Regional variations

Last week’s language quizzes got me thinking about how the pronunciation of languages varies from region to region and country to country. When I hear someone speaking English, I can usually work out or guess which country they come from, and possibly which region. I don’t always get it right – I’m not very good at distinguishing US and Canadian accents, for example – but this is mainly due to lack of familiarity with the accents in question.

I can tell the difference between the Spanish of Spain and Latin American Spanish, but can’t pin speakers down to a particular country. The recordings I used for the quiz yesterday were all from radio stations, and I suspect that radio presenters tend to speak a fairly standard version of Spanish, which perhaps minimises the differences between the countries. If the recordings had been of ordinary people, maybe the differences would have been more noticeable. Or maybe Spanish doesn’t vary from country to country as much as English. Can anyone shed more light on this?

Can you tell where people come from by the way they speak your language?

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28 Responses to Regional variations

  1. Josh says:

    I can usually pinpoint the country of native English speakers. As for the region, I can pretty much only do that in the US and to a very limited extent, in England. US accents don’t really vary as much as English ones do (I guess) so here you don’t have as many different dialectal regions to choose from. The reason for this was explained to me once before, but I’d have to dig around inside this site to find that answer again. Canadian and US accents are pretty easy for me to distinguish (partly because I’ve pretty much grown up here).

    I can tell the differences between French accents pretty easily. Sometimes I have a problem with Belgium and France, but words and expressions usually give that away. I have some problems distinguishing the various african dialects of french from one another at times.

  2. AR says:

    One can tell a Bengali speaker from Bangladesh from one from West Bengal, India easy because speakers from the east pronounce their aspirated stops as fricatives.

  3. Adolfo says:

    Hi,
    I am a native Spanish speaker from Spain and we can distinguish very clearly which part of Spain is the speaker from. Galicia for example has a very characteristic singing tone. Basque speaker sound sharper and in Catalonia they have a very peculiar L sound, apart from distinguishing v and b sounds (which we do not do in the rest of Spain). In Madrid the peculiarity is in some “s” sounds that become like a sharp “h” sound before a “k”, “es que” sound more like ehke or ejke (if you can pronounce the Spanish “j”). In the South there are parts where the “s” sound becomes a “z” or “c” (as in the word think) and others where the “z” or “c” sounds becomes “s” (the opposite effect). This last phenomenon also happens in South America. We can also distinguish speakers from different countries, Argentina has a very peculiar “y” sound, and the Canary Island and Cuba have a very “sweet” accent (they are far but they have similar pronunciation). Let’s not forget about the use of different words. Certainly Spanish is as varied as English as both are spoken widely. But I would like to note something which looks very peculiar. The different accents in English change the vowel system but as you can see the difference between Spanish accents is on consonants, did you notice that?

  4. Federico says:

    Yes, as an spanish native speaker (from Argentina) you can guess easily just by the accent or words they use.

    The easy to spot countries are (in order of obviousness Smile Spain, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Cuba, Bolivia. Peru, Venezuela.

    I dont know well how to recognize Colombia, Ecuador, and central American countries.
    Caribbean countries just have that characteristic accent, though I cannot guess exactly from where they are from.

    About my country Argentina, there are even more accents that you can easily spot:

    Porteño (Province of Buenos Aires) accent usually spoken countrywide.
    Province of Cordoba accent unmistakable Smile
    Cuyo accent (Provinces of Mendoza, San luis, San juan, etc)
    Province of Santiago del estero accent
    Salta and Jujuy accent (sort of bolivian accent in some cases)

    However the non-local TV like Cable tv, (Cartoons, Discovery channel, etc) employ Neutral spanish.
    You can’t guess where they come from and they carefully choose universal vocabulary.
    The simpsons dubbing is a masterpiece of neutral spanish Smile

    When I have time I’ll record samples of spanish accents that I mentioned above and I’ll post them at my Blog http://linguaquiz.vox.com/

    Hope this helps Smile

  5. Jose Q. says:

    Adolfo said: In Madrid the peculiarity is in some “s” sounds that become like a sharp “h” sound before a “k”, “es que” sound more like ehke or ejke (if you can pronounce the Spanish “j”).

