I went down to Cornwall for my sister’s wedding a few days ago and heard some interesting English accents on the way. While waiting on Bristol station, for example, I heard some people talking in unfamiliar accents that might have been Bristolian. At first I wasn’t sure what language they were speaking – it certainly didn’t sound like English. After listening to it a bit more I realised that it was English after all, but I had to listen for carefully to make out what they were saying. It sounded very fast with a lot of elision.

Have you ever heard someone talking in what sounds like a foreign language only to realise later that it’s actually a language you know?

The announcements on railway stations in the UK are usually in RP English which has been pre-recorded and is then spliced together as necessary. So the way the Cornish place names were pronounced by the station announcements sounded quite different to the way they were pronounced by the Cornish conductor on the train. I really like Cornish accents and acquired bits of one myself while I was there, even though I only stayed for a long weekend.

BBC Voices has examples of Cornish and Bristol accents, though none of the recordings sound like the accents I heard on Bristol station, so maybe the people were from somewhere else.

Yesterday I went the dentist, and while I was chatting to the dental hygienist she detected a Welsh accent in my English and switched to Welsh. So we continued talking in Welsh and she was surprised when I told her that I’m not a native speaker as she’d assumed. Apparently I have a mid-Wales accent in Welsh.

16 thoughts on “Accents

  1. I ate dinner next to two Irish guys in Boston last weekend. At first I had no idea what they were speaking, then, slowly, I understood it as english, with a thick irish accent. This can be quite common here in Boston (depending on neighborhood). The other thing that makes it tricky is that they (Irish) may also be mixing in Irish words as well, so sometimes you get a mix and can only pick up half of the words, if that. Really wonderful to listen to!

  2. It is very intriguing when you hear some one else speaking your native language in another native accent that’s quite hard for you to understand.
    You have to listen attentatively in order to pick up what’s being said othewise it sounds like a foreign language.

  3. “The other thing that makes it tricky is that they (Irish) may also be mixing in Irish words as well, so sometimes you get a mix and can only pick up half of the words, if that. Really wonderful to listen to!”

    Perhaps, though it’s more likely they were using Hiberno in their speech rather than Irish. Of course Irish has had a huge influence on the development of Hiberno, but it seems more plausible they were making use of Hiberno than taking direct from Irish.

  4. For me often the opposite happens: I hear people talking and I imagine they said something in my language (even when I’m away from home) and when I hear more, I realize it’s a foreign language (which I don’t understand).

    A bit weird.

  5. I think this experience demonstrates that the “native speaker” generalization is tenuous at best. Does knowledge of a language depend more on input or output?

    When you hear a language which you first think is one language but then realize is another… I think that the important thingis that you recognize what the language is eventually. Once you know what the language is, you can filter for accents, local words, slang, etc.

    Is it possible that the people at the station were just talking in depth about a subject you know nothing about? Or in low, secretive voices with lots of noise coming from around the station? There are many factors that can hinder input.

  6. Tommy – I’m not sure what you mean by the “native speaker” generalization. Could you expand on this?

    The people on the station were talking about ordinary, everyday things in loud voices that I could hear clearly as I was standing close to them.

  7. I cannot for the life of me remember exactly what it was, but I heard an English accent that sounded identical to very quickly spoken Swedish. After listening for about five minutes I realized they were speaking English! I think it was from the north of England, though I am not sure. There was also a language quiz on this website for it. We had to guess what it was and where it was from. Too bad I can’t find it!

  8. Also, sorry for the double post, I live in the southeastern united States. I am Irish-American from New England, but my family moved to Asheville North Carolina when I was about fourteen. I still have yet to pick up on southerners’ ways of speaking. Not only are all of the accents extremely hard to understand, but there are literally hundreds (appalachian, Georgian, western North Carolinian, coastal North Carolinian, Tennessean, Virginian, people from the secluded Blue Ridge Mountains, Alabaman, Louisiana ‘yat, etc…) of different ones.

  9. I think the important thing is though, ultimately, we can understand accents different to our own (I wouldn’t consider vocabulary differences to be an accent, but a dialect). I don’t really have problems with most American accents because they are so slow compared to my own (most, not all), and Americans speak so loudly.

