One of the most fascinating things I’ve found about living in New York is that, whilst an American accent now sounds completely natural to me, I’m barely able to distinguish any regional nuances at all, unless I happen to run into someone from say, Georgia. Part of this is simply ear training – I pride myself on being able to pinpoint fairly accurately where someone in the UK is from, or name multiple locales if they have a combination of accents – but there is also a breadth of homogeneity in American accents unparalleled in Europe.
The first thing to note is that I’m only talking about accents (the way words are pronounced) as opposed to dialects (which also include grammar, idiomata and vocabulary). My own particular accent is a mixture of English-speaking South-Walian, Cardiff English and multicultural British English. The latter is a result of being immersed in linguistically diverse settings in Birmingham and London, and shouldn’t be confused with Multicultural London English, also known as ‘Jafaican’.
There are around 50 classes of regional accent to be found in British English (remember, Great Britain includes only England, Wales & Scotland), and although estimates vary wildly as to the number of distinguishably identifiable accents within these, it doesn’t seem unfair to take a conservative approximation of around 250. The average Brit (sample size: minimal) can name around 25 British classes off the top of their head, and even Americans seem to be able to recognise a few, albeit with more amusing names: ‘like John Lennon’ for Scouse; ‘Scottish, or Irish or something’ for Glaswegian; and ‘is she speaking English?’ for Geordie.
The above graphic (click to embiggen) shows similarities between regional accents curated during the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s. It’s based on a complex set of features of speech, and if you speak Austrian you can discover a bit more about the process here. More recent studies seem to suggest that, whilst diffusion of dialect has occurred in general since this period, the number of unique accents has risen, with lines of demarcation now much more present in metropolitan areas through urbanisation and immigration — London being the epitome of this. Contrast this with the, much less scientific, graphic below, which quite honestly seems to show class (of accent) lines within the USA.
I’m a vocal supporter of both Received Pronunciation and the Queen’s English. The former refers to the accent and the latter the dialect. Whilst I try to imitate neither, I’d be greatly offended if a BBC news presenter chose a more modern colloquialism over the correct phrasing or pronunciation. Those interested in debating the matter are more than welcome to do so over a beer sometime. As such, I’ve been very surprised that my American friends don’t seem able to recognise when someone sounds ‘posh’ or not. So, I looked into the matter.
There exists, a highly localised, intense set of sociolinguistic factors that may subconsciously affect the speech of an urban American. Nowhere is this more prominent than in New York City. The linguist William Labov studied this in detail, in one famous study he simply listened to employees at Sak’s (high-brow), Macy’s (middle-brow) and S. Klien (lower-end) pronouncing “fourth floor”. Those at Sak’s clearly enunciated the r whereas it was nearly inaudible from those at S. Klien. Staff at Macy’s varied, but when specifically asked to repeat the phrase, tended to add the distinct r that is a prominent feature of Received Pronunciation. Similar studies in New York have shown an active & conscious attempt to avoid Received Pronunciation from those who wish to portray a working-class background, particularly musicians. This, of course, isn’t alien to the British world: amongst many others, Mike Skinner of The Streets has a strong Cockney (or Mockney) accent when performing, but is rather soft-spoken day-to-day.
I’m still completely unable to fathom the American psyche, which on the one hand seems to promote integration, equality and to strive to identify as American above and beyond all things; and on the other hand has a profound respect for roots and a knee-jerk reaction to identify with any and all foreign cultural backgrounds they can identify. On the point of accents at least, it seems the former is winning out.
Any further research or experiences much appreciated, there’s a wealth of literature out there I simply haven’t had time to touch.