Verbal Energy

Putting the accent in the right place

Even in an era of globalization, regional accents are still with us.

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Amid the excitement of British pop singer Adele's triumph at the Grammy Awards earlier this month, inquiring minds want to know, why does the accent of her singing voice sound so different from the accent of her speaking voice?

The difference between a singer's speaking voice and singing voice can be startling. And different musical genres have different native accents: the twang of country singers, for instance.

Regional accents were already on my mind as I tuned into the buzz about Adele. The Independent had a "trend" piece on people signing up for elocution lessons to help them sound less like where they came from and more like where they want to go – professionally, at least. The Economist's language blog, Johnson, noted that the trend, if it really was one, had less to do with losing an accent and more with acquiring one – "received pronunciation," or RP, or what Americans may think of as "BBC English."

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And speaking of received standards: I've just taken an online quiz that purports to identify which American accent a test-taker has. Some Americans, the setup suggested, don't realize they even have an accent. But after I had punched through all the questions, hoping for some new self-understanding, phonologically anyway, the assessment came back that my accent was the one widely considered to be not an accent at all: Midwestern.

The questions focused on some short vowel sounds and the distinctions people make (or don't make) between them: dawn and don, caught and cot, and pen and pin. It asked about marry, Mary, and merry – three distinct words in parts of the US, but complete homophones in the mouths of millions.

It did not ask about the letter "r," present, absent, or "intrusive" (the Boston lawyer's announcement that he's "withdraw-ring" his appeal, for instance). They might have asked, but did not, "Is it possible for the word 'today' to have three or even four syllables?" In the South, I can attest, the answer is yes.

The regional accent story I cannot top, though, appeared in the British newspaper the Daily Mail. It told of a woman in the south of England who took ill and was left unable to speak. After a month of therapy she got her voice back. But she was inexplicably speaking with a French accent instead of the dialect of her native Birmingham, in the English Midlands. "Foreign accent syndrome," the doctors call it. The Daily Mail piece, helpfully illustrated with photos of Birmingham and Paris, quoted the woman: " 'I was so happy I could talk but when I started to say words I was thinking this is not how I speak. It didn't sound like me.

" 'I didn't think any more about it until I bumped into my neighbour outside. Her grandson, who's three, was there and he asked me why I was speaking like I was from France.' "

It's tempting to play this one for laughs. We may not have the whole story. But the woman's distress shows how closely voice and identity are related.

As humanity gets homogenized in the great Mixmaster of the global economy, it may be fair to wonder whether regional accents – those sets of sounds that anchor people in one specific place or another – will continue to matter.

But I have a hunch they always will.

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