?

Why does our ear deceive us so? Or, is it that our ear is good but our tongue cannot mimic properly what we hear accurately?

Does this have anything to do with perfect pitch? Would I be a better mimic if I had perfect pitch and could perfectly recreate tones?

Along this thought stream, why do Brits sing without an accent?


The more common suggestion (normally in the tone of an accusation) this side of the pond is that many British pop singers sing with an American accent. Whereas I side with the opinion that they’re using with particular vowel sounds which are neither British nor American, but which lend themselves to particular styles of singing, and therefore see use in both countries.

But there’s certainly British singers who do sing with notable accents: random example plucked from Youtube, where the first line alone identifies Bowie as being from London or the home counties. For an up-to-date example, the Arctic Monkeys both have notable South Yorkshire accents (to the point it’s sometimes suggested they’re exaggerated), plus occassional bits of regional dialect, as with the line ‘he must be up to summat’, subsequently rhymed with ‘stomach’.

They don’t:

Oasis (Mancs), Maximo Park (Geordies), Snow Patrol (Northern Irish), to name a few.

I am in a community theater group in which amateur actors are constantly struggling with accents. As I see it, the main problem is that most accents are quite a bit more complex and subtle than non-native speakers realize. When a lot of people try to do a “British accent,” they’re essentially doing a grossly oversimplified version of one – they just change a few vowel sounds. It sounds fine to them because people just don’t know what their own voices sound like; if you record them and play it back they’re usually horrified.

One director I worked with taught me a sentence that is a good test of a passable British accent: “I can’t get the ant off the basket, but Auntie can.” Most Americans will try – quite incorrectly – to make all of the As in that sentence sounds like “ah.”

Just to be fair, I’ve known Brits who think that they sound American if they hold their noses while speaking.

I have a friend from Glasgow. He reckons my Glaswegian accent is absolutely perfect. I think that might be because I never just try to affect it self consciously, but it comes out when we’ve had a few beers. IF I tried to do one here and now, it might not be much good.

Part of the problem, I think, is that people tend to view their accent as “neutral”. Every accent is considered relative to the accent that person considers normal. So while a London accent may sound more Latinate to Americans, Londoners certainly won’t think of their accent that way–they’ll think of American English as sounding more casual and relaxed (I assume). When we mimic another accent, presumably we’re exaggerating the differences we perceive between our accent and that accent, which sounds silly to that accent’s native speakers because it’s so caricatured.

Everyone has an accent all the time. The question you really want to ask is probably “Why do Brits sound like Americans when they’re singing?” To which there are two answers AFAIK:

  1. You clearly haven’t heard British rap.

  2. Singing requires you to speak faster and in a more liquid way, doing something called assimilation, or blending the sounds of each syllable together. One example of assimilation is that some vowels have a tendency to be nasalized (ie, pronounced with air blowing out of the nose) when they occur before nasal consonants (“n” and “m”) in English. A less subtle example is the American tendency to “flap” double Ts and Ds between certain vowel sounds, as in “butter” or “ladder”, using a sound not unlike the Spanish single-r, where Britons would tend to pronounce the regular T or D sound in those situations. I think American English has more assimilation than many other English dialects, especially (most of) the British ones. Therefore, when Britons assimilate their sounds, they sound like Americans. Don’t quote me on that, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

ETA: The theory that British and American pop singers share a “new mid-Atlantic” accent is intriguing. I’m nowhere near qualified enough to say whether or not it has merit. I’ll pass the question on to my last linguistics teacher, though.

Another vote for “they don’t.” I am a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. As such I own several recordings. Many of them from the D’Oyly Carte troupe. And I can assure you that the actors and singers in those recordings have a very definite British accent.

I think it’s only in pop music that British singers don’t sound accented to US ears.

I don’t think any complicated theory involving nasal consonants is required. We sing pop songs in an (attempted) American accent simply because they don’t sound right otherwise, that is what we are all accustomed to. Pop and rock music is supposed to be sung in an American accent. We don’t sing hymns or folk songs in American.

I have read that there are tapes (now perhaps CDs) that are made by dialect coaches for that very purpose. You might try googling for them.

There are so many Southern dialects that some of them sound “funny” to me. I catch myself slipping back into a West Tennessee dialect from time to time. I’ve lived in Middle Tennessee for over forty years, but there are differences. Ever eat an arsh potato? Strange pronunciation, idn’t it? Whaduh you think? Of course, people in West Tennessee don’t use those spellings.

When I was in college in the mid-1960s, a dialect map indicated that Maine was the only state to have its very own dialect. It did not spread into New Hampshire or other nearby states. I wonder if that is still true.

Remember how the fictitious Henry Higgins could supposedly place a British accent within a few blocks in London?

If I spend some time in another part of the US, I start picking up some of the local accent. I don’t try to, it just happens, and it doesn’t take long either. I don’t actually speak local, but the influence in my speech can be pretty strong. I think others do this too.
I’ve noticed that some folks who move here, or visit for a while, begin to lose part of their regional accent.
I’ve never tried to adopt an accent though. I think the Texas accent might not be too difficult in that they use so many idioms. “King of the Hill” has it down.
Except for Boomhower. :stuck_out_tongue: Hank is perfect.


