Trinidad’s sexy accent

CNN Travel has been running a facebook poll (because why bother actually reporting) on which accents people find the sexiest. The results were used to create this article of litte worth published over a month ago, since in the meantime the facebook poll has seen contributors decidedly change their minds, overwhelmingly voting the Trinidadian accent (and NOT the Italian one) as sexiest with 4,740 votes. French comes in second.

This first led me to think: what on earth is a Trinidadian accent and why do so many Americans find it so appealing? In my mind the only thing I could come up with was Jamaican, and I figured that meant I was probably being racist in some way, so I decided to face my prejudices and bravely search YouTube for answers. Luckily, there’s a tutorial on there for how to speak like a Trinidadian (of course there is). Here are some basic points (still sounds vaguely Jamaican to me…):
– pronounce ‘d’ in place of ‘t’ or ‘th’
– instead of ‘your’ or ‘you’, say ‘yuh’
– lose the ‘g’ in ‘ing’ endings
– Trinidadians speak quickly, so just try to take out as many sounds as possible (middle of words, end of words, wherever really) without affecting the meaning of what you’re trying to say. In fact, feel free to drop any small, useless words like ‘to’ or ‘am’ altogether.
– I suspect there are a few more phonetic differences not brought up here, but it’s a start…

From what I can gather, the most famous Trinidadian is Nicki Minaj, and I strongly suspect her fan base of hijacking that CNN Travel poll. Besides, there is a myriad of sexy accent polls out there, and everyone knows that the only right answer is Scottish (or Irish, at a push, I’ll also accept). This only goes to prove one thing: CNN’s information, as unreliable as always…

Try to sound more southern, luv.

In the news this week, everybody’s been up in arms about a minor incident during which an Ofsted school inspector allegedly insinuated to a school teacher in Berkshire that she should try to drop the Cumbrian accent and ‘sound more southern’. A comment which would be taken to be outright racist were it directed to a teacher of Indian, Jamaican or Polish origin has stirred northern sensibilities and undoubtedly caused embarassed mutterings in the south.

The teacher in question thankfully has no intention of altering her enunciation to please a misguided Ofsted inspector and has taken it all in good jest, as shall we. So here, in honour of all things Northern, is a lovely wee poem in Cumbrian.

How to surprise an unfazed Frenchman

To the native English speakers among you who have ever attempted to learn French, you will remember the difficulty in differentiating between all those nasal vowels which make all the difference between the words ‘on’, ‘en’ and ‘un’ for example. There is also the difference between the acute ‘u’ sound and the more rounded ‘ou’ – confuse those two and you may end up saying ‘my ass’ when you meant to say ‘my neck’. I once spent about an hour with a very determined American desperate to correctly pronounce ‘tu’ and ‘tous’ although he could barely hear the difference between the two.

To the native French among you, all this will seem silly and obvious of course, for how could one ever fail to distinguish the difference between ‘ass’ and ‘neck’ or ‘you’ and ‘all’. My husband, a Frenchman, was rather struck when I pointed out to our mutual American friend, the one struggling between ‘tu’ and ‘tous’, that the difference between the two words did not just present itself in the vowel sounds. The ‘t’s in the two words are rather different. If you’re saying them correctly, then the positioning of your tongue will be different in preparation for the ‘tu’ (flatter) than for the ‘tous’ (more rounded upwards).

The Frenchman quickly and soundlessly tried this maneuver out in his mouth before looking at me in utter surprise. Clearly never before had he contemplated the possibility that in his native tongue, the letter ‘t’ could be sounded in different ways. This is the mistake people make when learning other languages – assuming that the same letter will in general represent the same sound. The English ‘t’ is not exactly the same as the French or the Italian ‘t’. Often the sound is similar but the tongue is positioned in ever so slightly a different way, and if that positioning is not observed, then whatever you do, you will always end up sounding a little foreign.

The more blatant example of this is the rolled or trilled ‘r’ (like in Italian) vs. the guttural ‘r’ (like in French) vs. the softer way Americans say ‘r’. Your best bet to avoid all these pronunciation difficulties is to learn as many languages as possible before age 12. If you are reading this a little too late, then there are a variety of techniques you can find online to guide your mouth through a series of contortions in a very deliberate attempt to pronounce these foreign sounds. Some will outright incite you to turn towards hard liquor to ‘loosen up your tongue’.  Anything with a video guide and a diagram of your mouth to show tongue positioning is best otherwise the instructions can be confusing as hell and liquor may indeed be needed – good luck!

Foreign Accent Syndrome

Reported in such classy news sources as The Mirror and The Daily Mail this week, the case of an Australian woman who woke up speaking English with a French accent following a car accident. These cases being rare, you generally only get to hear about a new one every couple of years. In fact, there have only been little over 60 cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) ever reported since its discovery in 1941.

