Mild regional accents add color and charm to speech, but extreme variations in pronunciation, stress, and vocabulary can create an obstacle to understanding for speakers of other dialects.
For example, pin and pen contain two distinctly different vowels, short i and short e. In some dialects, however, the two words are pronounced identically, providing numerous occasions for confusion.
The thought has occurred to me that it would be a good idea for Steve Jobs to come up with two new products called the iPed and the iPid. I’d be willing to bet that consumers of every dialect would quickly learn how to pronounce the two vowel sounds distinctly!
Pronunciation has social implications
Writers use regional dialects as shorthand character markers. Southern accents are often attached to bigots, psychopaths, or morons. Big city gangster characters often speak with New Jersey or Brooklyn accents. Standard British accents
may be used to sketch snobbish characters, while variants such as Cockney or Australian are used to suggest down-to-earth candor.
Teachers need to teach “spelling pronunciations”
From the viewpoint of an elementary teacher, some regional pronunciations are preferable to others, if only in the context of spelling instruction.
For example, the phonogram aw represents the vowel sound heard in the word law. The same sound occurs in such words as yawn, awning, and fawn, yet some Eastern U.S. speakers pronounce these words as if they all had short o sounds. I’ve heard the girl’s name Dawn pronounced as if it rhymed with the boy’s name Don.
For the purpose of teaching children to spell, teachers should be aware of how their own regional pronunciation differs from standard English pronunciation. They can give their students “spelling pronunciations” that will enable them to make more sense of English spelling.
For example, a word that most English speakers learn to spell with the help of a “spelling pronunciation” is February. To spell it, we think “Feb-roo-air-ee,” but most of us probably say “feb-u-air-ee.” Similar mnemonic tricks can be used to make children aware of the connection or disconnect between what they say and the phonetic spelling elements used to write words.
Seinfeld’s English is not superior to Andy Griffith’s English
Teachers in every region of the United States need to be especially aware of the pronunciations modeled in the national media; East Coast dialects and pronunciations tend to predominate. Teachers in the Midwest and in the South have a responsibility to raise students’ awareness that the characters on Seinfeld and those on the Andy Griffith Show are both speaking regional dialects, neither of which is superior to the other, and both of which often fall short of standard English.
No dialect is intrinsically “better” than another, but the educated person is aware of different pronunciations, and is able to switch to standard mode when appropriate.
Here are two sites where you can ascertain the standard pronunciation of an English word:
Howjsay: This is a British site, but words that have a different pronunciation in U.S. English are acknowledged and modeled.
Inogolo: This site focuses on the pronunciation of proper names.