Wednesday, September 17, 2014


This is the kind of blog topic I love -- like the soup or bacon sandwich ones -- where I'm reporting on my slowly acquired reali{s/z}ation that there are subtle UK/US differences in meanings of certain familiar words. The meanings are so similar that they often refer to the same things. What's different is where the cent{er/re} and periphery of the meaning are. Because these differences are hard to tease out, we may go through conversations not reali{s/z}ing that we're not quite communicating. Of course, it's loving these kinds of things that got me to be a lexical semanticist in the first place.

It all started with the World in Words podcast three years ago, in which I was Patrick Cox's guest. Here's how he titled the segment:

Patrick had asked me about how my speech is received in England (I can't remember if this bit is actually in the podcast), and I'd remarked that it disconcerts me when it's said that I have a twang. To me, people from Kentucky have twangs. I have an accent (of course, we all do), but it's not anything I'd describe as twangy. My accent is (among other things) mumbly. I don't see 'mumbly' and 'twangy' as going together.  (Regarding mumbly: I liked Ben Yagoda's post this week about new -y adjectives.) I expect a twangy accent to sound like a country (AmE jocular) gee-tar.

Patrick went along with my puzzlement at being called 'twangy' in his blog post, but the twangs kept coming my way, and I kept hearing twang applied to accents that I don't consider to be 'twangy'. The final straw came (on) Thursday when the Guardian referred to Peter Capaldi's accent as a 'Scottish twang'. I thought: what in the world does twang mean if it applies to Peter Capaldi?  (If you're reading this aloud, note that in my accent 'Peter Capaldi' comes out as Peter Capaldi Swoooon.)

Some discussion on Twitter started to lift the scales from my eyes, and a little on-line survey I've done has confirmed: BrE has a meaning for twang that's not found in AmE, nor in its own dictionaries (e.g. Oxford, Collins).  Have/take a look:

Both AmE and BrE have the sense 'a strongly nasal quality in a person's speech, esp in certain dialects' (as Collins puts it). That is reflected in the light green bar in the chart.  The orange 'neither of the above' bar may be populated by people who didn't like that I didn't say 'nasal' or something similarly specific in my definitions. The teal bar represents 'has a hint of an accent', and that is much more strongly BrE than AmE--just edging out the (presumably) older meaning. Similar numbers of Americans (107) and British (103) are represented in the results.

The 'hint of an accent' meaning explains the cases where people say that I or Peter Capaldi have a twang--we're not speaking with the full force of the accents associated with our regions. I think this use is probably found in Ireland too, or else I can't explain this sentence about the X-Men character Magneto, as played by Sir Ian McKellen (who once had a sip of my Coke when we were marching in the Johannesburg Pride parade; oh, and I like to [orig. AmE] name-drop):

At least he does sound German when he speaks German, but you'd think that he might have had a slight German twang when he was speaking English, what with him being RAISED BY NAZIS AND ALL. (from GloBWE)

German? Twang? This does not compute, given the meaning of twang that I use, but it works fine if what you mean by twang is not 'having a certain kind of accent' but 'having a bit of an accent of some kind'. One of the British respondents described it as "the hint of a weird or unusual accent that jars with the listener's expectations". 

I also asked which accents people think are twangy, but since I didn't do that with a multiple-choice question, I can't give you a nice chart. When talking about other countries, the British mostly said the US (especially south and midwest). Some said Australia. When asked about twangs in their own country, the West Country was mentioned most often.

People from the US strongly associated it with the US South (from Appalachia to Texas) and often said they would not use the word of non-American accents.

Lots of people from both countries mentioned banjos. 

I know people from other countries would like to a breakdown of results from those, but there weren't very big numbers from any other country. Still, 11 out of 14 Canadians preferred the 'definite regional accent' meaning, as did 10 of 11 Australians. So, the 'hint of accent' looks particularly British.

And this makes a lot of sense. British people are generally highly sensitive to and about accents. As famously written by G. B. Shaw, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. Britain's diversity of accents in its small geographic space means that the accents can communicate a lot about geographical, educational and social status--reflecting and contributing to the famous British class system. Since many British people (including one I live with) form immediate and lasting  impressions of others based on their accents, it's not surprising that they're interested in not just "accents", but hints of accents.

I can't go without saying a little something about nasal. Nasal is a word that people apply to all kinds of accents, even those that are anything but nasal from a physiological perspective. Allan Metcalf has discussed this on the Lingua Franca blog, which he closes with "And don't get me started about twang..."

Many thanks to all 252 of you who so kindly responded to the survey. I was particularly touched that some used the comments space to write nice things about this blog or my Twitter feed. I feel like the luckiest linguist on the internet.


John Cowan said...

"It ain't so much their bleeding language", said the Cockney about Yanks, "as their blasted nasal twang."

Autolycus said...

