Why we don’t have an accent … or do we?

Audio: 

By Bellamy Pailthorp

Do I have an accent? You hear me on the radio. I hear myself on the radio, many times a week in western Washington, and I didn’t think so. But, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle tells me I do have an accent – it’s in the way I say that very word “accent.”

Apparently my pronunciation is a dead giveaway that I grew up here in the Northwest.

I make some kind of wavy wiggle in the “ae” sound at the top of its first syllable. (If you click on the play button at the top of this page you can hear it for yourself.)

But, as it turns out, whether or not you and I can actually hear my accent has to do primarily with how much time we have spent living where the signal originates – in the Pacific Northwest. One scientist describes the emerging trends of language here as subtle, but still distinct. It’s characterized by more mixing of cultures and fewer longstanding and isolated ethnic enclaves than you find in major east coast cities or California.

Cot versus Caught, and the subconscious

There’s serious science behind all of this. Sociolinguists at the University of Washington are documenting the evolution of subconscious aural and oral patterns in our culture, which is relatively new.

UW Professor Alicia Wassink says many of her students from this corner of the United States can’t hear their own accents. She says one of the most distinguishing features linguists have noticed in the general population here has to do with words that are spelled differently, but can be pronounced exactly the same way. A commonly cited example is the pair of words, “caught” and “cot.”

“For those of us from the mid-Atlantic states,” Wassink says, the word that is the past tense of the verb “to catch” is pronounced almost as two syllables, with the second moving toward the back of the palate.  

The second one has a single burst of sound, which to me sounds like it’s all in the roof of your mouth. (Again: listen to the story if you want to hear the difference.)

Deaf to our own sounds

Wassink says people (like me) who have the proverbial webs between their toes or moss on their backs find this listening exercise challenging. 

“Even after I’ve pronounced the pair of words, several times for my students, many of the ones that are from the Pacific Northwest can’t hear the distinction that I just made,” the professor says.

She even has a cool little audio quiz set up online that can be used to test your ability to hear accents. Word pairs that are tested and documented there, among three generations of female speakers of the Pacific Northwest accent, are:

  •  cot vs. caught
  •  don vs. dawn
  •  com vs. calm
  •  odd vs. ought
  •  bull vs. bowl  (also almost indistinguishable in California, researchers say.)

Speech expert (or pathologist) Sandy Hirsch says one way for Northwesterners to learn how to distinguish “cot” from “caught” verbally is by putting your hand under your chin when you say the word pair. She says, spoken properly, “On ‘caught’ there is more mandibular excursion,” or jaw drop.

Characteristics of the regional accent

California’s valley girls come to mind when I hear Hirsch demonstrating the way she says younger women here are tending more and more to pronounce the simplest expression of gratitude, “thank you.” 

She describes it as a mild heightening of the vowels, combined with a hyper-nasal vocal quality. Hirsch says she’s hearing it more and more in the Pacific Northwest.

Some other characteristics of the regional accent:

  • the “low back merger” of vowels (in word pairs like caught and cot, or haughty and hottie)
  • preponderance of “creaky voice” or glottal fry (especially among younger women)
  • a “thenkyo” chirp for thank you that seems to be emerging in young people

There’s also something called “creaky voice.” Imagine what grunge music would sound like if it could just talk. I see flannel shirts, scuffed up shoes and images of Kurt Cobain when I hear the tell-tale affectation of the pressed-out vocals that are also known among linguists and voice clinicians as “glottal fry.”

It’s an affectation that often involves pressing and stretching sounds to show excitement or other expressions;  some people use it chronically.

One case study is a northwest icon who happens to be one of the richest men in the world – Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. His speech is not just West Coast geek-talk. It’s a classic Pacific Northwest pattern of patter.

Culture clashes and misunderstandings

Wassink and her colleagues insist their work is not just about parlor games, such as guessing accents, which they can certainly do. Their work is about scientifically probing and documenting the subconscious patterns emerging as our cultures evolve.

It also turns out there are some serious social undertones rumbling beneath the surface of this subject matter: people judge others by their speech, especially when it comes to assessing their social class or education. Racial profiling also rears its head when it comes to accents and the way people speak.

Wassink’s colleague, assistant professor Betsy Evans, who is mapping the language of the Northwest [http://depts.washington.edu/folkling/], says they both have had misunderstandings based on assumptions people make when they don’t listen carefully.

“When I was at the grocery store, they asked me if I wanted a bag and I thought the woman asked me if I wanted an egg,” Evans says, laughing it off.

Wassink says linguistics is an especially compelling field in the Pacific Northwest, where there are fewer longstanding, isolated ethnic enclaves than in east coast cities such as Philadelphia or New York.

“We’re kind of the new kid on the block” in terms of our linguistic development, Wassink says. And when you’re researching and documenting the subconscious patterns that emerge here, that’s an exciting place to be.

 

Regional Dialect Meme (a.k.a “Regional Dialect Challenge”) is a YouTube video series in which English-speakers from various regions enunciate a list of 30 words and respond to a series of questions in their native dialects and accents.

Here are some examples of participants from the Pacific Northwest:

On the Web: