How many people in the US don’t have an accent?

First, the linguist’s answer: none. Zero. Everyone who uses a language uses a variety of that language, one that reflects their social identity–including things like gender, socioeconomic status or regional background.

But the truth is that some people, especially in the US, have the social privileged of being considered “unaccented”.  I can’t count how many times I’ve been “congratulated” by new acquaintances on having “gotten rid of” my Virginia accent. The thing is, I do have a lot of linguistic features from Tidewater/Piedmont English, like a strong distinction between the vowels in “body” and “baudy”, “y’all” for the second person plural and calling a drive-through liquor store a “brew thru” (shirts with this guy on them were super popular in my high school). But, at the same time, I also don’t have a lot of strongly stigmatized features, like dropping r’s or strong monopthongization you’d hear from a speaker like Virgil Goode (although most folks don’t really sound like that anymore). Plus, I’m young, white, (currently) urban and really highly educated. That, plus the fact that most people don’t pick up on the Southern features I do have, means that I have the privilege of being perceived as accent-less.

You_all_and_Y'all
Map showing the distribution of speakers in the United States who use “y’all”.

But how many people in the US are in the same boat as I am? This is a difficult question, especially given that there is no wide consensus about what “standard”, or “unaccented”, American English is. There is, however, a lot of discussion about what it’s not. In particular, educated speakers from the Midwest and West are generally considered to be standard speakers by non-linguists. Non-linguists also generally don’t consider speakers of African American English and Chicano English to be “standard” speakers (even though both of these are robust, internally consistent language varieties with long histories used by native English speakers).  Fortunately for me, the United States census asks census-takers about their language background, race and ethnicity, educational attainment and geographic location, so I could use census data to roughly estimate how many speakers of “standard” English there are in the United States. I chose to use the 2011 census, as detailed data on language use has been released for that year on a state-by-state basis (you can see a summary here).

From this data, I calculated how many individuals were living in states assigned by the U.S. Census Bureau to either the West or Midwest and how many residents surveyed in these states reported speaking English ‘very well’ or better. Then, assuming that residents of these states had educational attainment rates representative of national averages, I estimated how many college educated (with a bachelor’s degree or above) non-Black and non-Hispanic speakers lived in these areas.

So just how many speakers fit into this “standard” mold? Fewer than you might expect! You can see the breakdown below:

Speakers in the 2011 census who…

Count

% of US Population

…live in the United States…

311.7 million

100%

…and live in the Midwest or West…

139,968,791

44.9%

…and speak English at least ‘very well’…

127,937,178

41%

…and are college educated…

38,381,153 (estimated)

12.31%

…and are not Black or Hispanic.

33,391,603 (estimated)

10.7%

Based on the criteria laid out above, only around a tenth of the US population would count as ‘standard’ speakers. Now, keep in mind this estimate is possibly somewhat conservative: not all Black speakers use African American English and not all Hispanic speakers use Chicano English, and the regional dialects of some parts of the Northeast are also sometimes considered “standard”, which isn’t reflected in my rough calculation. That said, I think there’s still something if a large majority of Americans don’t speak what we might consider “standard” English, maybe it’s time to start redefining who gets to be the standard.
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What’s a “bumpus”?

So I recently had a pretty disconcerting experience. It turns out that almost no one else has heard of a word that I thought was pretty common. And when I say “no one” I’m including dialectologists; it’s unattested in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of American Regional English. Out of the twenty two people who responded to my Twitter poll (which was probably mostly other linguists, given my social networks) only one other person said they’d even heard the word and, as I later confirmed, it turned out to be one of my college friends.

So what is this mysterious word that has so far evaded academic inquiry? Ladies, gentlemen and all others, please allow me to introduce you to…

bumpis

Pronounced ‘bʌm.pɪs or ‘bʌm.pəs. You can hear me say the word and use it in context by listening to this low quality recording.

The word means something like “fool” or “incompetent person”. To prove that this is actually a real word that people other than me use, I’ve (very, very laboriously) found some examples from the internet. It shows up in the comments section of this news article:

THAT is why people are voting for Mr Trump, even if he does act sometimes like a Bumpus.

I also found it in a smattering of public tweets like this one:

If you ever meet my dad, please ask him what a “bumpus” is

And this one:

Having seen horror of war, one would think, John McCain would run from war. No, he runs to war, to get us involved. What a bumpus.