    This happens in Salvadoran Spanish as well, but the “s” sound occurs in other instances apart from what adolfo mentioned.

  6. Colm says:

    In Irish it’s pretty easy to tell what main dialect the speaker is usage.

    In English I can fairly easily tell between the various dialects of Ireland, the UK and when a non-native speak is speaking English, what language they are native in. Of course it’s pretty easy to tell between a NZ accent and a Canadian one and a USA accent and an Australian one, but I have serious difficult between the USA and Canada and between NZ, Australia and South Africa.

  7. ISPKN says:

    I’m a native speaker of English and I can mostly tell the country and, to some extent, the region of an English speaker. I can also tell the country of a French speaker, and a group of countries for Arabic speakers.

  8. Ben L. says:

    Adolfo said: “The different accents in English change the vowel system but as you can see the difference between Spanish accents is on consonants, did you notice that?”

    I realized that about English, but not about Spanish till you mentioned it. In that way, I think Spanish and Chinese Mandarin share a trait. I’m learning Mandarin now and was surprised to find out that the most salient differences of the Mandarin dialects (not other languages like Cantonese or Hokkien) were in their vowels, particularly the “s” vs. “sh” (e.g. standard “dormatory” is pronounced in some dialects). To be certain, I have discovered variant vowel sounds and tones as well, but nevertheless it is the consonant shifts I find most striking.

    In the time I spent in Hesse, Germany, I found both shifts in consonant and vowel sounds (e.g. sounds like and “to remain” sounds like ). I don’t think I could pin down one class of sound as being the crux of the shift, however.

    Having spent a year with English speakers from the UK, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, I have to think of Australians as having a distinctive nasal quality to their “a” sounds, perhaps similar in some respect to a Boston accent, although the two are immediately distinguishable if you’ve listened to them any length of time.

  9. Joe DeRose says:

    It’s true that U.S. accents don’t vary as much as English accents. But there are a few weird things you encounter here: A “Southern” accent is common in rural areas of the Southeast (actually, there are a few distinct Southern accents, but their differences seem more acute to those of us who live in this region than to people in other regions). But the major cities of the South often do not share the accent of their surrounding areas: Atlanta (Georgia) and Dallas (Texas) are known for having very flat, almost Midwestern accents. And New Orleans (Louisiana) has an accent that sounds, to my ears, almost indistinguishable from New York.

    I grew up in Atlanta, with a mother from rural Georgia and a father from New York. An oddity that I’ve noticed is that people from the Northeast typically cannot discern a regional accent in my speech, but people from the West think I have a significant Southern accent.

    Another interesting (in my opinion, at least) tidbit: On a recent trip to Italy I was trying to speak Italian as much as possible. In chatting, I asked one individual if he could tell the difference between an American speaking Italian and a person from Britain speaking Italian, and he said yes, there was a noticeable difference. I subsequently confirmed this with other people. But even in languages where there is a substantial difference in regional pronuniciation (Mexico, Cuba, Spain, Argentina), I cannot discern that person’s origin when she or he speaks English.

    I personally cannot usually recognize a Canadian accent as such. But in Canada, they peg me as having a “thick American accent.”

  10. Harris Engelmann says:

    It is quite easy to tell where a speaker of Yidish comes from based on loan words; speakers from the US use a lot of English, speakers from Israel use a lot of Hebrew etc; this is especially true among Chasidim. In terms of dialect Lituanians tend to merge the “s” and “sh” sounds, and Southern speakers tend to change the “U” vowel sound to an “i” i.e. “fun” to “fin” (from, of), “gut” to “git”. vowel shifts occur in all of the dialects; for Lithuanian Yiddish, to reside and to cry merge into one; as a result instead of saying “ikh veyn do” (i live/cry here) many speakers will say “ikh lakh do” or “ikh bin freylikh do” (i am happy/laugh here) or somthing to that extent.

  11. Bob says:

    The eastern US and southern US have more accent variation than the western US–mostly because they were settled earlier. There is quite a variation–especially taking a southern African-American speech and contrasting it to a speaker from Maine. or Minnesota. I think there is much more variation in the US than Britain (but I am biased). Unfortunately most Hollywood movies, unless they are particularly set in “the South” or “New York” use sort of a generic US English–most like Western.

