Mergers and minimal pairs: a survey of accents

Warren Maguire, a linguist lecturing at the University of Edinburgh, has told me about a survey he’s conducting into accents of English in Britain and Ireland. It’s been running for a few years, and you can see some preliminary results mapped here.

Maguire is looking for more respondents, especially from Ireland, but you don’t have to be from Ireland or Britain to take part: though other varieties of English aren’t the main research focus, all information will be gratefully received. The more data, the better.

So if you have time, do answer the survey here. It’s not a test, and there are no wrong answers (so long as you’re honest!). It took me about 10 minutes, and it was fun. You’ll be given pairs or sets of words and asked if you pronounce them the same, or if they rhyme to you.

The survey is expected to be completed next year, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the results.

21 Responses to Mergers and minimal pairs: a survey of accents

  1. The Translator says:

    Agree that this is fun to do! So interesting to consider the pairs that I don’t pronounce the same but perhaps others do since they are in there. Thanks for posting.

  2. John Cowan says:

    I enjoyed this too. Some of these mergers I never even heard of, though I haven’t actually read Wells. (A few might be “lie scales”, things you throw in to catch people who are lying or answering at random.) I thought I might be a useful outlier for the study, with my KIT, DRESS, TRAP=BAD=BATH=DANCE, LOT=PALM, STRUT, FOOT, NURSE=TERM=DIRT, FLEECE=BEAM, FACE=TRAIL=FREIGHT, THOUGHT=CLOTH, GOAT=SNOW, GOOSE=THREW, PRICE, CHOICE, MOUTH, NEAR, SQUARE, START, NORTH=FORCE, CURE accent fingerprint. About the only merger I have that is not represented by that is that hurry rhymes with furry, rather anomalously for my birthplace and birthdate.

    • stuartnz says:

      The pair that caught my eye was “mayor” and “mare” – as a kid being raised by an Anglo-Indian single father, his habit of NOT pronouncing them as homophones used to irritate and embarrass me for standing out as one of the few signs of “an accent”

  3. stuartnz says:

    Nobody EVER wants to hear from NZE speakers in studies like this one apparently. I’ve seen links asking for AusEng, Nth American and now British Isles native speakers, but when it comes to online surveys for native English speakers it seems that 4 million people are a figment of their own imagination.

    • John Cowan says:

      “Australia sux, New Zealand nil.”

      South African and Indian English tend to get left out too. While InE isn’t for the most part a native language, speakers learn it from other InE speakers, which means that it functions like a native English dialect in terms of lexis and accent.

  4. Joy says:

    Somewhat along these lines, there’s a newly-released Atlas of Newfoundland Dialects here: Might be of interest to some of you.

  5. mollymooly says:

    My yod dropping/coalescing/retaining behaviour is partly lexical rather than purely accentual: the answer I gave for dune~June is not what I would have given for deuce~juice. I’m sure Warren Maguire is aware of such issues.

  6. Roger says:

    John le Carre uses many regional accents in his CD version of
    “A Delicate Truth”, on nine audio discs. It’s all with his own voice — as far as is apparent from the jacket text. The result is more like a dramatization of the kind that radio is good at, rather than a straight reading.
    It certainly makes for much better listening and ease of identification in regard to who’s who, character-wise. Quite a lot of his dialogue consists of telephone conversations, with the regional characters’ parts phoned in; though sometimes they are face to face with Our Man in the Story. The phoned-in lines sound “tinny”, which probably makes it easier for the author as reader; i.e., easier to fudge.
    He gives the accents their identifications intermittently, whether domestic to the British Isles, Scots, Welsh, Mancunian, southern U.K., Ulster, and of course class accents; rarely U.S., but certainly from other far-flung parts of the Anglosphere, especially southern hemisphere English. One of his women characters sounded mannish, so much so that it may have been intended as a version of Butch. And while Gibraltar is part of the setting, I didn’t hear anything that sounded particularly Gibby.
    That was the audio version. The story as printed book wouldn’t convey said accents anywhere near as well, but I might have a look to compare; and find out, for ex., whether the book actually uses the phone gimmick as much as the CD does.
    Did a dialect coach help, as they do with actors, or did he render the regionals from his own experience in listening to regional speakers at large? Now, I only /think/ that the reading is all in John le Carre’s own voice(s), correct me if that isn’t the case.

  7. Stan says:

    Kate: Yes, I found it interesting for that reason too. Some of the possibilities seemed very improbable, but then some aspects of my dialect presumably do too, to others.

    John: The phrase lie scales is new to me, and apposite: I wondered here and there if something like this was at play. Hurry and furry rhyme for me as well, but I guess typically for my region.

    Stuart: NZE speakers aren’t specifically mentioned, but all English-speaker contributions are explicitly welcomed. Have there been no similar surveys at all in New Zealand?

    dw: Heh!

    Joy: It certainly is. Thank you.

    Molly: That’s something I hadn’t thought about, and my yod-dropping is also partly lexical. I expect he’s accounting for it somehow.