And, my personal favorite, this one:

because the SUN(in that pic) is wearing GLASSES god karen ur such a bumpus

There’s also an Urban Dictionary entry which suggests the definition:

A raucous, boisterous person or thing (usually african-american.)

I’m a little sceptical about the last one, though. Partly because it doesn’t line up with my own intuitions (I feel like a bumpus is more likely to be silent than rowdy) and partly becuase less popular Urban Dictionary entries, especially for words that are also names, are super unreliable.

I also wrote to my parents (Hi mom! Hi dad!) and asked them if they’d used the word growing up, in what contexts, and who they’d learned it from. My dad confirmed that he’d heard it growing up (mom hadn’t) and had a suggestion for where it might have come from:

I am pretty sure my dad used it – invariably in one of the two phrases [“don’t be a bumpus” or “don’t stand there like a bumpus”]….  Bumpass, Virginia is in Lousia County …. Growing up in Norfolk, it could have held connotations of really rural Virginia, maybe, for Dad.

While this is definitely a possibility, I don’t know that it’s definitely the origin of the word. Bumpass, Virginia, like  Bumpass Hell (see this review, which also includes the phrase “Don’t be a bumpass”), was named for an early settler. Interestingly, the college friend mentioned earlier is also from the Tidewater region of Virginia, which leads me to think that the word may have originated there.

My mom offered some other possible origins, that the term might be related to “country bumpkin” or “bump on a log”. I think the latter is especially interesting, given that “bump on a log” and “bumpus” show up in exactly the same phrase: standing/sitting there like a _______.

She also suggested it might be related to “bumpkis” or “bupkis”. This is a possibility, especially since that word is definitely from Yiddish and Norfolk, VA does have a history of Jewish settlement and Yiddish speakers.

A usage of “Bumpus” which seems to be the most common is in phrases like “Bumpus dog” or “Bumpus hound”. I think that this is probably actually a different use, though, and a direct reference to a scene from the movie A Christmas Story:

One final note is that there was a baseball pitcher in the late 1890’s who went by the nickname “Bumpus”: Bumpus Jones. While I can’t find any information about where the nickname came from, this post suggests that his family was from Virginia and that he had Powhatan ancestry.

I’m really interesting in learning more about this word and its distribution. My intuition is that it’s mainly used by older, white speakers in the South, possibly centered around the Tidewater region of Virginia.

If you’ve heard of or used this word, please leave a comment or drop me a line letting me know 1) roughly how old you are, 2) where you grew up and 3) (if you can remember) where you learned it. Feel free to add any other information you feel might be relevant, too!

 

Do you tweet the way you speak?

So one of my side projects is looking at what people are doing when they choose to spell something differently–what sort of knowledge about language are we encoding when we decide to spell “talk” like “tawk”, or “playing” like “pleying”? Some of these variant spelling probably don’t have anything to do with pronunciation, like “gawd” or “dawg”, which I think are more about establishing a playful, informal tone. But I think that some variant spellings absolutely are encoding specific pronunciation. Take a look at this tweet, for example (bolding mine):

There are three different spelling here, two which look like th-stopping (where the “th” sound as in “that” is produced as a “d” sound instead) and one that looks like r-lessness (where someone doesn’t produce the r sound in some words). But unfortunately I don’t have a recording of the person who wrote this tweet; there’s no way I can know if they produce these words in the same way in their speech as they do when typing.

Fortunately, I was able to find someone who 1) uses variant spellings in their Twitter and 2) I could get a recording of:

This let me directly compare how this particular speaker tweets to how they speak. So what did I find? Do they tweet the same way they speak? It turns out that that actually depends.

  • Yes! For some things (like the th-stopping and r-lessness like I mentioned above) this person does tweet and speak in pretty much the same way. They won’t use an “r” in spelling where they wouldn’t say an “r” sound and vice versa.
  • No! But for other things (like saying “ing” words “in” or saying words like “coffin” and “coughing” with a different vowel in the first syllable) while this person does them a lot in thier speech, they aren’t using variant spellings at the same level in thier tweets. So they’ll say “runnin” 80% of the time, for example, but type it as “running” 60% of the time (rather than 20%, which is what we’d expect if the Twitter and speech data were showing the same thing).

So what’s going on? Why are only some things being used in the same way on Twitter and in speech? To answer that we’ll need to dig a little deeper into the way these things in speech.

  • How are th-stopping and r-lessness being used in speech? So when you compare the video above to one of the sports radio announcer that’s being parodied (try this one) you’ll find that they’re actually used more in the video above than they are in the speech that’s being parodied. This is pretty common in situations where someone’s really laying on a particular accent (even one they speak natively), which sociolinguists call a performance register.
  • What about the other things? The things that aren’t being used as often Twitter as they are on speech, on the other hand, actually show up at the same levels in speech, both for the parody and the original. This speaker isn’t overshooting thier use of these features; instead they’re just using them in the way that another native speaker of a dialect would.

So there’s a pretty robust pattern showing up here. This person is only tweeting the way they speak for a very small set of things: those things that are really strongly associated with this dialect and that they’re really playing up in thier speech. In other words, they tend to use the things that they’re paying a lot of attention to in the same way both in speech and on Twitter. That makes sense. If you’re very careful to do something when you’re talking–not splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, maybe–you’re probably not going to do it when you’re talking. But if there’s something that you do all the time when you’re talking and aren’t really aware of then it probably show up in your writing. For example, there are lots of little phrases I’ll use in my speech (like “no worries”, for example) that I don’t think I’ve ever written down, even in really informal contexts. (Except for here, obviously.)

So the answer to whether tweets and speech act the same way is… is depends. Which is actually really useful! Since it looks like it’s only the things that people are paying a lot of attention to that get overshot in speech and Twitter, this can help us figure out what things people think are really important by looking at how they use them on Twitter. And that can help us understand what it is that makes a dialect sound different, which is useful for things like dialect coaching, language teaching and even helping computers understand multiple dialects well.

(BTW, If you’re interested in more details on this project, you can see my poster, which I’ll be presenting at NWAV44 this weekend, here.)

Tweeting with an accent

I’m writing this blog post from a cute little tea shop in Victoria, BC. I’m up here to present at the Northwest Linguistics Conference, which is a yearly conference for both Canadian and American linguists (yes, I know Canadians are Americans too, but United Statsian sounds weird), and I thought that my research project may be interesting to non-linguists as well. Basically, I investigated whether it’s possible for Twitter users to “type with an accent”. Can linguists use variant spellings in Twitter data to look at the same sort of sound patterns we see in different speech communities?

Picture of a bird saying

Picture of a bird saying “Let’s Tawk”. Taken from the website of the Center for the Psychology of Women in Seattle. Click for link.

So if you’ve been following the Great Ideas in Linguistics series, you’ll remember that I wrote about sociolinguistic variables a while ago. If you didn’t, sociolinguistic variables are sounds, words or grammatical structures that are used by specific social groups. So, for example, in Southern American English (representing!) the sound in “I” is produced with only one sound, so it’s more like “ah”.

Now, in speech these sociolinguistic variables are very well studied. In fact, the Dictionary of American Regional English was just finished in 2013 after over fifty years of work. But in computer mediated communication–which is the fancy term for internet language–they haven’t been really well studied. In fact, some scholars suggested that it might not be possible to study speech sounds using written data. And on the surface of it, that does make sense. Why would you expect to be able to get information about speech sounds from a written medium? I mean, look at my attempt to explain an accent feature in the last paragraph. It would be far easier to get my point across using a sound file. That said, I’d noticed in my own internet usage that people were using variant spellings, like “tawk” for “talk”, and I had a hunch that they were using variant spellings in the same way they use different dialect sounds in speech.

While hunches have their place in science, they do need to be verified empirically before they can be taken seriously. And so before I submitted my abstract, let alone gave my talk, I needed to see if I was right. Were Twitter users using variant spellings in the same way that speakers use different sound patterns? And if they are, does that mean that we can investigate sound  patterns using Twitter data?

Since I’m going to present my findings at a conference and am writing this blog post, you can probably deduce that I was right, and that this is indeed the case. How did I show this? Well, first I picked a really well-studied sociolinguistic variable called the low back merger. If you don’t have the merger (most African American speakers and speakers in the South don’t) then you’ll hear a strong difference between the words “cot” and “caught” or “god” and “gaud”. Or, to use the example above, you might have a difference between the words “talk” and “tock”. “Talk” is little more backed and rounded, so it sounds a little more like “tawk”, which is why it’s sometimes spelled that way. I used the Twitter public API and found a bunch of tweets that used the “aw” spelling of common words and then looked to see if there were other variant spellings in those tweets. And there were. Furthermore, the other variant spellings used in tweets also showed features of Southern American English or African American English. Just to make sure, I then looked to see if people were doing the same thing with variant spellings of sociolinguistic variables associated with Scottish English, and they were. (If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details, my slides are here.)

Ok, so people will sometimes spell things differently on Twitter based on their spoken language dialect. What’s the big deal? Well, for linguists this is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of language data available on Twitter and my research suggests that we can use it to look at variation in sound patterns. If you’re a researcher looking at sound patterns, that’s pretty sweet: you can stay home in your jammies and use Twitter data to verify findings from your field work. But what if you’re not a language researcher? Well, if we can identify someone’s dialect features from their Tweets then we can also use those features to make a pretty good guess about their demographic information, which isn’t always available (another problem for sociolinguists working with internet data). And if, say, you’re trying to sell someone hunting rifles, then it’s pretty helpful to know that they live in a place where they aren’t illegal. It’s early days yet, and I’m nowhere near that stage, but it’s pretty exciting to think that it could happen at some point down the line.

So the big take away is that, yes, people can tweet with an accent, and yes, linguists can use Twitter data to investigate speech sounds. Not all of them–a lot of people aren’t aware of many of their dialect features and thus won’t spell them any differently–but it’s certainly an interesting area for further research.

Why do people have accents?

Since I’m teaching Language and Society this quarter, this is a question that I anticipate coming up early and often. Accents–or dialects, though the terms do differ slightly–are one of those things in linguistics that is effortlessly fascinating. We all have experience with people who speak our language differently than we do. You can probably even come up with descriptors for some of these differences. Maybe you feel that New Yorkers speak nasally, or that Southerners have a drawl, or that there’s a certain Western twang. But how did these differences come about and how are perpetuated?

Hyundai Accents

Clearly people have Accents because they’re looking for a nice little sub-compact commuter car.

First, two myths I’d like to dispel.

  1. Only some people have an accent or speak a dialect. This is completely false with a side of flat-out wrong. Every single person who speaks or signs a language does so with an accent. We sometimes think of newscasters, for example, as “accent-less”. They do have certain systematic variation in their speech, however, that they share with other speakers who share their social grouping… and that’s an accent. The difference is that it’s one that tends to be seen as “proper” or “correct”, which leads nicely into myth number two:
  2. Some accents are better than others. This one is a little more tricky. As someone who has a Southern-influenced accent, I’m well aware that linguistic prejudice exists. Some accents (such as the British “received pronunciation”) are certainly more prestigious than others (oh, say, the American South). However, this has absolutely no basis in the language variation itself. No dialect is more or less “logical” than any other, and geographical variation of factors such as speech rate has no correlation with intelligence. Bottom line: the differing perception of various accents is due to social, and not linguistic, factors.

Now that that’s done with, let’s turn to how we get accents in the first place. To begin with, we can think of an accent as a collection of linguistic features that a group of people share. By themselves, these features aren’t necessarily immediately noticeable, but when you treat them as a group of factors that co-varies it suddenly becomes clearer that you’re dealing with separate varieties. Which is great and all, but let’s pull out an example to make it a little clearer what I mean.

Imagine that you have two villages. They’re relatively close and share a lot of commerce and have a high degree of intermarriage. This means that they talk to each other a lot. As a new linguistic change begins to surface (which, as languages are constantly in flux, is inevitable) it spreads through both villages. Let’s say that they slowly lose the ‘r’ sound. If you asked a person from the first village whether a person from the second village had an accent, they’d probably say no at that point, since they have all of the same linguistic features.

But what if, just before they lost the ‘r’ sound, an unpassable chasm split the two villages? Now, the change that starts in the first village has no way to spread to the second village since they no longer speak to each other. And, since new linguistic forms pretty much come into being randomly (which is why it’s really hard to predict what a language  will sound like in three hundred years) it’s very unlikely that the same variant will come into being in the second village. Repeat that with a whole bunch of new linguistic forms and if, after a bridge is finally built across the chasm, you ask a person from the first village whether a person from the second village has an accent, they’ll probably say yes. They might even come up with a list of things they say differently: we say this and they say that. If they were very perceptive, they might even give you a list with two columns: one column the way something’s said in their village and the other the way it’s said in the second village.

