Chapter 2: Producing Speech Sounds

Adapted from

© 2006. Indiana University and Michael Gasser.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.


Edition 3.0; 2006-12-31

In this section, we look at various English accents and how they differ from one another. Remember that an accent is the set of pronunciation conventions of some speech community. Where we draw the boundaries between accents is pretty arbitrary; if we call General American a single accent, for example, we’ll have to deal with the range of variation that exists among speakers within that large community. And any boundaries we draw will be wrong in another sense because the group of people who have one pronunciation convention may not coincide neatly with the group of people who have the other set of conventions that belong to the accent we’re considering. For example, the group of speakers who pronounce the words pin and pen the same includes speakers of Southern US accent but also some speakers of General American, which is a very different accent from Southern US English in many other ways. The point is that conventions of pronunciation tend to cluster together; this is what allows us to talk about “accents” at all.

Another point to keep in mind is that in most countries there is a standard, prestige accent alongside a number of accents associated with particular regions, social classes, or ethnic groups. Each of these non-standard accents can be described in its “broad” form, the form that is most different from the standard in the country where it is spoken, but what many people are speaking much of the time is something in between a particular non-standard accent and the relevant standard. In this section, we concentrate mostly on broad variants of non-standard accents because they illustrate the range of possible differences best.

When comparing two dialects or accents, one possibility is to see one of them as deviating from the other. A biased view of non-standard dialects often starts this way: the speakers of these dialects are seen as just making mistakes with the standard when what they say is non-standard. But of course, this is not what is actually happening. Speakers of non-standard dialects learned the conventions of these dialects by hearing other speakers speak them, just as the speakers of standard dialects learned the conventions of their dialects. They are no more speaking the standard wrong than the speakers of the standard dialect are speaking their dialect wrong.

Overview of English Accents

Before looking at examples of differences between accents, it might help to have a sense of what the major accents are and where they’re spoken.

The British Isles

There is no “British” accent. England, Scotland, Ireland, and possibly Wales all have their own unofficial standard accents, and the standards of Scotland and Ireland, in particular, are as different from that of England as American accents are. The standard, or prestige, accent of England is usually referred to as Received Pronunciation (RP). This is what the royal family, all recent Prime Ministers, and most BBC announcers speak. It is probably what most Americans think of as an “English” accent, though it is spoken as a native accent by no more than about 10% of the English population. It differs most noticeably from General American in the pronunciation of a few vowels and in the way […Ļ] is treated following vowels. For example, in RP there would be no […Ļ] sounds at all in the phrase the northern fourth of the park.

Within England, there are many identifiable regional accents, probably more than in the United States in fact. Among these, London accent (sometimes called “Cockney”) stands out because it is familiar to many Americans through film and drama characters such as Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady and because it has a number of very characteristic features. Many of the vowels in this accent differ considerably from RP and General American. Other very striking features are the loss of initial [h] (“‘e ‘as an ‘ard ‘eart” = “he has a hard heart“) and the frequent glottal stops in place of other stops in other accents (“i Ē’ll ta Ēe a lo Ē o’ time to se Ēle” = “it’ll take a lot of time to settle”). Perhaps the other major accent boundary in England separates the accents of the north from those of the south. Americans may be familiar with the English of Northern England through the speech of the Beatles or the characters in films such The Full Monty. These accents can be identified fairly easily because they make no distinction between the vowels [ Ć] and [ ä]; both are pronounced like [ ä], so that the words look and luck are homophones.

Scottish and Irish English share one feature with northern England English; the tense vowels [i], [u], [e] and [o] are not pronounced as diphthongs, as they are in RP and General American. In addition, these accents are like General American, and unlike most accents of England, in how they treat […Ļ] after vowels.

The Western Hemisphere

The unofficial standard accent of the United States is usually called General American (GA) or Mainstream US English (MUSE). This is the accent of much of the Midwest and the West and the most frequent accent for US newscasters, though, interestingly, many of the more recent US Presidents have spoken regional varieties rather than GA. As the prestige accent, it has been encroaching on some regional accents, for example, in the northeast, but at the same time, changes within GA are creating what amount to new accents. One striking example of this is Northern Cities accent, spoken in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Rochester, and distinct from GA in the pronunciation of lax vowels. So for example, the word socks in the name of the Chicago White Sox is pronounced [saks] in the Northern Cities accent, as compared to [s…Ďks] in Canadian English.

The Southern US accent is spoken by people mainly in the southeastern part of the country. Like the London accent, this accent has strikingly different vowels from other English accents. African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a dialect associated with an ethnic group rather than a region, though of course, you don’t have to be African-American to have learned it. The accent associated with this dialect is similar in many ways to Southern US accent, while the phonology, morphology and syntax of this variety have their own characteristic properties.

People from the northeastern US are often easy to identify by their accents; the accent of New York City stands out within this region, again mostly for its vowels. Some other US cities, especially Pittsburgh, are known for particular pronunciation conventions. In Pittsburgh, for example, [a] may be used where GA has [a ä], so downtown may be [dantan].

Standard Canadian English (except in the province of Newfoundland) is very similar to General American, and it doesn’t vary much from place to place. One characteristic of Canadian English is the pronunciation of [a…™] and [a ä] in certain contexts, which we’ll learn about in Section 4.6.

English is the native language of much of the Caribbean, with some features common to the region and others specific to particular islands. As with other accents, there are characteristic vowels in these accents, and in addition, a tendency in the Caribbean, as there is in some US accents, to make no distinction between [t] and [őł] or between [d] and [√į]. Jamaican English in particular also has quite striking intonation patterns.

The Southern Hemisphere

English is the native language of most Australians and New Zealanders and a sizable minority of South Africans. While the standard English accents of these countries tend to approach RP, the broad accents of most English speakers in all three countries have tense vowels similar to those in the London accent. The lax front vowels of Australian and New Zealand English differ from those in other accents.

Non-native accents

English is spoken as a second language by millions of people, especially in regions that were once colonized by Britain in South Asia and Africa. In some of these regions, there are particular English pronunciation conventions that derive from the phonology of the local languages. For example, in the English of South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Maldivians), the alveolar consonants [t], [d], [n], and [l] tend to be replaced by retroflex consonants, which are common in the languages of this region. These non-native conventions are one of the ways that English is becoming even more of an international language.


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