    I find it very easy to spot Canadians–as soon as they pronounce a diphthong, such “about” .

    As to Spanish, I can recognize Spain (a “lisp”), Mexican (mostly because we have a large Mexican population where I live) and Argentian’Chilean (jo for ‘yo’ and ‘poyjo’ for pollo).

    I am fairly good at guessing foreign accents.

    Interestingly, I have difficulty detecting England/Australian/NZ/South African accents. I know that the accent is “English”, I can tell that they are different, but have a hard time placing them. Scottish and Irish I can detect easier, they seem more musical.

  12. Alain Vaillancourt says:

    I have a pretty bad ear but it’s often easy for me to spot the country they were born in if French is their native language. It’s not a question of accents (given that I’m nearly tone deaf) but manner. In northern France they usually speak like the Parisians, that is very fast with well articulated words In southern France they speak more slowly, also with well articulated words, and sometimes very thick tones that even I can pick out. It’s easy to pick out a Montrealer speaking French: It’s much slower than a Parisian’s and compared to anybody in Europe (Belgians included) the words are mumbled instead of well articulated.

  13. SamD says:

    I’m reasonably good at distinguishing US regional accents, and I can spot Canadians pretty easily. As Simon suggests, it’s a matter of familiarity.

    Southern and Northeastern accents are pretty easy to spot, and the Great Lakes accent is easy if you spend much time in that region.

    Canadian accents are most easily distinguished by the stressed vowel sound in “about.” It’s not the “aboot” some people think, but a diphthong of the “uh” in “up” and the “oo” in “moon.” Most other North Americans pronounce it as a diphthong of the “ah” in “walk” and the “oo” in “moon.”

    Another sound I associate with Canadian English is the “oh” sound found in Avril Lavigne’s song “Complicated” in the lines

    “Laugh out when you strike your pose
    Take off all your preppy clothes”

  14. Josh says:

    Regarding that line from Avril’s song, Canadians don’t typically pronounce that “o” like that. That was just her stylizing. I’m originally from Canada and I’ve never head that. In fact, the way she pronounces that particular word sounds more similar to certain british accents than anything over here. In Canadian english, that “oh” sound is usually just a purer version of its american counterpart. Less dipthonged.

    The way I can always tell if someone’s Canadian or not is when they pronounce “about” and “out”, “oh”, “water”, and “away”.

  15. Mike says:

    Being an American living in Canada, one thing I notice a lot is O before R. The most common is in “sorry.” It’s very rounded, where the American version is more open.
    But it seems a lot of people are generalizing Canada as one gross accent. Though the number is definitively fewer, there are a number of very distinct ones. West Coast. David Suzuki on Simon’s post the other day. Then there’s Maritime. Really hard Rs like, “car, card, bar,” etc. Newfoundland, which sounds “Scottish” to many, and reflects the origins of the Newfies. Ontario has what I think most Americans think of as the “typical” Canadian accent, with Canadaian Raising in long I and the diphthong OU. Then there’s the First Nations peoples. Many of them at least from what I’ve heard speak English very similar to Native Americans in the US, which itself sounds slightly “Canadian”. Tense vowels maybe?
    Within Quebec there are a number of regional accents. Gaspésie is maybe one of the most distinctive, where they’ve kept the T and D sounds before I and U (where most of Quebec reduces these stops to affricates). Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean area is maybe the extreme Quebec accent. The area of la Capitale Nationale is slightly different to that of “standard” Québécois. And southern Quebec, Montreal, and the Eastern Townships are notable for trilled Rs, though this practice is gradually giving way, and now really is only heard in older people’s speech.
    Acadian is not considered Québécois (Acadia was traditionally the Maritime provinces), but of course is still a French dialect in Canada. They are notably the ancestors of the Cajuns in Louisiana (the English deported many if not most Acadians) and in fact the words Cajun and Acadian are historically the same word. Acadian going from /akadjen/ to /akadzjen/ to /acadzhen/.
    I’ve always found interesting the differences between French and Québécois accents in English. The most obvious is when the TH sound is attempted. The French will say S and Z (voiceless and voiced), where Quebecers will say T and D. Also French people will almost always carry the uvular R over into English, where Quebecers have no problem producing our rhotic approximate. Some English words borrowed into Québécois even retain the English R like “party,” however in thinking about it I think most use uvular R like “rough.”

