I’ve just seen that the most popular piece in the New York Times last year was that app that placed (or rather, purported to place) you geographically according to your accent.
I tried it; curiously, I thought, it put me as either a native of Brooklyn or of the environs of New Jersey close to New York City. (And at odd moments among the southern states.) I say ‘curiously’, because, or so I was told once, to American ears I have a ‘RADA’ accent. Which I would not really have considered very much like a Brooklyn one*. At least not those I’ve heard in films or on the telly.
(Or, properly ‘RP’. One can’t say ‘BBC’ any more, of course, since regional accents, African, Caribbean, Asian—to a lesser extent—and British regional, though often a bit tamed, are spread fairly widely across the BBC these days. They had a correspondent in Beijing who had, to my ears, a marked and distinctive northern accent from around a small town called Padiham that I’d never heard since I was at school.)
I noticed at the time that a number of people, not just me, were a bit flummoxed by their presumed linguistic location. That was, I thought, bound to happen: the vowel sounds and words one was given as examples were in normal orthography, and the potential for confusion is high. That’s why linguisticians use the international phonetic alphabet rather than ask if you pronounce jersey as in noisy or as in Percy.** Although there are some superficial similarities between my RP and Brooklyn, I am never willingly going to order a cup of ‘cawffee’.
Does no-one in the US, by the way, pronounce ‘garage’ with the accent on the last syllable and a long ‘a’? Or like me (I never could get to like that, and I give my northern origins away down here in the Sarf every time I say it, call it—would I lose my bet if I reckoned Gunny still does?—a ‘garridge’? That survey offered only ’meas-ure’ or ‘edge’. It would be ‘edge’, I suppose; I’ve been trying to say ‘gareas(ur)e but it sounds rather peculiar to me with a short syllable.
But there was further confusion introduced because it was also using dialectal words as a locator. Some of which I’d never heard of: some insect or other which I suppose must be either indigenous to only some states or which we know as something quite different. And a puzzling—to me anyway—variety of words for ‘the grassy area at the side of a street or road’, which I only know as a ‘verge’, or would probably call a ‘grass verge’ and which, though it seems to be mostly East Coast according to Harvard, put me somewhere in the Carolinas I think, where at least calling it that means, as we know, you’re legally never going to need to swim (or kayak) home alongside it in fifty years’ time. Oddly, in the original Harvard survey, two thirds of people didn’t seem to recognize any of the possible words offered for it. Though 1.75% of respondents scattered across the USA just called it ‘parking’ which is a bit upsetting.
Harvard also asked ”What do you call the game wherein the participants see who can throw a knife closest to the other person”: “banned”, now, probably, in and around British schools, but we called it ‘splits’ when I was a kid, which only o.49% of Americans did. But that was only if the knife was thrown between your legs and into grass and the knife was only a marker to get you to stretch out to match the positions until you fell over. . . Harvard seemed to confuse three different games and therefore their respondents. If you stabbed the knife into wood it was ‘mumblety peg’ though I’m not sure if we actually called it that then; or between your fingers, with a pair of dividers at school, ‘chicken’.
All that, however, doesn’t prove anything much. We all use dialectal words which stem from where we were brought up, or who brought us up, or from those around us, whatever our accent actually is. As an example, which Gunny, Di and Expat will probably recognize, a narrow lane between the backs of rows of houses I’d still call ‘the backs’, while variously it could be ‘a ginnel’ or ‘an alley’. In Edinburgh, I think, a ‘wynd’; while in Hull, where I was a student and lived for a while, it was a ‘snicket’—which I had no idea how to recognize when given directions at first—or more often a ‘cutting’, which until then I’d simply associated with railways.
What I’m curious about is why, apparently, so many people wanted to ‘place’ themselves like this. Quite a few, I recall, from the comments, were seemingly somewhat mortified to discover their accents or usages had traces of somewhere other than where they were born or lived. Or, of course, other than the linguistic image they thought they were portraying of themselves.
This came to mind because I’ve just seen another example of this genre, that ‘places’ ‘axe’ (‘ask’) as ‘black American’. Yes, you are potentially as likely to hear someone ‘axing’ someone in Brixton or Notting Hill as in Harlem. But it’s a common transliteration, especially among children; and in Britain anyway, you’re just as likely to hear it in Lancashire or Yorkshire from mouths that belong to people who any colour.
And so we come to Downton Abbey. (Not one episode of which I have ever seen, I’d better say.) There have been, I think, far more words written about this banal visual equivalent of a thousand-page ‘airport novel’ in the USA than anywhere else. Most of which seems to be obsessed with ‘class’ and social inequality, which, of course, is—or at least I presume is—easily recognised by the speech differences of them upstairs and them below stairs.
But isn’t that what these two ‘linguistic studies’ are actually attempting to establish? (Whether intentionally or not.) That, for example, if you live in, shall we say, ‘liberal’ New York, if you have certain accentual or dialectal usages, you are in danger of being thought of as some redneck Tea Party evangelist from one of the more atavistic southern states, or of course, vice-versa?
* This is what it really sounds like, apparently.
** Actually, it was Harvard—and, heaven help us, an ‘Associate Professor of Linguistics’ , who is now, Squ notes glumly, at King’s College Cambridge, and a sociology PhD student who now appears to be pursuing (fancy that!) a career as a media pundit—that were to blame for this.