Search Ace Linguist

January 22, 2018

What is #AccentChallenge18 Testing?

Found an accent challenge on Twitter today. So an accent challenge, as any sort of 'challenge' on the internet, is like a game. The 'rules' are that you are given a list of words and you have to read these words aloud in your accent, then state where you're from. It's a fun way for social media users to find out what their followers sound like and where they're from, and it's especially popular to do accent challenges with a friend from a different location so that they can compare accents and tease the other for saying things differently. Every now and then someone will make their own list of words and start another accent challenge. My own contribution to this challenge can be found here.

In order to be interesting, accent challenges have to show differences between people's accents. To this end, they should pick words that are likely to have different phonetic realizations. 'Water' is a good one because it tests for three different things: (a) the /ɔ/ sound in water, (b) the /t/ sound appearing between vowels in water, and (c) the /r/ sound at the end of water. All three of these features can sound very different from one accent to another and are thus easy to compare. A good accent challenge should also have variety.

I decided to run through the list of words to see what they could possible be testing for. I also listened to some of the submissions in order to see which differences were being commented on. I've split into three categories. phonology, which tests how a vowel sounds in a particular accent or if some sounds are treated a certain way. Lexical items, which is individual words that sound different between accents, but that doesn't affect every word. For example,'again' rhymes with 'rain' in British English but it rhymes with 'pen' in American English. This only affects 'again' - 'rain' doesn't rhyme with 'pen' in American English, meaning that whatever caused 'again' to sound different in British and American English only affected that particular word. There's a further subdivision which is lexical items that are split between British and American varieties (most other dialects will follow either the British or American pronunciation). The last one is 'other', for words that test multiple things or which I could not figure out what they were testing.

What's Your Sound System?

  • caught, talk, thought: The sound being tested is /ɔ/. In British English and old General American these words have the same vowel as in 'bore'. It is increasingly common for Americans to pronounce this vowel to be the same as in spa [ɑ].
  • not, lost, dog, fond, on, coffee: /ɒ/. Most Americans do not have this sound and instead use [ɑ]. If you're an American and you'd like to know what [ɒ] sounds like, say 'ah' as if you were getting your teeth checked at the dentist, then round your lips. That is the sound many English speakers use in words that have an 'o'. 'on' and 'coffee' may have the /ɔ/ sound in some American accents.
  • bath, grass, dance, last, aunt: This is a distinction between flat a /æ/ and broad a /ɑ/. Southern England accents are more likely to use /ɑ/ in these words than Northern England. The vast majority of Americans use flat a in all of these. The exception is old Bostonians, who may use broad a in those words, and the word 'aunt' in particular, which is the only word in American English to frequently have a broad a version.
  • mirror: Do you have short i or long e /i/ before r /r/ sounds? Do you pronounce mirror with one syllable or with two? Do you pronounce /r/ at the end of a syllable?
  • cat: The flat a sound, /æ/.
  • fish, chips, win: The short i sound, /ɪ/.
  • sleep, dream, cheese: The long ee sound, /i/.
  • state, cake: The long a sound, /eɪ/.
  • duck, one: The 'uh' sound, /ʌ/.
  • friend: The short e sound, /ɛ/. Note that in Southern American dialects, /ɛ/ before a nasal consonant becomes /ɪ/, so friend sounds like 'frind.'
  • fried: Long i sound, /aɪ/.
  • probably, naturally: Do you pronounce the unstressed syllables in probably and naturally?
  • rotten: Do you pronounce the t sound /t/ as a glottal stop (the sound in between the vowels in 'uh-oh!') before nasal consonants?

Do you follow British or American pronunciations for these?

  • alumin(i)um: The British variant (and more popular worldwide) is aluminium [æ.lu'mɪ.nɪ.əm]. The American variant (and the older one) is aluminum [æ'lu.mɪ.nəm].
  • lieutenant: American pronunciation is based on the French, lootenant [lu'tɛ.nənt]. British pronunciation is very complicated: lefttenant /lɛf'tɛ.nənt/.
  • garage: American pronunciation [gə'rɑʒ] based on French, British pronunciation ['gæ.rədʒ] adapted to sound more English.
  • tomato: Americans use the 'ey' sound [təˈmeɪtoʊ], the British use a broad 'a' [təˈmɑːtəʊ].
  • herbs: American pronunciation based on the older pronunciation [ɜrb], British pronunciation based on the spelling [hɜrb].
  • scone: Americans rhyme it with cone [skoʊn], Brits rhyme it with on [skɒn].
  • process: Brits use [ˈprəʊ.sɛs], Americans use [ˈprɑs.ɛs]

How do you say these particular words?

  • water: can test for how [ɔ] is pronounced, but there's also a pronunciation 'wooter' [wʊtər].
  • roof: long oo [ruf] vs shot u [rʊf]. The latter is more popular in Britain.
  • iron: aiern [aɪ.ərn] vs iron [aɪ.rən]
  • salmon: sammon [sæ.mən] vs salmon [sæl.mən].
  • caramel: Tests for whether you say 'caramel' with a flat a as in 'cat' [kærəmɛl] or as an 'eh' like kept [kɛrəmɛl]. Also tests for whether you pronounce the middle syllable or not [kɛrmɛl]. There is also a variant car-mel [kɑrmɛl].
  • route: Does it sound like root [rut] or rout [raʊt]?
  • lawyer: law-yer [lɔ.jər] vs loy-yer [lɔɪ.ər]
  • coupon: coopon /kupɒn/ vs kyoo /kjupɒn/.
  • mayonnaise: mayonnaise [meɪ.jə.neɪz] vs man-naise [mæn.eɪz].
  • pajamas: pa-jam-as /pə'dʒæ.məz/ vs pajahmas /pə'dʒɑ.məz/.
  • envelope: The first syllable is the variable one. En-velope [ɛn.və.loʊp] vs ahn-velope [ɑn.və.loʊp].
  • been: bin [bɪn] vs ben [bɛn] vs bean [bin].
  • again: agen [ə.gɛn] (most American) vs agin [ə.gɪn] (Southern American) vs againe [ə.geɪn] (primarily British).
  • milk: 'milk' [mɪlk] is the most common, but 'melk' [mɛlk] (primarily Canadian) and 'malk' [mælk], [mɑlk] (regional American) are also variants.


  • theater: The older pronunciation of this word is /ˈθɪ.ə.tə(ɹ)/, theeyater. Some people are eliding the 'uh' sound to have /ˈθɪ:tə(ɹ)/. There is also an alternate pronunciation, /ˈθi.eɪ.tɚ/ thee-ay-ter.
  • bacon, beer can: The fact that these words show up next to each other makes me think it's related to the Tumblr post that says beer can in a british accent sounds like 'bacon' in a jamaican accent.
  • Alabama: Only thing I can think of is 'Alabammy.'
  • potato, barbie, doorknob, nearly, near, disenchanted, cinema, copper, epitome: I'm not sure of the purpose of these.

Overall this was alright. The words in the 'other' section seem to have been selected rather haphazardly. I'm also not sure why there was both 'near' and 'nearly.' It's a fun enough trend. Comment below if you have any explanation for the 'other' or if you have another pronunciation for some of these words not listed here.


  1. Great article! Tiny point that may just be anecdotal experience, but Brits can pronounce scones either way, rhyming them with cone or on. This is sometimes a point of discussion between friends.

    1. Curious! I was unaware that 's-cone' was also acceptable. Thanks for informing!