But now that they’ve been reunited, why won’t the accents just disappear as they talk to each other again? Well, it depends, but probably not. Since they were separated, the villages would have started to develop their own independent identities. Maybe the first village begins to breed exceptionally good pigs while squash farming is all the rage in the second village. And language becomes tied that that identity. “Oh, I wouldn’t say it that way,” people from the first village might say, “people will think I raise squash.” And since the differences in language are tied to social identity, they’ll probably persist.

Obviously this is a pretty simplified example, but the same processes are constantly at work around us, at both a large and small scale. If you keep an eye out for them, you might even notice them in action.

How can you realistically imitate a French accent?

So, my main area on interest within linguistics is the study of the individual sound systems of different languages and the rules governing them. It may sound pretty dry, but it can lead to some pretty impressive party tricks. For example, by knowing about the sound systems of different languages you can emulate them. In other words, you can have a pretty convincing fake accent. In fact, accent coaches, who work with actors to create accents and other to reduce them, tend to have linguistic backgrounds with a focus on studying the sounds of language. So I thought with this post I’d go over how to imitate a French accent by looking at the individual sounds that are different between the two languages.

Just to be clear: I’m using English as a target language here because English is my native language and everyone who’s asked me about it has spoken English natively. I’m in no way implying that English is the “best” language, or that English speakers don’t have accents. (You should hear how I butcher Mandarin. It’s pretty atrocious.) If you have any other languages you’d like me to write posts for, let me know in the comments. 🙂

Marcel Marceau (square)

Marcel Marceau can’t help you on this one, sorry. Mostly because you’ll have a hard time finding examples of authentic French in his performances for some reason… 

I’m going to assume that you want to sound like you’re from Paris and not Quebec (Not that Quebec isn’t great! Man, now I’m jonesing for some President’s Choice snacks.). There are a couple sounds you’re going to have to learn:

  1. Instead of the English “r”, as in “rat”, you’re going to have to use what’s called the “gutteral r”. (Okay, it’s actually called the voiced uvular fricative, but that’s a little bit harder to say.) Basically, when you say the sound, you want to vibrate your uvula, that little punching-bag-looking thing  at the back of your throat. Try doing it in front of a well-lit mirror with your mouth open until you can figure out what it feels like.
  2. Instead of the English “ng”, as in “cling”, you can use a “ny”, as in “nyan cat“. No, seriously. This will be a little difficult, since  we only really use that sound at the end of words, but practice a bit and you should be able to pick it up. Or you can just go with go with a regular “n” sound.

Now the good news! There’s also a couple of sounds we have in English that don’t exist in French, and they’re the one’s that are slightly harder to say, so you can save yourself some time and trouble by switching them out.

  1. The “th” sound, like at the begining of “thin” or “the” is actually really rare in world languages. French speakers tend to replace it with “z”.
  2. The sounds at the beginning of “church” and “judge” are also not a thing in French. You can use the sound at the beginning of “sheep” for the sound at the beginning of “church” and the “s” in “vision” for the “j” in “judge”.
So that’s the consonants.
The vowels are significantly different than they are in English. You’ve got all sorts of things like nasalization and rounding in places where you, as an English speaker, are just not expecting it. And, frankly, unless you’ve got a really good ear, you’re going to have a hard time picking up on the differences. Long story short: I’m weaseling out of explaining the vowels entirely and using a Youtube video. (I’m also doing it so you can get some native speaker data, which I think you’ll find helpful.)

That does give me space to discuss intonation, however. Intonation is probably the single biggest difference in the way English and French sounds. In fact, intonation is one of the very first things that babies pick up, before they even start experimenting with individual sounds. Unfortunately, it’s also one of  the most difficult things to learn. Here’s a few pointers, though:

  • French intonation isn’t as concerned with individual syllables. Rather, you tend to get whole phrases (rather than individual words) in the same intonation pattern. This is what gives French its sort of smooth, musical quality.
  • Instead of a slow rise and slow fall, like we get in English, pitch in French tends to rise slowly until the very final syllable of a sentence, where it drops suddenly. It looks more like the graph of an absolute value than polynomial, in other words.

There’s a ton more to be said about French phonology, and a lot of it has already been said, but this should be enough to get you started on approximating a French accent. Good luck!