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September 20, 2021

Self-Aware Accents

Most people don't understand the sound rules of their accents, but giving them challenging phrases to say can make them suddenly become self-aware. YouTube is a gold mine for phrases like these.

"How can someone not be aware of how they speak?" you may ask. Perhaps a better question is how people come to be aware of how they speak at all! Most people seem to have a low linguistic awareness. A linguist acquaintance who does language documentation told me most of the language speakers she works with aren't actually aware of the structure of their language at all, though some correspondents show a high level of knowledge about their language. This seems to extend to languages that have a high level of literacy and therefore some phonological awareness.

While cruising YouTube as one does, I found these videos that show people with nonstandard accents becoming aware of certain features of their own accents, and specifically parts they find difficult to say in the standard accent. Let's take a look and see how well they do on metalinguistics!

Southern English to Standard American English

"The dog licked the oil and everyone laughed."

The key word here is 'oil'. The man's Southern accent renders 'oil' as [ol], but in General American, the expected pronunciation is 'oy-yul' [oɪjəl]. This is a lot more involved than a simple [ol], and he seems to need to remind himself that 'oil' in General American is pronounced with two syllables as opposed to one. He's more out of practice than anything else, and perhaps annoyed at how much longer the Standard version seems to be compared to his version.

There's also a moment outside the phrase recitation where he says 'can't' and 'said' in notably Southern ways, with a diphthong [eɪ]. When he says [keɪnt], his wife replies with the Standard pronunciation [keənt] and he says, "that's what I said," seemingly having heard the word but not picked up on the difference in pronunciation.

He otherwise seems very aware of the differences between his accent and the standard, having no problem turning the Southern 'dawg' [dɑɒg] into 'dog' [dɑg].

Scottish English versus the sound 'r'

"Purple burglar alarm."

In both these videos, a Scottish man attempts to say 'purple burglar alarm' and gets tripped up at 'burglar.' Both of them speak versions of Scottish English where the /r/ sound is pronounced as an alveolar tap [ɾ]. This creates a tongue twister situation where the tongue has to tap the roof of the mouth for the 'r' in 'burglar' and 'purple', the back of the mouth in 'burglar', and then back up for an 'l'. The number of 'r's and 'l's seem to confuse the Scotsmen. Notice that both of them can say 'purple' just fine, which is also /r CONSONANT l/, but get tripped at 'burglar'. They don't even get to 'alarm.'

I find it highly unlikely that Scottish English speakers cannot say the word 'burglar', so it is likely the phonological environment is turning normal words into tongue twisters. There are many repetitions of [l], [ɾ], and [ə] after all.

Note that in the first video, the Southern England English speaker was perfectly capable of saying 'purple burglar alarm' multiple times. The speaker had a non-rhotic accent, so the consonant clusters in puRPLe, buRGLaR, and alaRM were simplified. This sentence is similarly easy in American English, which does not use a tapped 'r' and instead uses an r-colored vowel in these three words.

Baltimore English versus the R sound

"Aaron earned an iron urn."

Multiple speakers of Baltimore English say the phrase "Aaron earned an uron urn," which is humorously rendered as "urn urn an urn urn." The first speaker has the most dramatic merger in the pre-R sounds, with /er/, /ɛr/, and /aɪr/ all being pronounced as [ɝ]. Unlike the white Southern English speaker and two white Scottish English speakers, he has no problem actually pronouncing the sentence in a 'mainstream' way. Despite this, he is almost aghast at how these words are all homophonous: "Damn, what the fuck, we really talk like that?"

His friends come over to give the phrase a shot. Curiously, they are all less merged than he is! The first of his friends (0:27) distinguishes "Aaron" from "earned" and "urn" with less r-coloration, and pronounces "iron" as a heavily r-colored [ɑ˞n]. At 0:48, another friend clearly distinguishes 'iron' from "Aaron" and "earn"/"urn".


A common thread through these videos is that they involve liquids, like [l], [ɾ] and [r]. Liquids tend to trigger phonological changes. The 'oyul' pronunciation the Southern man tries to imitate is a result of an attempt to simplify a pronunciation: the older pronunciation would be [oɪl] in one syllable, with a dark l at the end. Having to from high in the mouth in [ɪ] to low in [l] is quite a distance to travel in one syllable, so this sound was prone to change. Southern American English simplified this pronunciation by removing the [ɪ]. Genral American instead added an offglide and semivowel [oɪjəl].

The Scottish English one showed how common words can become tongue twisters when placed next to each other. It's curious that neither of the two speakers tried to say 'burglar' in isolation to prove that they were, in fact, able to say it.

The Baltimore English one was particularly interesting because the speaker had no problem with the pronunciations. He was aware of both the Baltimorean pronunciation and the Standard pronuhnciation, but had never put together that his English was heavy on mergers before 'r' until this phrase came his way. These phrases are all, of course, manufactured to put certain sounds together on exhibit, similar to the accent tags which trend on social media every now and then. Their entire purpose is to be recited and make listeners aware of aspects of their language they would not have otherwise.

Unlike the other speakers, the Baltimore man seems distressed at what he learned about his accent. The white speakers seemed to regard the recitations as annoyances for the camera (the Southern man) or unexpected challenges (the Scottish men). He, on the other hand, seems worried about what he sounds like to other people: "we really talk like that?" His friends don't seem as concerned as he does, though, perhaps because they don't have as dramatic a merger as he does. He emphasizes throughout the video that he is aware of the standard pronunciation, which they don't seem particularly concerned about. Accent prejudice is certainly very real and usually a proxy for other prejudices (e.g. race), and perhaps he was worried that he sounded less educated or intelligent because of his accent.

One of the comments in the first video would suggest he's right to worry. One of the commenters on the Southern video notes that she thought the man sounded more educated and intelligent when he spoke in General American as opposed to his Southern accent, despite the fact that it was the exact same man reading the exact same nonsensical sentence. She found herself wondering what this meant about her own prejudices regarding people who speak different accents.

He actuality sounds really good without the accent.
(It's amazing the amount of judgements and assumptions we make about a person based on how they speak and present).

Same person, same demeanor, but I thought he seemed more intelligent, decent, higher class and kind, without the accent.

This video is making me reevaluate some things about myself

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