Well, dialects exist within other dialects. Hence why American English is a dialect with differences from Canadian English, but the more specific Standard American English, New York English, Baltimorese, Alabama English, etc. are also dialects. There is such a thing as California English, which includes a number of pronunciation differences from other American dialects–but within California there are differences between speakers from Northern and Southern California, and Chicano English is another dialect altogether (English with a rise-fall-rise-fall intonation pattern that mimics Mexican Spanish) which is also prevalent in California, especially in Southern California. So the assertion that Maine has ever been the only state with its own dialect is false, although it could be technically true that Maine is the only state where speech patterns are fairly consistent across the state–but that’s doubtful too, since

  1. Maine is pretty damn big for a New England state.

  2. The idea that people on one side of a state line speak differently from people on the other side is about as dubious in and of itself as the idea that one side of the state line looks completely different from the other. If you think you know what California looks like, spend some time in Needles, on the Arizona border, which might as well be a set for the Road Runner cartoons.

  3. If any one state can claim that its pronunciation features are universal across the state, it would presumably have to be Rhode Island, which is about the size of a large city IIRC.

I’ve found this book to be a handy guide. It details a large number of dialects, providing instructions regarding position of the vocal apparatus, vowel shifts, stress patterns, pitch, and more. I find it far more effective than unguided mimicry.

Wasn’t trying to start a war, just hoping to stamp out a wee bit of ignorance. First of all, I would agree that fetus has articulated things rather neatly.

  1. Rap singing is not melodic singing.

  2. Gilbert and Sullivan have more in common with The Notorious B.I.G. than they do with The Rolling Stones. Seriously.

The act of singing lyrics may well flatten out a lot of perceived accent.

Re: dialects. I wonder if it is a bit of the tail wagging the dog. ( or, wagging the vocal cords). Mainers talk like Mainers because that is what Mainers talk like. If you grew up in South Philly, you might well be able to tell the difference between Broad and Patterson and Fishtown ( which is not in South Philly but which is also a working class neighborhood along the river, north of Old City ). Texas? Big place. People in Texas whose dialect is not influenced by other languages sound like… Texans. They don’t sound like they are from Oklahoma because that’s not how a Texan sounds, is it?

To bring it more local, at least for me, I can tell when someone’s from Long Island in New York. They don’t sound much like Brooklyn and they sure as HELL do not sound like Bergen County, N.J. ( Which is mileage-wise equidistant (sp??) from the Nassau/Suffolk border ). Why? Because when you are growing up, you learn how to talk like a Long Islander. I always thought that local accents were self-fulfilling prophecies.

Sorry, no cite, but a few years back there were some bits in the news here about a study showing that the parts of the brain involved in singing and in talking are different. The evident WAG was that this explained why some people can sing in accents they’re unable to talk in.

I pick up acents without intending to and can “pass” as being from several different Spanish regions.

I disagree that you can distance rap from your original statement so simply. It may not follow the same principles of melodic structure, but it is not (necessarily) unpitched speech. Example to demonstrate both this and fetus’ original comment (and a fantastic track, too).

What the hell is this supposed to mean or explain?

Yeah with rap the only people I have heard who can hide there acents are new zealands rappers, they are able to sound American. English all sounds english. Aussies all have aussie accents and Americans definably all sound american.

New Zealand rappers? How many times can you rap about sheep? :wink:

Part of the problem is there is no “British” accent or “Irish” accent to speak of. Unless you are copying a specific accent your mimickry will sound like a hodge-podge of all the different accents you’ve heard. You hear these sort of accents on tv and in film alot. English accents will veer from cockneyish to poshish, Irish & Scots accents will be interchangeable and then sometimes just plain wrong.

Also, another problem is that accents are relative. As an Irish person, exposed to Irish accents and possessing one myself, I can distinguish between a wide array of Irish accents that a non-Irish person might not be able to. The same goes for an American about their own regional accents. I’m told most foreigners mimicking Americans automatically go for a Southern sounding accent.

Sadly, British actors make some generic assumptions about home-grown accents, too. The few TV dramas which have ventured into this part of the world have always featured one or two stray west country voices, presumably because that’s the only ‘rural’ one the actor knows. Edit: ‘rural’, because many of the strongest Suffolk accents I’ve encountered have been from people (including children) born and living in the middle of Ipswich.

I don’t think that is true. I am Southern and grew up with a very strong Southern accent. Southerners never consider their accent neutral. Likewise, Bostonians and people from Brooklyn never consider their accent neutral. Those are just examples and can be extended across most of the distinct accents in the U.S. I have moved around a lot since then and I believe I have a neutral American accent now as evidenced by the fact that no one can tell where I am from just by listening to me in casual conversation.

I think the paragraph above is just simple fact. The following is more controversial. I believe there is such a thing as a neutral American accent and you don’t have to live anywhere a neutral accent is reported to come from to have it. Anyone that moves around a lot or is exposed to lots of accents regularly will converge on a neutral American accent.

The alternative theory is that someone that moves from say, Alabama to Maine and then to North Dakota will develop an accent that combines distinct features from all three native accents and that does not happen. Instead, it will converge on an accent that isn’t like any of them and it will be closer to what most people consider to be neutral.