English in America: The Shift

The Shift

On a tiny island of which one could drive across in less than four hours, it would seem plausible that after a few hundred years, its regional accents may start to merge. The UK has done much over the past three decades to encourage the use of regional accents other than the ‘traditional’ Received Pronunciation in its media and broadcasting, which has in turn created an immediate exposure to speech we might not hear in our own neighborhoods.

Despite the unquestionable intermingling of some regional accents and dialects in the UK, recent evidence has shown that with the amalgamation of Geordie twangs and Brummie expressions, comes an equal measure of linguistic variance scattered around the British Isles. Research from the University of Lancaster has suggested that newer linguistic features are taking effect in a “wave-like” manner, first affecting major towns and cities, followed by smaller, more rural areas in between. As a result, it would appear that the whole country is constantly undergoing a colossal linguistic make-over.

In younger circles, American pronunciation is becoming increasingly more common, often being taught in schools with an absence of awareness regarding criteria of ‘traditional’ British pronunciation and instead enforcing a new take on how we ‘should’ speak – I am a definite culprit of skedule as opposed to schedule. So with these language shifts and the introduction of Americanisms into British society, could a similar process be taking place across the pond?

Professor William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania determines that North America is currently experiencing a ‘vowel-shift’. A change beyond the influences of every day media and most prominent in Northern and North-Eastern cities, even longer vowel sounds in “back” and “pack” and even shorter “pits” and “bits” are formulating a new age of speech, seeing cities such as Chicago, Rochester, New York and Cleveland speaking more differently to the rest of the US than ever before . – Now after watching a Canadian friend bet on the possibility that a bartender in Williamsburg was from Chicago and consequently proceeding to ask a series of embarrassing questions including “Did you get that tattoo in Chicago?” and “How’s the weather in Chicago?”, the sharp response “I’m from Brooklyn” with which he was met, confirms that the Great Vowel Shift of North America is perhaps more visible than first thought.

So while the UK might be a little behind on certain TV shows and the latest Hollywood blockbusters, unlike a lot of things in relation to the United States, language change is happening at a similar rate. Although incomparable in scale, the changing faces of British and American English are encompassing the entirety of our nations, with small towns impacting big cities and big cities impacting entire regions. In the not so distant future, we may have new stereotypes, new token accents and maybe even new attitudes towards our language.

References

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8305645/The-conTROversy-over-changing-pronunciations.html

http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/staff/kerswill/pkpubs/Kerswill2003DialectLevellDiffusion.pdf

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5220090

http://www.economist.com/node/18775029?story_id=18775029

Athina Kontos is writer/photographer from the UK spending the summer in New York.

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