    Roger: That’s very interesting, and makes me want to give it a listen. I very rarely listen to audiobooks, and the representation of accents is one of the things I’m missing out on because of it. I have no idea if le Carré received training or is a self-taught accent buff.

  8. First of all, thanks so much Stan for advertising the survey. Lots of great responses from Ireland and elsewhere have come in, no doubt as a result. Ireland (north and south) is still rather under-represented (as are Wales, rural Scotland, and substantial chunks of rural England to be honest), so more responses are of course welcome. And of course a big thanks to everyone who has taken part so far (watch my tweets @warren_maguire and homepage for updates).

    stuartnz: New Zealand is a linguistically fascinating place and there’s lots of cool research being done on NZE, but I’m afraid I specialise in English in Ireland and Britain. I wonder how much geographical variation a survey like this would find in NZ.

    mollymooly: Yes, this is a very valid point. In order to find out about as many features as poss, it’s not poss to ask for multiple lexical items for each feature (although I do for some). This means that any general conclusions drawn about particular features must be very tentative. But the survey is just designed to identify indicative, common patterns, and to identify different accent areas in a cumulative kind of way, rather than be an in-depth investigation of any feature or variety.

    The Translator/John Cowan: All of the pairs are in principle real, in the sense that there are supposed to be speakers out there who distinguish or don’t distinguish each one. So I distinguish die-dye (and eye-I, lie-lie, fly-cry, etc.) in my own speech, but that’s pretty much restricted, in modern English accents, to parts of Ulster as far as I can tell.

    Thanks again all!

  9. Ray Girvan says:

    Looking at the results so far, it’s very interesting – but I think there are major sampling issues, going by the description that most of the respondents are university-educated. A specific one is the rather minor indication of a difference between “dawn” and “horn” in the South-West. I live in a town where the population is split between non-rhotic middle-class ‘incomers’ and highly rhotic ‘born and bred’. The former would pronounce “dawn” and “horn” as rhyming. The latter, not remotely: the little guy in Star Wars is “Yodurrr”. But which of the two will be answering online surveys on linguistics blogs?

    • John Cowan says:

      Hyper-rhotic “Yoda”? I shudder. If it’s not spelled with an “r”, don’t pronounce it with an “r”! (The converse is not quite true; when there are two r-sounds in a word, one of them often vanishes even in fully rhotic speech: govenor, paticular, Febyuary, and (though this is stigmatized, possibly because it’s in a stressed syllable) libary.)

      I have met some highly educated Brits in America who do retain their local accents, perhaps since there is no stigma against them here. Two years ago I worked quite closely with a computer technologist with a Bridgestowe accent (as I like to spell his native city), and 5-10 years I heard a speaker who had not only a regional accent but regional dialect features, of which the most striking was /ˈmɛbiz/ for maybe.

    • Stan says:

      Ray: The results will be instructive and interesting, but yes, some bias is inevitable in surveys like this. And now I have a niggling desire to see Star Wars redubbed in strong regional accents, a la Pulp Fiction Kerry Shtyle:

    • Hi Ray, that’s a good point of course. I think I prefer the term ‘skewed’ to ‘biased’ though, as it’s more neutral. The results are definitely skewed towards university educated people (and younger people and females). It would obviously be nice to know how the wider population would answer a questionnaire like this, but online surveys probably aren’t the best way to find out. In any case, this really only becomes a problem if the results are presented wrongly. If I publish a paper saying: ‘This is an accurate reflection of the phonology of Irish and British people today’ then I’d be misrepresenting the results. If I say ‘This is a reasonable reflection of aspects of the phonology of educated accents in Ireland and Britain today’ that would be much nearer the mark (I hope!). And university educated people now form a very large proportion of the population, so the results are hopefully going to be representative in some way (and should make for an interesting comparison with Trudgill’s present-day and future dialect areas). After all, most large-scale surveys of dialects of English to date have been horribly unrepresentative (e.g. Chambers and Trudgill’s STRUT/FOOT and TRAP/BATH isoglosses are based in the Survey of English Dialects, which sampled an extremely narrow section of the population). I think it really is quite striking that a signal for rhoticity is coming out in the southwest (which so far I’ve had very few responses from unfortunately), considering that the (university educated) people I know from there are by and large non-rhotic.

      • Ray Girvan says:

        > I think I prefer the term ‘skewed’ to ‘biased’ though, as it’s more neutral.

        Certainly! I only meant it data-wise, not judgementally.

        The South-West is a slightly odd area to sample. It’s not like (say) Lowlands Scotland, where you get a wide social range, but nevertheless shared accent features across the spectrum. Here, it’s definitely polarised, especially in the more picturesque towns and villages that attract a high proportion of retired / mobile middle class people from outside Devon.

      • Yes, I’ve got that impression from the southwest too. The same seems to be true of parts of Lowland Scotland (e.g. parts of the Borders) nowadays too mind you. I suspect though that university educated natives of the southwest are often non-rhotic, not just the incomers.

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