As with most BrE metaphorical usages, it doesn't necessarily imply a pejorative meaning. You could perhaps have imagined that that original speaker meant in the sense John Aubrey used it:

"Anno 1670, not far from Cirencester, was an apparition; being demanded whether a good spirit or a bad? returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and a most melodious twang. Mr W. Lilly believes it was a fairy."

lynneguist said...

I had respondents from UK saying 'I could only use this pejoratively' and others saying 'it's not particularly negative'--so I think that aspect of it might be more personal.

lynneguist said...

I've just made a correction: I'd written 'the Black Country' where I should have written 'the West Country'. Very different accents! Decided to note it here, rather than in the post. (It's hard enough to read my writing without even more parenthetical comments.)

Emilio Márquez said...

I’ve copied this:
Since many British people […] form immediate and lasting impressions of others based on their accents, it's not surprising that they're interested in not just "accents", but hints of accents.

Here’s a quote I also copied from Gimson’s Pronunciation of English. 5th ed. 1994. §7.1:

“The British are today particularly sensitive to variations in the pronunciation of their language. The ‛wrong accent’ may still be an impediment to social intercourse or to advancement or entry in certain professions. Such extreme sensitivity is apparently not paralleled in any country or even in other parts of the English-speaking world.”

And here’s a dialogue from Alan Maley’s LEARNING TO LISTEN (Unit 7). Cambridge. 1981:

WOMAN. Yes, erm, what sort of education are you actually looking for?
MAN. Well, you know, a couple of A levels. Must have English of course.
WOMAN. Yes, how are you going to…
MAN. Someone with a nice, nice manners and er…
WOMAN. I think you’re asking quite a lot.
MAN. Good accent, you know, I don’t want somebody who talks like a gutter. Erm, asking a lot?

So thanks for the reminder, Lynne :-)

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Perhaps the usage of "twang" as a trace of an accent comes from association with "tang"?

Paul Dormer said...

There are two definitions in Chambers that might apply. As well as a nasal tone it gives "a local intonation (inf)." But there is also a second headword, possibly a variant of "tang": "a sharp flavour; an aftertaste; a smack, suggestion."

Dick Hartzell said...

Undoubtedly the Brits who patrol this space will be incredulous to learn that Americans are capable of expressing contempt for the accents of ... other Americans. A famous (though, alas, apocryphal) instance involves the Bronx-born film actor Tony Curtis (né Bernie Schwartz), who for years lived with the untrue claim that in an early '50s costume drama he inadvertently betrayed his roots by reading the line "Yonder lies the castle of my father" as "Yondah lies da castle of my foddah."

Though no, I don't think any American would invoke the word "twang" in describing a Bronx or New York City accent.

But since I'm digressing about New York accents I simply must salute the superlative Bay Ridge Brooklyn accent the Australian actress Margot Robbie pulls off in Martin Scorsese's outrageous The Wolf of Wall Street. When I saw the movie I had no idea who Robbie is -- much less that she's Australian -- and never dreamed anyone who grew up so far from this remote Brooklyn neighborhood could replicate its distinct, deeply unattractive accent with such flawless assurance. It was indeed some kind of twang.

Zhoen said...

To me, a twang is a strong Tennessee or Texas drawl. Sounding not unlike a slide steel guitar. There is a slow, drawn out, eliding quality that may be nasal, but not just. Anything not specifically that accent, and pow'rf'l thick to boot, I would never call a twang. And neutral, not pejorative.

(Am/E, Can/E, grew up in Detroit. Which was sometimes called the Biggest Southern City in the North.)

Stuart Cumella said...

I learnt of some Americans' dislike of each others' accents when I went to Boston some years ago. The guide on the sight-seeing bus had a distinctive accent. After a while, one of the Americans said disapprovingly "When did you move here from New Jersey?" The guide became irritated, and replied: "I'm from New York, not New Joisey".

LB said...

Lynne, would it be accurate to say that the second (i.e. slight accent) definition in British English would be used in a situation where a North American would say someone has "a touch of a [e.g. German] accent". Also, a little voice in the back of my head is saying that people (perhaps Canadians, since that's where I am) would use "a tinge/twinge" of an accent to mean a slight amount, but when I look up the definitions, that doesn't seem right. Have I just invented a usage in my head, or have you also heard of such a thing being said?

detailbear said...

Yes, LB - I was about to post about "twinge" too. As a Canadian, I would think of twang as being quite a bit stronger if someone was using it to describe an accent. However, in music class in about grade 5, we were urged to round our tones and avoid the "Southern Ontario twang" that came from too much nasality.

Dark Star in the Morning said...

If you search with "western twang" in quotation marks you mostly get references to music, but a few sentences in connection to an accent do pop up.

The common thread running through both British, Canadian and American usage is that it seems to refer to someone from a non-urban setting -- maybe not all the time, but a lot of it. You don't think of London, you think of the West Country, as you said. And in America, you don't think of New York, you think of the South, or is very limited circumstances apparently the West, but I suspect the picture that springs to mind isn't one of good sized cities, it's more one of a pick-up truck on a dusty back-road -- sort of a "Take me home, country roads..." kind of thing.

