resources on regional accents

We have American houseguests at the moment, so not a lot of time to blog, but lots of time to sit around and listen to other Americans' impressions of BrE. So far, we've discussed pudding/dessert, Jell-o/jelly (both mentioned back here) and something else that we discussed for at least a few minutes and that I have now forgotten completely.

So, in the absence of time/presence of mind to write much more, here are some recommendations for resources on regional accents. The British Library has recently unveiled their Sounds Familiar? website. This is a wonderful resource, full of descriptions and recordings of various dialects in the UK.

Looking for something somewhat similar for the US, I found the Varieties of English website at University of Arizona. This covers other Englishes in addition to American--and doesn't cover the whole of America. (For instance, the English of white Arizonans isn't treated at all.) But if you click on 'Southern States' or 'Northeast US', you get some general description and sound samples. A classic (meaning that it already existed when I started teaching) American dialect 'edutainment' is the film American Tongues. If you can find a copy, it's definitely a good one.

If you have other dialect audio-visual resources to recommend, please do so!


  1. I have access to the Phonological Atlas of North America through my university library online. I'm not sure how many other universities have it.

  2. I see your digital atlas, Elizabeth, and raise you one, 1943 vintage, Linguistic Atlas of New England, by Hans Kurath, Volume III, Part I, maps 492-602.
    I found it when cleaning out what was to become my office. It takes the form of a pile of around 150 A1 size maps of New England, with the various phonetic pronunciations of a single word inscribed on each one.

    It's quite incredible.

  3. Here's the Speech Accent Archive at George Mason University:

  4. Oh, and this:

  5. Talking of Jelly, one can get an idea of how New Orleans creoles spoke before WWI by listening to the Library of Congress recordings of the interview with Jelly Roll Morton (done in the late 30s). Of course, his music is rather attractive too.

  6. Super stuff about on regional variations. What is that thing about a language’s being a dialect with an army and a navy (also rendered as ״אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט״)?

    If I may namedrop, some select chums and colleagues of mine went to Cambridge-university, eastern England, the other week (as you do), to listen to His Supreme Holiness the Dalai/Pope Rt Rev Professor Dr Sir William Labov DD OM DFC and bar. He spoke about inter alia the northern cities shift which is a rotation of five AmE vowels (as well as a popular disco-dance in Cleveland OH). His PowerPoint included a soundclip of someone saying what seemed to be: “We used to have bosses with antennae on top.” Visions of something out of Dilbert with management sprouting BrE aerials/AmE antennae. In fact, the research subject (as we linguists so lovingly call the victims of our obtuse investigations) was talking about buses (whose drivers could presumably radio back to the depot with their orders for lunch). That’s what happens, I guess, when your vowels start rotating.

    There is, IMHO, a lot of bolloques linguistiques spoken about the alleged closeness of Geordie and Norwegian and how, because there is a mere 446 statute miles (count them) between Newcastle upon Tyne and Bergen, the two accents are pretty well mutually comprehensible. Oh yeah? I suppose that means that, just because England and America are across the Atlantic from each other, people from here and there can understand each other. Dream on, sunshine.

    (Of course, it is true that cockney-RP speakers like me find Geordie and Norwegian as difficult to understand as each other, but that is another matter probably best discussed offline and not just after the pubs have shut in Gateshead.)

    What is spooky, however, is that, in at least one part of the Germanic world, you find that folks on either side of a national border are more likely to understand each other than they might understand their further-flung compatriots. What I’m on about (for those of you still awake and reading) is Plattdüütsch, also known unflatteringly as low German. Imagine you were an Englishman cycling through the eastern Netherlands and then into western Germany. The people alongside the road would largely be using the same lexis, grammar and phonology to swear at you about driving on the wrong side of the road, even though they were citizens of two different countries. An Austrian cyclist coming in the other direction on the German side of the border wouldn’t understand what they were shouting at him either as they warned him of this crazy Englishman’s approach on an inevitable collision course, even though they were all supposedly German-speakers. Separated by a common language? Separated by a common schmanguage.

    By contrast, you just try cycling through the channel tunnel and see if you can understand what the people on the other side of that submarine land-border are saying (which would probably be: “Attention, monsieur. Un train s’approche.”).

    (Cf. here Dr Strabismus of Utrecht’s notable work on the mutual mooability of black and white cattle throughout Dutch, German and Danish Frisia.)

    Before the nurse arrives with my next injection, let me reflect on my listening to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent speech to the Teheran women’s institute (or whatever it was) during which he announced the safe return of the 15 British servicepersons. It struck me how at least some of his words sounded familiar. Not familiar in the “How are you, me old duck? Have some whelks and jellied eels down the Old Kent Road.” sense, you understand, but phonologically. Of course. Silly me. Persian is Indo-European. The bits that sounded otherwise were (according to the rather flummoxed BBC interpreter) where His Presidency was quoting qur’anic Arabic. If only the interpreter had been a Geordie. Her dialect would have been more or less the same as demotic Farsee.

    1. Actually "low German" isn't (or wasn't originally meant to be) unflattering. "Low German" and its opposite, "High German" refer to the fact that the Northern part of Germany is flat, while the South is mountainous. At any rate that's what I was told when I studied German at university.

  7. Do You Speak American? is both a public television (US) documentary and a book.

    Mary Lynn


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)