Pronunciation Matters

Characters in the Andy Griffith Show and Seinfeld speak two different regional dialects of English.
Characters in the Andy Griffith Show and Seinfeld speak two different regional dialects of English.

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

The friendly, commonsensical Geico lizard speaks a non-standard dialect of British English.
The friendly, commonsensical Geico lizard speaks a non-standard dialect of British English.

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.

Mr. and Mrs. Howells in Gilligans Island spoke with what was perceived as the haughty accents of the wealthy.
Mr. and Mrs. Howells in Gilligan’s Island spoke with what were perceived as the haughty accents of the wealthy.

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.

9 Responses

  1. Wow! Who cares about her accent? She is amazing. One or two episodes should be all it takes even for the most ignorant of people to adjust to the accent.

  2. Doug,
    I’ve actually installed a plugin that is supposed to give the commenter a 30-minute window in which to edit the comment. Apparently it doesn’t work. I’ll keep looking.

    I haven’t seen the Idiot. I’ll see if I can find it on the web.

    Have you ever watched the film *Idiocracy*? It is a dystopic vision of the future in which the English language has dwindled into corporate-speak. Even the doctors talk like teenagers and children are given such names as Frito.

  3. Grrrrr…. trying to correct my own typos above (somewhere, of, etc.) and can’t do it!

    Why on earth are these comments not editable by their original authors??? BLARGH!

  4. Recently, I tried to watch “An Idiot Abroad” on the Science Channel. The basic premise of the show is that an “idiot” from (somehwere in the UK where they speak unintelligible gibberish) is sent to various spots around the world and his reactions, which might or might not be funny, form the content fo the show.

    The problem is, I can only understand one word in ten spoken by the protagonist, Karl. I even recorded the first few episodes and played them back repeatedly, at high audio levels, trying to interpret whatever Karl is constantly droning on about.

    Has anyone else tried to watch this show? Can anyone render an opinion as to where in the UK people actually speak that unintelligible brand of not-English?

    As information, I have spent considerable time overseas, and have had little trouble understanding *many* people for whom English is not a first language… but this Karl guy (and his producer Brian Gervais or something similar) seem to mumble and slur pretty much everything, and not in any recognizable language, either.

  5. Michael,
    Thanks for the link. I’m not acquainted with Cheryl Cole’s accent. It will be interesting to see how she deals with her transatlantic fans.

    Performers have more invested in a regional accent that contributes to their public persona than people in other professions. I complain about Bono’s “haitches” in the HIV spots, but I suppose he feels it necessary to stay in character, even while doing international philanthropic work.

    I lived in London for seven years and had friends in Birmingham and Preston, so I was exposed to a lot of different dialects. The only one I recall having trouble understanding was that of old Walter on The Archers. More recently, however, I find it difficult to understand some of the accents on Mystery and Masterpiece Theatre. I had to turn on the closed captioning for the Jack Frost series and even then I could barely keep up. But, I find that the captions often help me with American accents in some movies and TV shows.

  6. Thanks Maeve. Your section on social standing—particularly your comment on American perceptions of British and Australian accents—made me think of this .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *