The Origin of the American Accent

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Challenger78, Oct 23, 2007.

  1. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Only a few years after his death, when I started listening to country music, it was called country or country & western. "Hillbilly" was already a politically incorrect term. Like the N-word today, it can only be used reflexively, like Kenny Chesney calling himself a hillbilly rock star.
    As a musician and specifically a bassist, to me it's just the rhythm. Hank Williams's faster tunes like "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Half as Much" have a textbook swing beat. Sure, he didn't have a complete dance band with woodwinds like Hank Thompson, but those fiddle and pedal steel solos really swung.
    A swing beat is simply a highly syncopated twelve-beat, which practically every C&W hit song had in the 1950s. Western swing, in addition, had a light backbeat that was picked up and accentuated by rockabilly and ultimately rock and roll.
    I think his arrangements made up for that with the backbeat. That draws people onto the dance floor regardless of the lyrics.
    I thought that was already a signature technique in bluegrass, and before that the Celtic fiddling it evolved from? I admit I'm not familiar with the early bluegrass songs but the fiddlers were all double-stopping by 1957.
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  3. Till Eulenspiegel Registered Member

    Muscadine wine is not a type of wine but rather a wine made from Muscadine grapes, grapes that grow well in the south.
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  5. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    The Celts don't do it much, certainly not as standard tech. And it sounds a lot different.

    Be interesting to compare the change in fiddle sound with the change in accent, as the Celts hit the American SW.
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  7. maxg Registered Senior Member

    You're right that it was used in a derogatory manner, like "race records" for African-American music at the time, but performers in the 40's & 50's would have had no problem calling themselves "hillbilly" as numerous songs attest.

    Well, like a lot of really creative artists he was not confined by genre--there are some number he does that certainly sound like blues and others that are closest to Cajun music. Still I can't think of anyone who would say he was primarily a Western Swing artist. Partially it's the band and arrangements but I also don't hear much in the way of improvisation or jazz in his music.

    OK. But I would argue that there is more to swing than just a swing beat, although the change in beat is what originally marked the new genre. A lot of jazz and other genres have made use of the beat (as you note) without anyone calling them swing.

    No doubt there are some very danceable numbers in Hank Williams' repetoire but to me they have more of a honky tonk feel (setting up the listener for crying in their beer later on) than the carefree numbers I associate with Western Swing.

    For me, country music (and its various subgenres) are a very lyric-based or story-based genre in an odd way kind of like hip-hop. (There's a great about how Charlie Parker used to take his be-bop friends to a diner where he's play country music on the jukebox. When they asked him why he replied "it's all about the stories.")

    I was incorrect to say he invented the technique--it's certainly in older music including some classical pieces--but I do believe he is credited with introducing it into country music. I don't recall hearing it in the old timey music that forms the roots of bluegrass, and modern bluegrass (Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, etc.) actually postdates the early Western Swing so it may have borrowed it from there. Potter also played with bluegrass outfits like Monroe (
  8. wynne Registered Member

    I think the "official" term for the black american dialect is "ebonics". At least, that's what my social studies teacher told us in 7th grade.

    One American accent no one's mentioned yet is the Philly accent. Having grown up in/near Philadelphia, while having parents from the Bronx and Omaha, Nebraska, respectively, I was mostly saved from it. Personally, I think it's an incredibly grating accent. I'm not linguist, but it's kind of like the classic "pahk yuh cah in hahvahd yahd" boston accent, but with flatter vowels, and with maybe a hint of new yorker mixed in. Maybe that's a really bad explanation. The best examples I can come up with for specific words is that "crayon" becomes "crown", and "water" becomes "wudder" (or "wooder"). I guess I'd describe th general effect of Philadelphian as sounding kind of like you're whining all the time, which is why I find it so annoying. (also, I can't stand it when everyone says "wudder"! I admit to saying "crown" instead of "cray-on", and I do kind of go "wahder" instead of "wah-ter", but at least that doesn't change a vowel AND a consonant sound like "wooder" does.)

    "Aiynd ahy was ahyll lieyk, whehwre did yu-oo thaink yu-oo wehre going? And whehwre did you get those crowns? And then, wood you behlieve it, sheye spilled wooder all ovehr hehrself!" Say that fast so there aren't any extra syllables and in a whiny/nasally tone, and you've got it.
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    In America, "official" means "the government's way" and nothing more. "Ebonics" is one of many words arising in the postwar era to describe aspects of the culture of the community of Americans of African descent without offending absolutely anyone. "Political correctness," in other words.

    Until the Civil War the N-word was used matter-of-factly because it was simply Southern dialect pronunciation of the word "negro," which is the English mispronunciation (but correct spelling) of the perfectly respectable Spanish adjective "black," which like all Spanish adjectives also serves a noun, meaning "black person." The word fell into disrespect and finally in the Jim Crow era was regarded strictly as an insult, and exactly one hundred years ago the "National Association for the Advancement of Colored People" was founded.

    The NAACP is still one of our most respected institutions so "colored people" is still, technically, polite American English, but sometime during my adolescence in the late 1950s and early 1960s its use became--let's say--uncomfortable, and the original word "negro" was restored.

    That didn't last. For a while "Afro-American" came into vogue, and it's the term I still use in scholarship because it's terse and fits the form of other terms like Afro-Asiatic and afrocentric, as well as my own term "Euro-American." But unlike the British, Americans love to speak slowly in words of many syllables so the six syllables of "Afro-American" were expanded to the seven syllables of "African-American."

    Back in the 1960s the one-syllable word "black" also came into vogue, and in my observation it was first used by Afro-Americans themselves. The dialect associated with the community tends to have many elisions and condensed word forms, so the choice of a one-syllable word over a seven-syllable compound was natural. Nonetheless "African-American" continues to be an accepted official name for the community in the news media and government speeches, alternating unpredictably with "black."

    But, what shall we call their dialect? The proper linguistic term is "African-American Vernacular English," or AAVE. But that wasn't good enough for the bureaucrats who run our educational system, so they coined the cutesy word "ebonics."

    You won't encounter that word anywhere except in government documents, including those of government schools. Everywhere else it's AAVE.
    You have to live in an American city to be able to distinguish its accent from those of other cities in nearby regions. Most Americans from outside the Northeast can't really tell Philadelphia speech from that of New York or New Jersey. Probably the only ones that stand out to us are traditional non-rhotic Boston ("pahk the "cah"), which has practically died out in the younger generation, and the exaggerated Maine "ay-yup" speech that is perhaps a true dialect rather than merely an accent, with differences in grammar and vocabulary and not just pronunciation.
    You have to be careful not to let the constraints of our 26-letter alphabet both conceal and exaggerate phonetic issues. In British English "leader" and "liter" have two different consonants: a proper D and a proper T. But in American English they have both changed into a flap (the R of Spanish/Italian/Japanese/Russian/almost every other language on earth) and they are identical in sound. So to write "water" as "wudder" may correctly transcribe a vowel change in the dialect in question, but the consonant change it implies is not real. People in Philadelphia pronounce the T in "water" just like the people in Atlanta, Seattle and Winnipeg.
  10. superstring01 Moderator

    Funny the issue of "water" should come up.

    Years ago as a bar tender, I had two customers--obviously from the Northeast--come in and order drinks. The first customer ordered a gin & tonic ("jin 'in tawnik", so I understood easy enough). The second one ordered a "wooder" (the "oo" being pronounced like the "oo" in "good").

    Flummoxed, I said, "Come again?" Repeating himself, "I'll have a wooder" (more slowly, direclty, almost condescendingly). Certain that I had insulted him and equally certain he was ordering some classic and--perhaps--odd mixed drink to join his mate, I froze, nonplussed, and began wondering what I had missed.

    Sure, sure, I'm sure you've all figured out he wanted a frakking WATER (H2O) but I was sure he was ordering a mixed drink and paused and glanced over to my fellow bar tender (who shrugged her shoulders - thankfully indicating her confusion as well. . . safety in numbers) and said, "Sir, I'm afraid I don't know how to make that drink. Can you tell me what's in it?"

    Good humored, the man understood that I wasn't jerking him around, nor making fun of his accent, he grabbed a pen and wrote down the word on a bevnap and said, "Waaaahhhhhhh-teeeerrrrrrrr" (very slowly). Understanding and quite embarrassed I nearly pissed myself in laughter. Thank Vishnu for the good humor of those from Phili.

    Last edited: Oct 30, 2009
  11. S.A.M. uniquely dreadful Valued Senior Member

    Its quite possible Michener is mistaken about the direction. The Afghani languages are influenced by Persian and in Persian, farangi is foreigner. I've heard said that it may be derived from faranj, Arabic for Franks, but I've never heard that word.
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Most of the Afghani tribes are in fact Persian peoples. Pashto and Dari, the country's two official languages, which account for 85% of the population, are Eastern Iranian languages closely related to Farsi. Dari is so similar that it is commonly known as Eastern Persian.
  13. Medicine*Woman Jesus: Mythstory--Not History! Valued Senior Member

    M*W: Partially right. News stations hire people from everywhere, but they are voice-trained in a generic American Midwest accent. However, when I'm traveling, I can hear the local accents. I guess it just can't be completely covered up.
  14. CutsieMarie89 Zen Registered Senior Member

    So is the Western Accent similar to the Midwest? I've always heard that the Western accent was relatively neutral. I'm from California, but people usually can't tell only from the way I speak.
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    A lot of people migrated to that part of the country from Scandinavia at the end of the 19th century, so the speech of the region has a bit of a Swedish lilt.
    The networks' primary studios are in New York and Hollywood, so on the national shows (news, entertainment, or whatever) many of the people you hear are New Yorkers and Angeleños. Network TV has been a powerful force in American culture since four channels debuted on ten-inch monochrome screens for three hours each night in the late 1940s--even more powerful than network radio, which preceded it. Many linguists give it most of the credit for the leveling of American accents. The people who apply for jobs on TV from outside California and New York are usually the ones who have been watching a lot of TV and love it, so their regional accents have been influenced by it more than those of their neighbors who spend their evenings playing canasta or going to Bible study with people who talk like they do.

    The same is happening in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. Mexico has been the region's economic and cultural leader since WWII and for years its programs dominated TV in the region. Everyone became accustomed to the Mexican accent and can understand it perfectly. From Argentina to Peru to Costa Rica, TV personalities speak a Mexicanized version of their native dialect. On telenovelas (soap operas) the actors are actually coached to speak like Mexicans. The audiences found it jarring to listen to three generations of a cozy loving family <sarcasm> sitting around the dinner table, with Mamá talking like a Chileña, Papá a Venezolano, Tía Rosa a Guatemalteca and little Estefan an Ecuatoriano. If they all sound like Mexicans at least it's believable that they're related and many viewers don't even consciously register it as a foreign accent any more since it's so familiar.
    California may be one of our westernmost states, but most of us Californians are not Westerners and definitely do not speak with a Western accent. The American West is the Wild West of the frontier days, cowboy country. Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, (not Utah!) and perhaps even Montana or at least parts of it. All of those states were once Spanish and/or Mexican territory and Mexican families have been living there for nine generations who consider us the foreigners. When the USA expanded in that direction the expansion was largely from Texas and the other Southern states, so the classic Western accent is a softened southern drawl complete with the "y'all" pronoun--the way cowboys talk. But when Americans began populating California (which of course had also been part of Mexico) they came from all over the country and California speech is almost indistinguishable from Standard American.

    There are certainly communities with Southern roots, especially in the farm belt of the San Joaquin Valley, and as I noted on another subforum, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, two of the men who propelled country & western music into the mainstream, are from Bakersfield. That migration accelerated in the 1930s, as the twin forces of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl (a weather pattern that a modern meteorologist could have foreseen as the result of clearing all the forests of the Great Plains and replacing them with farmland) forced farmers to leave the Midwest and head for the Promised Land, which did not have a depression until Perestroika shut down the defense industry and whose farmers have always been dependent on aqueducts for irrigation. Many people in central California proudly call themselves Okies. Merle Haggard is, AFAIK, the only Californian to be inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame for the hit song in which he proclaimed himself "an Okie from Muskogee."

    But in L.A. and S.F. we talk just like the people in Des Moines and Cleveland. The only accents you hear very often are Spanish and Chinese, both of which are dying out as the immigrants' children work assiduously to become more American than we are and refuse to learn their ancestral language.
  16. Medicine*Woman Jesus: Mythstory--Not History! Valued Senior Member

    M*W: From what I've heard, the South was not as hurried as the more populated North. There was a more genteel atmosphere post-war in the South (Reconstruction Period). People talked slower and intonated their words longer. Northern accent was more abrupt.
  17. Medicine*Woman Jesus: Mythstory--Not History! Valued Senior Member

    M*W: All I know is that the California accent I'm familiar with is different than that in the Midwest. I sort of think there's not much accent in California dialect, except for Valley Girls. I think you're right about the Midwest dialect being relatively neutral, however, they have an accent to my ears. I've heard that the closer to a water source (i.e. Mississippi River), the dialects change. I live in Houston, TX. The closer one gets to the bay, the more different they sound. But that is true in any direction from here.

    I really miss my ancestor's Hillbilly dialect. When I go to Appalachia, it sounds normal to me, and then I start talking Hillbilly. Brings back my youth.
  18. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It wasn't the population density, it was the culture. The South tried desperately to hang onto a storybook model of pre-industrial feudal society, with its manors and aristocrats and fancy dress balls. Of course they couldn't find any volunteers to play the role of yeoman farmers, so they enslaved people and forced them to grow the food and fibers.

    This life proceeded at a languid pace, with a progress-free stasis that was comfortable for people who feared the unpredictable changes of a dynamic future, and their language reflected that pace.

    Of course the storybook could not be sustained. It had already been demonstrated (by the German immigrants in Texas) that slave labor cannot match the productivity of free men, and the South's economy was destined to produce a "negative surplus" like that of communism 100 years later.

    Unmotivated, unskilled slave labor would have been even less productive in an industrial economy with its rigorous coordination and division of labor. The industrialized, higher-yield farms of the North could not have been replicated in the South. Even the efficient, rigorously scheduled travel and communication of the Industrial Era did not fit the languid pace of the South; bustling railroads and chattering telegraph lines were not proliferating.

    If the South had simply been left on its own after secession, its economy would have collapsed in less than a generation. Queen Victoria's navy would have arrived with an offer they couldn't refuse, and the region would have been reinstated as British colonies. Slavery was already outlawed so that little problem would have been solved without the bloodshed that still divides our country, North from South and black from white, six generations later.

    Like Canada and Australia, the region would eventually have gained independence as a commonwealth state. Today the border between Maryland and Virginia would be as easy to overlook as the one between North Dakota and Saskatchewan, and instead of having separate "black" and "white" communities with their own music, dialect and social customs, we'd all come in a spectrum of shades of brown like every other country in the Western Hemisphere. (Except Haiti, which also freed its slaves through violence.)

    North and South might have different dialects, as they do today, but unlike today that might be the only major, and rather unimportant, difference.
  19. LEROSEY Registered Member

    the origin of the american accent=ireland.
    europeans didnt really have an influence on american english. if you look at all the vowels in american english they are pretty much all screwed up. in american english and maybe english in general. this is the key to american english vowels. a=e, e=i, i=ae, o=a, u=iu. here are a few examples. the word example is prounced like exemple, mile- mael, progress- pragress, music=miusec. if the europeans had any influence, then all of these words would be pronounced properly. here are some examples of vowels used properly in american english, in the way it is used in european languages. the a in father, the e in letter, the i in magazine, the o in soldier, the u in stupid. i remembered one time when i was talking to a european, and i asked him what operating system he had, and it sounded like he said windows m.a., but it was actually m.e., and the e is pronounced like a in english, but if an american said he was using windows m.e., then the european would probably think he was using windows m.i.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2009
  20. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    You mean England. The majority of the first settlers were English with a few Scots and lot of Dutch. There was no major wave of Irish immigration until the 19th century.
    The Dutch had a profound influence. The dialect pronunciation of "New Jizey" is not truly a long I--cardinal A followed by cardinal I. It is the Dutch sound spelled IJ--the short U in "up" followed by cardinal I. Many Americans, including my family, pronounce the I in "writer" that way. That's how we can distinguish "writer" from "rider." Even though the T and D have both degenerated into a flap in American English, the words are not homonyms for some of us because the vowels are different.
    This happened 700 years ago in the transition from Middle English to Modern English, long before the discovery or America. That vowel shift of long A, E and I is one of the hallmarks of Modern English as spoken in all anglophone countries including the USA, Australia and India.

    We pronounce our short vowels differently in the USA and the UK--check out the series cat cot caught coat cut--but our pronunciation of long A, E and I is much closer to identical.
    The pronunciation of Modern English was stabilized long before the colonization of America, although it has continued to evolve slightly in the UK as "Received Pronunciation" or RP was invented as an artificial accent for the upper class around a hundred years ago. We Americans call it Oxford English or BBC English.

    Nonetheless Europeans have had some influence on American English, particularly its regional dialects. I already noted the Dutch influence around New Amsterdam, which is now called New York. The French colonized some of the Southern states before we purchased them and there is a bit of French influence in the speech of Louisiana. When the Irish and Scots-Irish came to Appalachia in the second half of the 19th century they had a major influence on what is now called Southern American. You can hear the Scandinavian influence in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The speech of the Southwest has a light superstratum of Spanish influence, but that's New World Spanish, not European Spanish.
  21. D H Some other guy Valued Senior Member

    Ahem. Norwegian. Those of Norwegian ancestry outnumber those of Swedish ancestry by more than 2:1 in the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and the upper peninsula of Michigan).
  22. codanblad a love of bridges Registered Senior Member

    i'm australian, and i've noticed heaps of differences in american accents. i would expect varying differences between states, with socio-economic/ethnicity also affecting accents, same as australia.
  23. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Hey, we just call 'em all "Skywegians." More seriously, I didn't know that there was much Norwegian influence in the USA. I haven't spent much time in that part of the country; elsewhere we mostly run into Danish and Swedish culture.

    I don't think I've ever heard a Norwegian rock band, seen a Norwegian movie, or even heard the language spoken.

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