View 7: Twang!
Seventh in the series Accent through the keyhole. Scroll down for the mp3 podcast version.
So what’s this post about?
Well, basically it’s about variability of vowels across accents. I’d like to begin getting into that topic by introducing the idea of bendiness and bendy vowels. These are vowel sounds which are produced when the mouth moves from one position to another while you say them. Take the vowel sound in the word wait, for example. The mouth moves to a slightly more closed position during the vowel sound. Put your finger on your nose and your thumb on your chin and then say the first letter of the alphabet repeatedly. Observe the movement of your finger and thumb. That’s what a bendy vowel looks like.
So you mean diphthongs, then?
We’ll begin with diphthongs, yes, but later on, we’ll see that there’s potential for bendiness in all vowels. First, let’s look at some examples of how diphthongs vary across accents. Here’s a question for you. In what accent does the word wait sound a bit like white*
(* as pronounced in GB – General British - the standard British accent given in dictionaries)
Right. And some parts of the South East of England. So what’s happening in these accents is that the mouth is starting from a more open position than it does in GB. The finger and thumb will move more. So vowel sounds can differ in their degree of bendiness across accents. Sometimes, diphthongs are less bendy in non-standard accents too. More questions for you:
1. Where does shade sound a bit like (GB) shared?
2. Where does coat sound a bit like (GB) caught?
Right. To me, 1. sounds very Lancashire/Yorkshire, and 2. sounds very North Eastern, eg Middlesbrough. Do the finger and thumb test and you’ll notice that there is less movement in the non-standard pronunciation of both words. This has been called ‘diphthong flattening’.
In the examples we’ve seen so far, there is something in common between the diphthongs in the different accents. Either the starting position or the ending position of the mouth is the same. But that’s not always the case. Another question: Where does down rhyme with (GB) coin?
Yes, right. So there, neither the starting position nor the ending position is the same.
Right. And you said bendiness is not only about the diphthongs?
Yes. Take the word twang, for example. It’s an onomatopoeic word to describe the sound of a plucked bow string. If you’ve every tried playing a jaw harp (see picture), you’ll know what a good twang sounds like. The vowel sound represented by the letter ‘a’ is a short vowel sound in GB, but in this word is has a certain bendy quality forced by the transition from the ‘w’ before it. It’s this that makes this word effectively sound like the noise it represents. But that ‘a’-bending in GB is very timid compared to, say, the mighty twang of the Southern US, where the word can be almost like two syllables: twa-ing. The six short vowels of GB English (see infographic here) have very little margin for bending because they can’t be extended for long enough. If you extend them, they turn into something else. For instance, if you extend hot, it turns into heart. I think that’s a big part of the reason that many British singers sing with an American accent – the short vowels are tough to fit into the rhyme and meter of rock/pop lyrics. Americans, having shrugged off the tyranny of the clipped vowel, have made words infinitely more malleable in songs, as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan has shown: he can make most anything rhyme. (for other explanations of why British singers sing in American, see this article by Chi Luu)
Twang is sometimes used to describe accents, isn’t it?
Yes, and it’s much more likely to be used to describe an accent with more bendy vowels like American than one with clipped vowels like GB. So I’m thinking that twanginess has a lot to do with vowel bendiness. And that’s as you might expect, given twang’s onomatopoeic origin.
Are there any implications of all this vowel variability for pronunciation teaching?
Well, I think it would do us good to be a bit less prescriptive about the vowel sounds. The phonemic chart is a bit misleading: we tend to think that the symbols are phonetic – representing an exact, specific sound. Actually they are phonemic – representing contrasting parts in a system. What most students need to learn to do is distinguish words, not replicate specific sounds as might be produced by an idealized GB or American speaker. The conflation of phonemic and phonetic symbols can lead to some very unhelpful over precision. How much more time must we spend worrying about the exact quality and bendiness of the diphthongs in white, shade, coat or down? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
Last Week: Getting Rid of your Accent
Next Week: Accent by Numbers