  16. Aeneas says:

    It’s extremely easy for Italians to guess where a speaker comes from, probably because what we call Italian dialects are practically different languages. Unless people make an effort to speak standard Italian, it would be hard for a Sicilian, Roman, Milanese, Venetian, Genoese, or someone from any other major city to understand one another.
    My parents are both from Abruzzo, yet their pronunciation in their respective dialects is completely differnt. In fact, people in certain towns can even pinpoint another persons’ town, even if it’s only 5 km away!

  17. Polly says:

    My Canadian cousins(seriously) have really heavy accents. They are from Toronto and they talk the stereotypical way. “Sore-y a-boat that.” “Nice day, EH?” When they were younger they would say “wicked” a lot. I confess I’m not sure if that’s limited to Canada.
    Even though I’m not from the south and have never been there, I rarely notice southern accents unless the drawl is really pronounced.
    The “valley” accent in S. California is gratingly obvious to me though. And, naturally, New York and New Jersey (Joisy) are easy to spot.
    I can’t always distinguish New Zealanders, Australians, and Britts from one another.

    I once heard a guy preach a sermon in Armenian at the church I attend. Even I noticed that he had a strong French accent. Others confirmed this.

  18. Harris Engelmann says:

    “wicked” is also oftentimes said by new englanders, especially those from new hampshire or massachusetts (sic?).

  19. Joe says:

    Expanding upon Joe DeRose’s comment, this is particularly noticeable in Florida. Florida is an interesting case from a linguistic point of view because the state is a melting pot of people who originated all over the country.

    What’s remarkable is how accents can change based on a few miles. In my county, I live in a town settled almost entirely of Floridians who were born elsewhere. 10 miles east you’ll find people almost entirely have a distinctive Southern accent. I recall when we had to go to a countywide conference back in High School, I had never heard one person in my high school speak with a southern accent, but almost everybody from the other high school did.

    Originally coming from Long Island, my accent neutralized over time, although what’s interesting to me is that I’ll easily switch back and forth between certain key pronunciations, for example the O in Florida and Orange. I now have a rhotic R when I clearly remember being made fun of for not being able to pronounce the R in drawer, water, etc. But it’s always interesting to see when my NY accent pops out at odd times.

    But yes, I would say the majority of Floridians have what is otherwise characterized as a Midwestern or Standard American accent, or CNN accent, or whatever you want to call it.

    My use of terminology still nails me to New York, however, especially my usage of standing “on line” instead of “in line” and other things which I never think about but others might point out.

  20. Joe says:

    I also wanted to say that just this evening we were watching the show “House” (the main character is actually played by a British actor who puts on an American accent) There’s this Australian guy on the show, and none of my other friends realized he was Australian until I mentioned it. They all presumed he was British.

    I’ve never had a hard time distinguishing Australians, New Zealanders, English, Scottish, etc. The one that gets me, although I always pinpoint it eventually, is a South African accent. There’s just a uniqueness about it, and I’m assuming that it might come from the fact it mixed with a population of white Afrikaans speakers which may have had an impact on its pronunciation.

    That being said, I had a professor last semester who was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania but went and worked over in England for several years. He had as a result what he liked to call a “Mid Atlantic accent,” a combination of an American and an English accent, but yet it still resembled a South African accent to my ears at first. I hear a similar accent from a friend of mine who’s English but lived in the US now for 6 years.

  21. d.m.falk says:

    Joe, if you recall earlier in that quiz that I said the South African recording probably came from Cape Town rather than Johannesburg, it’s just for that very reason- The Afrikanns influence. Afrikanns is more predominant in the west of SA than in the central/east.

    Joburg* South African is more like RP English, only a bit more relaxed. This is due to the dominance of the upper class that used to be the principle English population.

    (This native-born Californian of French/German/Irish/Italian ancestry has relatives in SA. :) )

    (*Joburg, for those unfamiliar, is the local shortening of Johannesburg.)

    It’s not as easy to distinguish Aussie and NZ English, but it’s more a degree of subtlety, and to some degree, the local vocabulary. Aussie English is much more pronounced, and is indeed one of the world’s recognisable English dialects. :) Think of it as Cockney stretched out and brutally altered with a more relaxed, yet profound sense of humour. :)

    If there was one English variant that I would call the most “out there”, both in accent, grammer and vocabulary, it’s Indian English. :)

    Oh, and where I live- Far northwestern california, quite a ways away from San Francisco or LA, is thought to be one of the few places you’re likely to find the Ozark accent, or derivative thereof, outside of the Ozark region of Arkansas/Missouri. (Alot of Arkansans moved here after the “Dust Bowl”.)

    Myself, I’m not sure how I place my own speach, as I’ve picked up from numerous accents and languages over the years- Music and radio have been a major influence, not to mention numerous cold sores, that there’s bits of pieces of Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Ozark and a more common SF Bay Area “general” Californian, with a tendency to follow Canadian spelling conventions. So many influences! :)

    d.m.f.

  22. John B says:

    I do a pretty good job of local accents in the United States, and can normally figure out what country a non-American English speaker is from, but not the region. In Mandarin I’m pretty good at pegging regional accents along the east coast, and I spent enough time in Sichuan restaurants to pick out a Chengdu or Chongqing accent, though I’m not always able to understand them. As you get farther west, though, and particularly southwest, all the accents blur together, and I can just mark them as “not particularly standard” Mandarin.

  23. renato says:

    The same thing occurs also in Portuguese language, Portuguese from Portugal is distinct from Portuguese from Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, East Timor. For years, grammaticals are trying to put all diferences in only one basket, which we all know it is impossible. Even The ‘Brazilian Portuguese” has its own differences people from each state of the country have its own way of talking, and sometimes is difficult to understand. I ‘m from Rio de Janeiro, but live in southern state of Rio Grande do Sul since 1988, and until today, when a new person talk with me, always ask from where am I, or soon say Oh! you are from Rio, aren’t you?

  24. Jennifer says:

    Would anyone be able to tell me about the peculiarities of the Valencian accent when speaking Castillian? I have noticed that there are some differences but can’t quite pinpoint what it is, is it perhaps that their Castillian is influenced by the Valencian language?

  25. Rahul says:

    Could any one tell the exact differences between the following three Spanish dialects..?

    1.Cuba
    2.Peru
    3.Puerto Rico

  26. A.D. Romero Zapiola says:

    In my last trip to the US I(spanish speaker from Argentina) noticed that spanish speakers speak better english than english people speak spanish. I mean, english speakers cannot do(at leaste i’ve seen) the spanish “J” sound or roll the “R”‘s.But I can do english sounds.
    Is it that spanish uses more sounds than english?

  27. Rigoberto says:

    Rahul, I’m Cuban and I couldn’t even tell you that. We have regional differences INSIDE Cuba, however, that I can tell. My family is from Camaguey, and we have a different accent than those from Habana. In Habana, they have the stereotypical sing-songy candance, but in Camaguey we have a more neutral accent; while still dropping the s at the end of most words. “Muchas gracias” would be heard as “mucha gracia!”

  28. Barry says:

    As a native born Californian, it’s very easy to pick out Mexican Spanish speakers because of the rather obvious inflection that Mexican Spanish speakers put on their pronunciation. Other accents are much harder since we don’t have much experience with them (like Puerto Rican or Cuban). Spanish speakers from Spain sound rather “flat” compared to Mexican Spanish speakers.

    As for English, Chicano English speakers are very obvious as pretty much anyone in areas with a large Mexican-American population will come across it. The Mexican type intonation is also apparent in Chicano English.

    While it may be grating to some of you, California is developing its own regional accent, which is close to the surfer or valley girl accent. That accent is quite extreme, but most Californians will exhibit a lot of it in their speech. I also notice that there’s a slight difference between Northern and Southern Californian English (that’s hard to explain.) I notice in my own speech that when I’m not being careful to sound “professional”, I slip into the accent.