Or is this just my imagination?

Anonymous said...

*cough* Mandatory reference to Eddie Izzard and his famous "Nottingham twang" sketch coming up!

Although it does leave open the question of whether his use of "twang" is meant to be BrE or AmE.

Ginger Yellow said...

It's not at all pejorative sounding to me. I would definitely free associate it with "southern", but I'm also comfortable with the more generic "hint of an accent" usage.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

As George Bernard Shaw famously said, "Every time an Englishman opens his mouth, he makes another Englishman despise him", which is soooooooooo true! I have to admit that I have only ever thought of "twang" as an American accent, but perhaps I am an Iggerant Brit!

Stuart B said...

For me (BrE speaker) "twang" is almost just synonymous with (non-standard) "accent" without any particular implication of it being strong or mild. E.g. "He spoke with a Scottish twang". You can,of course, qualify it ("a real Devonshire twang" vs "a slight Devonshire twang").
No implication of nasality at all. And I'd never refer to speech as "twangy", reserving that for (some) guitar styles.

Autolycus said...

@LB and detailbear: I don't doubt that some people's twang might give some British people's teeth a twinge!

Autolycus said...

@LB and detailbear - I don't doubt some people's twang would give some British people's teeth a twinge (and we'll have no teeth jokes, please.....)

Gina the Great said...

To me a twang is a specific Texas accent, very strong and strident and delivered in a nasal drone. Ross Perot would be the iconic example.

At least among my cohort, any other Southern accent called a drawl.

Gina the Great said...

Oops, left out the "is" in the last para and can't figure out how to edit the comment. Sorry!

David Crosbie said...

Twang still means the noise that a bowstring or any similar taut string makes when plucked -- excluding perfectly pitched musical notes but including deliberately "distorted" guitar sounds.

Beyond that, I reckon we use the word without a very clear idea what we mean ourselves -- still less what other speakers mean. A degree of relative clarity emerges from

1 the attitudes and prejudices we feel to the accent and/or speakers of the accent described as having a twang

2 our response to the "sound symbolism" of the word -- what the noises make us (perhaps unconsciously) think of. There are two sounds:

a. NG -- which often suggests nasality or resonance

b. TW -- which sometimes suggests small measure, as in twitter, tweet, twinge, twist (of lemon)

Roberta Davies said...

This is probably not true any more, with more cross-cultural exposure. But the English apparently used to think of the "American accent" (whatever that means) as inherently nasal. I recall a scene in a novel where an Englishman was trying to pass himself off as an American over the phone, and pinching his nose shut to aid in the fake accent.

David Crosbie said...

Roberta Davies

This is probably not true any more, with more cross-cultural exposure. But the English apparently used to think of the "American accent" (whatever that means) as inherently nasal.

Oh, I think it still is true, Roberta. True that we think so, that is.

I suspect that what the cross-cultural exposure has done is dissociate the stereotype from our experience. Nevertheless, stereotype and experience flourish side by side in happy cognitive dissonance.

Nick Rowe said...

Really interesting blog & a good question too. Can I also throw one in here? When does a twang (in my opinion it's a noticeable accent which may have vowel sounds shifted some way from the listener's norm) become a brogue (a type of boring shoe)? Is it just a case that any gaelic-based lilt or twang can be described as a brogue? You can have a Black Country twang but not a Brummie brogue?

Nick Rowe said...

I've been trying to produce a 'how to' guide for young actors who need to speak with an American accent; there are a lot of resources out there for Americans trying to speak in an 'English' accent, but none the other way around. I wonder if this is because Brits are more exposed to US media it is just easier for us to pick up? However, it's certainly a problem for kids who have never really listened to an accent or thought about what goes into reproducing it. There are a few sites out there that use those odd phonetic symbols which barely mean anything to me, never mind a bunch of 10-16 year olds.

I'd appreciate it if you'd have a quick look at my blog and maybe give some comments. Of course, it's from an (midland/northern) English vowel perspective, so it'll only work for a limited number of people!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post.
I come from multicultural family, I live in 3 European countries at the same time. Already knowing 4 languages (and studying 2 more including English) I have this bad (?) habit of picking up on accents and sounds of people around me. I have probably the strangest accent ever (whatever language I speak). Is it a twang? I don't think so but it's funny when I speak foreign language and people can't guess where I come from. I absolutely adore reactions of British people when I speak English. They think that I sound like German living in Dorset (I live in Bmouth from time to time yeah but I'm not German and I don't even know the language).
I've picked up on a little bit of my fiance's accent recently so now I hear that I'm Hungarian (no, I'm not!) from north west England or British living many years in.. [list of different countries where I've never been too]. It's unbelievably funny!
If only I spoke English better I'd create a blog about it, believe me :)