    The hardest for me are some of the Scots accents, and some of the Wesht of Ireland (even though I’m from there), if mumbled.

  10. Back when NASCAR was a regional sport, it was a veritable cornucopia of regional accents. My SO the long-time racing fan says that one of the funniest interviews he ever saw involved a reporter from rural New England and a driver from (IIRC) rural Virginia. Mutual intelligibility was not high.

    The only accents I find very hard to understand are northern English ones. (And I do mean English, not British– I’ve been to Glasgow and understood everyone I talked to there.)

  11. Last summer I was killing time in the airport and ended up chatting with a older man sitting nearby. He was English, I believe from Manchester, and I am from Toronto, Canada, and I barely understood a word he said! It was pretty funny: We had to keep repeating every sentence because our accents and dialects were so different, although I would say that my accent is quite close to the standard English Canadian accent (i.e., the one used on the news).

  12. Simon – I think the native speaker “generalization” was more from the perspective of an outsider, for example when a non-native speaker asks me the definition of a difficult English word. When I don’t know the word, I am probed, jokingly, “You’re supposed to be a native speaker, right?”

    It is a light example, and I think we all know that omniscience doesn’t make a “native speaker”. But we toss this term around, and maybe it doesn’t matter, but I have yet to find a solid definition. My personal working definition of “native speaker” usually dead ends with following ideas: 1) the ability to control output according to audience, 2) exposure to various input (including time spent in a certain language environment), and 3) instinctive thought (one’s first language?). When I hear about native English speakers not understanding each other’s English, I guess it is simply a mutual lack of exposure to each other’s dialect, but it makes me wonder where, and if, we can draw the line.

    As a side note, what about the interesting melding of Spanish and Portuguese in parts of South America? I’m sure this happens with other languages in other places, too, but it makes me consider Spanish and Portuguese not as different languages, but actually as dialects of the some language (also with Catalan, maybe). To switch between Spanish and Portugues can be like English speakers switching between RP and a Southern American twang. I don’t observe the same phenonenom with French and Italian, but maybe I’m biased.

  13. As a non native English speaker I seem to switch from one accent into another. As child I dealt with east coast (New York / N.J.) American. Later at secondary school I was forced to speak “Queens English” in the seventies I worked with South African English (and Afrikaans) speakers. Two years ago I stayed a while in Australia and recently I was in India (again), so now I speak with a retroflex tongue….
    In Arabic I seem to have a Libanese accent, that’s what they tell me at least, For me it’s still hard to recognize the different accents of “as sharq al awsad” (the middle east). In the low lands (Netherlands, Flanders and Northern Germany) my accent varies according the region I’m staying. But I control these languages so well that it is easy for me to play with it….

  14. Some years ago I was visiting the Mississippi Delta. I had some trouble picking out what people were saying, and they were probably astounded by my Great Lakes accent.

  15. Native speaker is a valid, but slightly fuzzy concept.

    Most definitions hinge on two particular points:

    * the language is acquired naturally in early childhood by immersion in an environment in which it’s spoken (a subject in school that the child doesn’t have occasion to use outside the classroom doesn’t count)

    * the language is maintained into adulthood (and preferrably cultivated)

    There are lots of cases involving (for example) immigrants, (post-)colonial societies and/or multilingual societies where people fall between the cracks in different ways but the term itself is completely valid.

  16. Very interesting post – I have a slightly different, though related, observation about accents.
    I was born & brought up in India, (learnt English as a second language) have lived in the UK for last 10 years. Most of the time I modulate my speech to ‘fit in’ – helps that I have studied phonetics. But Indian English speech sounds really exotic to my ears now – so much so that I have to consciously parse the sounds to make sense of the utterances.
    I wonder if this is typical of first-generation immigrants, or is it just my phonetics knowledge that gets in the way (i.e. I am always thinking – in London they would have aspirated that ‘p’, or that stress pattern is unusual).
    I find the phenomenon interesting because even though I do not ascribe any value to different accents, my mind obviously needs to accord one accent the status of “received”, and all others are compared to it. I wonder if the situation might flip if I were to live in Delhi for 10 years or so.

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