To be sure, the news reports are often a bit misleading, and to the average person used to hearing English spoken with a French accent, the Australian case is only a vague approximation. The result of brain injury or stroke affecting an area devoted to language, FAS is in effect a speech impediment, and the people who wake up sounding French, Jamaican or Chinese have pretty much never had any experience of these cultures or languages.

We know relatively little about the functioning of the brain in terms of language production, and it is still appears to be somewhat of a miracle that humans can muster the ability to communicate with language to begin with when no other species even comes close. Cases like these are surely a godsend for neurolinguists exploring the language-producing areas of the brain. It is only when one particular little thing ceases to function that we can identify which part of the brain ceased to function along with it.

Saying that, with FAS the changes in the brain affect pronunciation in a myriad of ways – timing, intonation, control of tongue placement, voicing errors, truncation of words, vowel or consonant distortions, deletions or substitutions and other unusual errors can all be a part of the package. Despite all this, speech remains intelligible, and merely sounds somewhat ‘foreign’ to the casual listener. For the sufferers of FAS however, their social lives are gravely affected, many falling into depression or becoming recluse as a result, and finding it difficult to come to terms with this new voice which they feel deeply alters their identity.

Because cases are so rare, treatment is pretty much non-existent, with the suffers not knowing whether the affliction is temporary or if it will stay with them for the rest of their lives. A few researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have launched a website for those seeking more information about FAS, and even they only mention one example from 2007 of a tentative treatment of FAS on an English-speaker who sounded ‘Swedish’, with no apparent success.



I say curb strip, you say berm…

I had a linguistics professor who was rather obsessed with whether people said ‘soda’, ‘pop’ or ‘fizzy drink’, and how they pronounced their vowels. Coming from Scotland, he would occasionally make me repeat certain words over and over again to judge exactly what bizarre vowel I was pronouncing when I said ‘bird’. I found out that he used his time in Cambridge wisely, compiling this online survey of world Englishes, which I invite you to take. Moreover, someone else had so much time on their hands (or was possibly the professor’s poor PhD student),  that they compiled this survey data into visualisations of pronunciation in the US, devising an algorithm to estimate probability of pronunciation in each city.

You can easily spend a few hours browsing through this website and not only wonder at the 122 variations of English all across the US,  but also ask yourself such pertinent and soul-searching questions as: “can you call coleslaw ‘slaw’?”, “what word do you use for gawking at someone in a lustful way?” and “how many syllables are there in ‘mayonnaise’?”. Bonus Quiz: find out what “the devil is beating his wife” refers to in a few southern states.

Variations on English

I already wrote about the differences a Brit encounters in America and vice-versa, yet to leave it at that would be forgetting the numerous varieties of English that are spoken throughout not only the British Isles and the US, but all over the globe. Wikipedia tells me that there are something like 27 cases of Pidgin English and around 50 English-based Creole languages spread across every inhabited continent, not to mention all the geographic, social and ethnic variations we find form one village to the next in Standard English-speaking countries.

The most comprehensive collection of variation which I have come across is the Freiburg Institute’s eWAVE project (Electronic World Atlas of Varieties of English). They have so far mapped 235 different features, covering 13 domains of grammar, across 74 varieties of English. On their website you can browse by variety (e.g. Manx, Rural African American, Aboriginal, Nigerian Pidgin…), feature (e.g. absolute use of reflexives, double determiners, be as perfect auxiliary…), or informant (if you’re looking for the work of a particular person). Alternatively, if all these grammatical terms confuse the heck out of you, you can just have a look through the recorded sentences given as examples for each variety and marvel at the diversity on display.

Yale University has also begun a similar project but focused uniquely on micro-syntactic variations in North-American English (although they have also mapped a few variations in the UK). The ambition of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project is to bring together research from the last decades, and if possible record not only the academic source for each piece of data, but also information about each recorded speaker such as age and ethnicity. You’ll find some unexpected examples in there like the ‘positive anymore’ in Arizona (“Men are wearing hats anymore.”, meaning “All men are now wearing hats, and they didn’t do so before”), or double modals (“Might should we have invited Jim?”, “I might just couldn’t see it.”). However, the number of phenomena mapped so far is limited and many recorded examples date back to research in the 60s and 70s which makes me question their relevance today.

Both of these projects are aimed at collecting and increasing research into language variation, and they are created to be used by people who don’t need explaining what a benefactive personal dative construction is. For mere mortals like us, there is another source of linguistic fun in the form of the British Library’s ‘Sounds Familiar? websiteHere you can click to hear recordings of English variation throughout the British Isles. It is handily divided into lexical, phonological, grammatical and social variation, and even those terms are carefully explained. They even have a section about language change and encourage people to record their own voice to add to the mapping and investigation of regional variation. Hats off to the British Library quite frankly.

And good luck sorting out Billinge:

Thanks go to Neil for the link (he’s from Lancashire and still couldn’t quite understand it), and for making me realise that there was a more incomprehensible dialect than Glaswegian. Neil has lately also been spending his time on rope-swings in the Bolivian rainforest, all in the name of linguistic research.