Have you ever heard an American person trying to imitate a British accent? Then you may have noticed that they still usually go for the posh, clipped voices you could hear on the BBC thirty years ago. However, as everyone who’s been to Ireland, Scotland, or even talked to a working-class person from London knows, there is a wide range of British accents besides standard BBC English. So, why should American accents be any different?
Though we sometimes talk about “American English” in our blogs, there are interesting differences to be found among different sub-dialects. If you’re planning to relocate to the United States but English is not your first language, don’t change the channel! In this article, we will illustrate the differences between different American accents by looking at 3 TV shows that you can stream on your favourite platforms.
Are you looking for an old-school Western American crime drama? That’s exactly what you’ll find in the critically acclaimed, Graham-Yost-penned series FX TV series Justified.
Loosely based on Elmore Leonard’s stories about the beloved character Raylan Givens.
Justified follows the life and career of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, whose unconventional enforcement of justice is reminiscent of John Wayne’s iconic antiheroes. As the story progresses, his relentless search for justice makes him a target of criminals and a problem child to his superiors at the U.S. Marshals Service.
The Southern American Accent
If you’ve grown up watching American television, you will recognize this one right away. erhaps the most easily recognizable U.S. regional accent, Southern American English has been famously (and infamously!) portrayed in TV series and movies by countless celebrities, from Sally Field’s subtle work in Forrest Gump to Sean Penn’s exaggerated drawl in All the King’s Men (2006).
Though Southern American English is a collection of dialects rather than a single homogenous variety, there are a couple of features that are common to all dialects spoken throughout the South of the US, particularly in rural areas:
The pronunciation of the vowel in “nine”.
If there is one feature that will help you recognize a speaker from the South, that is the distinctive way in which Southerners pronounce the vowel sound in words like ‘nine’, ‘bye’, ‘my’, or ‘thigh’.
In other regions of the United States, this vowel is a diphthong, i.e., a vowel formed by two elements: an ‘a’ sound, and a ‘y’ sound. This -y glide, however, is usually missing from Southern accents, which leads to these words being pronounced ‘nahn’, ‘bah’, ‘mah’ and ‘thah’, respectively. A few experts who specialize in dialects refer to this feature as the ‘Confederate A’. It can also be heard in areas next to the Old South, including southern Iowa and Oklahoma.
The Southern Drawl
Perhaps, the most salient feature of Southern American accents is the musicality that we associate with this dialect, a characteristic that comes from the augmented length of vowels in Southern regions. Known as the ‘Southern Drawl’ or just ‘the Drawl’ among dialectologists, this phonological feature causes vowels to be diphthongized or split into two syllables: ‘here’ → hee-yur; ‘red’ → ray-ehd.
Mare of Easttown
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must at least have heard about Mare of Easttown. This 2021 HBO American crime drama sees Kate Winslet playing the title character as a detective investigating the murder of a young girl in one of the most acclaimed performances of her illustrious career.
Written by Ingelsby, the series premiered on HBO Max in April 2021 and became an instant critical and audience favourite. Mare, who lives in a fictional small town in Philadelphia, is investigating a heinous crime while trying to keep her own life from falling apart. Kate Winslet, who is originally from Reading, England, was praised for her mastery of the very specific Delaware County accent, for which she trained for several months.
This variety of English is a collection of American accents native to Philadelphia that extends into Philadelphia's metropolitan area throughout the Delaware Valley, northern Delaware, and South Jersey. According to experts, few American accents are as difficult to master as the ‘Delco’ accent, which is characterized by dropped consonants, rounded Os, erratic As, and dropped syllables. Kate Winslet, who has played a German guard in The Reader, a Polish-Armenian marketing chief in Steve Jobs, and an Australian femme fatale in The Dressmaker, says that this is the only accent that made her throw things across the room.
A Glass of Wooder - Rounding of Vowels
One of the first things you will notice about the Philly accent is the rounded, shortened vowels in words containing a long ‘a’ sound, which causes words like ‘water’ to be realized as ‘wooder’.
The Pronunciation of the Hard O
For people who are not very familiar with the English language and, particularly, American accents, it may seem like Kate Winslet sometimes slips into her British accent when saying words like ‘home’ and phone’. But in fact, that’s just how people from Philly say their hard O sounds. Instead of going for an ‘ou’ diphthong in words like ‘home’, as people with a General American English accent generally do, speakers from Philadelphia produce an ‘eow’ sound that is more reminiscent of British accents: ‘home’ → heowm; ‘bone’ → beown.
The Quirks of the Philly Accent
The main reason why the cast of Mare of Easttown found it so difficult to master the Delco accent, is that it is full of little quirks that do not correspond to any specific rule or pattern. These include:
around → uh-reownd
mayor → mair
wouldn’t → wuh-ent
couldn’t → cuh-ent
Philadelphia → Fildefya
bagels → beggles
Friends is one of those shows that do not need an introduction. For ten years, audiences around the world fell in love with these five friends whose clashing personalities, career issues, and romantic misadventures provided comedic gold season after season.
Set in the Big Apple, the show is one of the clearest examples of a New York accent and, in fact, it has served as a model for both teachers and learners who wanted to teach or learn “American English”.
The New York Accent
The New York dialect is a continuum of American accents that run from Boston to Baltimore.
This variety is one of the most recognizable English accents in any English-speaking country, largely due to the fact that most of the movies and TV shows that come from the United States feature New York accents.
The Pronunciation of ‘T’.
One of the most salient features of New York accents is the way speakers pronounce the consonant ‘T’ as a soft ‘D’, primarily between vowels: butter → budder.
Flap T also occurs in the following contexts:
- Between a vowel and a ‘dark l’ such as in ‘battle’ or ‘kettle’
- Before or after an r-controlled vowel such as in ‘Myrtle’ or ‘slaughter’.
- After a ‘s’ /s/ or a ‘c’ /k/, as in ‘blister’ or ‘doctor’.
The ‘aw’ sound
A distinct feature from the New York area is the realization of short ‘o’ as “aw in words like ‘coffee’ → cawfee, ‘sauce’ → sawce, and ‘talk’ → tawk.
Dropping of ‘h’
New Yorkers may also drop the “h” in words like ‘human’ → ‘uman, and ‘huge’ → ‘uge.
As you can see, there’s so much more to American accents than the “General American English” variety you may have learned at school. In fact, I would dare say that are as many varieties of American English as speakers in America!
If you are planning to travel or relocate to a specific area in the United States, the best thing you can do is start familiarizing yourself with the variety of English spoken there. At Listen & Learn, we offer online and in-person lessons taught by native speakers from diverse regions. All you have to do is tell us what is your target American accent and we’ll pair you up with a native teacher for a completely personalized trial lesson, with no strings attached. Send us a message now and start learning tomorrow!