You do have an accent—even if you think you’re speaking unaccented English.
And you do speak a dialect—even if you think you’re speaking “ standard English.” In an amazing three-part must-see video, dialect coach Erik Singer takes us through a wide range of North American dialects. Since it’s a must-see video, it goes without saying that you must see it! As a dialect coach, Singer is accustomed to teaching non-linguists how to sound as if they are from some particular locale—and as a trained linguist he is also accustomed to giving technical explanations that are linguistically flawless. What a combination!
The first thing that’s really cool about the video is that Singer effortlessly switches into whatever dialect he is discussing as soon as he starts explaining it. That lets you hear the accent in context. The second thing that’s cool about it…but wait! Let me interrupt myself to explain the first two sentences of this post before I return to characterizing the video. Altogether too many people think that the word dialect means a substandard variety of a language: you know, “I speak good English, but you speak dialect.” That attitude is snobby, sometimes racist, and just plain wrong. All the regional varieties of any language are dialects; one may be the prestige dialect, but in no sense is it the right dialect. A dialect, even a prestige one, always carries with it an accent, which many speakers don’t think they have, because it’s so much what they are used to that it become unnoticeable, just as a fish might not notice water. But we all have an accent.
OK, back to the video. The second cool thing about it is that Singer has recruited half a dozen native speakers of various dialects to explain their own accent and give examples. In a sense these speakers aren’t really necessary, as Singer could have just as well said exactly what they say. But in another sense they are absolutely necessary, as they add a genuine sense of authenticity to what would otherwise be a single voice “pretending” to speak with various accents. Furthermore, since all the guest speakers are also linguists, they give you explanations that are 100% technically accurate as well as understandable. (Actually, “understandable” is not always a characteristic of professional linguists.) And in case you have trouble following an example, almost every example is repeated several times in quick succession, which lets you hear the point.
The third cool thing about the video is that it is accessible to the viewer who has no linguistic training while providing all the technical information you need about phonetics and the physiology of sound production. Of course you can be free to ignore all the material about phonetic symbols, points of articulation, and so forth, but please don’t! If you already know the linguistics there, you’ll learn something about specific accents, and if you don’t already know the basics, you’ll learn something about phonetics, both articulatory and acoustic (i.e. making sounds and perceiving them).
But we do have a caveat here. The three positives about the video greatly outweigh the two negatives, but I still need to mention the latter. The first negative, as Singer himself points out, is that even with three parts there isn’t time to be comprehensive: you will not learn anything about the many different accents within Dorchester, for example. The second negative is also a function of time: much of it goes by far too quickly. You can play it back at 0.75 speed, which will help, and of course you can repeat segments as often as you like, but you still need time to process! This flaw is especially evident at the end of each segment by one of the native-speaker guests, where they make an important point and then Singer thanks them and goes immediately onto something else. I call that a flaw, but of course it’s really time pressure.
Anyway, as I said up top, this is must viewing! So go view it. Pause frequently, and think about what you’re hearing.
Thanks to Ben Gordon for recommending this video, and to Leah Gordon for forwarding the recommendation to me.