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One language, many accents: The making of a global English

English is very (very) close to becoming a global language with an estimated 1.5 billion speakers globally. Yet, it remains a fascinating subject because it is spoken in different ways across countries. One of the key differences in language across geographies is accent. It is also an identifying factor tying language to the land. In this feature, we are looking closely at accents.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   15-11-2018

When Priyanka Chopra starred in ABC’s Quantico, what captured the headlines was not just her nationality but also her accent. And here’s Russell Peters, the Canadian stand-up comic bashing his Indian brothers about their accent.

So, what is an accent? Betty Birner from Linguistics Society of America says, “Broadly stated, your accent is the way you sound when you speak. There are two different kinds of accents. One is a 'foreign' accent; this occurs when a person speaks one language using some of the rules or sounds of another one…The other kind of accent is simply the way a group of people speak their native language. This is determined by where they live and what social groups they belong to.”

In other words, that friend who returned from abroad, speaking English differently is definitely a source of curiosity, and sometimes, jokes.
The irony here is you probably think you don’t have an accent. We all feel that how we speak English is normal but the foreigner has such a strong accent. The truth is we all have one whether or not we admit it.

Moving on, once you start to peel off a layer or two of an accent, you will find that people generally have trouble in pronouncing sounds that don’t exist in their native language. Our mouths are just not used to sounds that we don’t use in our native tongue. English speakers, for example, have trouble trilling their r’s when learning to speak Russian. And, the lazy drawl of a Texan tongue is easily identified. So, if you are a foreigner learning English or vice versa, your accent is like your passport for the listener. It tells people where you come from – whether the Scottish Highlands or the Australian outback. Let’s brew up some chai latte (because why not accent the regular Indian tea with the posh latte) and talk about 5 international English accents in a little more detail.

  1. American and British accents: It is not just the Atlantic that divides the US and the UK, social factors such as class differences too have had a deep and wide impact on the English spoken in these two regions. American English is based on rhotic speech, meaning the /r/ sound is pronounced clearly, while the Brits wanted something different, so they simply dropped the /r/ sound from their speech (this became Received Pronunciation).[1] Winterr (American) became Win-tuh in the UK (Check out this video for more pronunciation differences).
  2. German accent: The Germans and the English still spar with each other when it comes to language. Germans learning English have trouble pronouncing words with /w/ and /th/ sound, especially when it occurs at the beginning of the words, such as wish and this. On the other hand, learning German is almost as tough for Brits as cracking the Enigma code.

    Certain German vowels do not exist in English such as schön (beautiful) and müde (tired). Try saying these words out aloud. We bet your English accent will interfere with that. You will have to exercise underused areas of your mouth. That’s exactly how foreign accents are shaped.
  3. Japanese accent: Alcohol does a crazy thing, it makes you feel sleepy and relaxed, yet more talkative and social. The result? Slurred speech. Something similar happens with the Japanese folks learning English, and mind it, without alcohol. They find it problematic to pronounce /l/ and /r/ sounds as they occur in English because Japanese phonetics does not differentiate between these two sounds. So, if you ask a Japanese to repeat after you, ‘Turn the light on the right on,’ they will sound very drunk indeed.
  4. Russian accent: Since we are talking about alcohol, let’s come to the fine makers of vodka. Russian has a different script altogether. Also, British English has many more vowels than Russian. Naturally, this leads to a heavy accent for Russian speakers of English. For example, they might say feet and fit in the same way. They also trill the r much more. We think Red from the Orange is the New Black with her broken sentences and harsh /h/ and long /u/ pronunciations has a better Russian accent than Harrison Ford’s Captain Vostrikov in K-19.[2] What do you think? (Check out this video).

  5. Indian accent: Another Asian country is worth mentioning here for what it has done to English. Indians try to sound more American but the language system in the country is mainly British. So, this mix and match brings you rolled /r/ sound (as in Butterr, compared with the British But-tah) and a speech style marked by speed more than fluency. In fact, people from the US and the UK are often astonished at the speed with which people from the Indian subcontinent speak English. Alcohol or no alcohol, the Indian English speakers are in a race of their own.

    What are your thoughts on accent? Are there accents you find funny? If yes, can you pinpoint why?



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