Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Dialects, Accents, Spelling Confusion

Word confusion comes about in many ways, but frequently as a result of complications trying to understand an unfamiliar language, or speech accents and dialect differences in the same language.

We do associate certain speech patterns and characteristics with geographical areas of our country and even particular communities. Standard English may be spoken in the USA with various specific area dialects, which can sometimes result in misunderstandings based solely on words being pronounced differently. These accents can also be perceived as strange, alien and a source of humor, or even as an indication of a person's inferiority because of the difference from the prevailing group's speech and language pattern.

I recall years ago as a native Great Lakes state northerner being made aware of having acquired a slight southern dialect during my few years in the South. My standard northern flavored speech had been subjected to southern word dialect osmosis which emerged in some words being recorded I was reading from a sales promotion script. I was supposed to be a woman from Chicago praising our companies products. When we finished audio taping the promotion for the sales department, I glanced up from my script to see the recording studio staff laughing uproariously. I soon learned my northern housewife character had unknowingly spoken her lines with southern speech patterns. Needless to say, her hometown was soon changed.

What a reversal, as I was reminded that only a few years earlier I had learned the reason why my new southern school's classmates had invited me to join them regularly at lunch. They said they had decided they liked me, but they admitted they really wanted to hear what they described as my northern dialect, which really was just general American speech. They stretched their words out, speaking slowly with "Y'all" while I sometimes said, "you guys." Occasionally I said "warsh" for "wash," and "crick" for "creek." My dialect variations were minimal or "light," but southern, northern, other regional dialects and accents can sometimes be so pronounced, "heavy," or "thick," (they're composed of so many unique sounds) others unfamiliar with such speech think they sound really strange. The confused listener may say, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand, could you repeat that please?" or maybe just a simple "Whaddya say?"

"Do you speak American? What speech do we like best?" These are questions asked at this PBS site.

Other times the special accent of foreign speakers creates a unique production of our English words. I always delight in Great Britain's English pronunciation of "laboratory" as they say "luh bor' a tory" accenting the "bor." We Americans often say "lab' ra tory" accenting the "lab." Even other English speaking countries Scotland, Australia and numerous additional ones produce their own distinct but differing word sounds from each other. Within each of those countries they have dialects, also.

Anyone who has ever needed to communicate on a regular basis with someone who speaks a language other than their own with an accent, whether here in the United States or in other countries, may have had difficulty understanding the other person, especially when they first interact. Probably each person has sometimes serious, other times humorous stories to relate resulting from misunderstandings they've experienced.

I am acutely aware of the effect of dialects and accents on others. I know anyone trying to re-acquire speech and language due to neurological damage as a consequence of stroke or brain injury for example, may experience as most challenging, interactions with those unable to speak precisely the patients native language. Individuals with hearing loss also must make an extra effort to perceive correctly the words of someone not speaking the predominant language of the hearing impaired person. These issues are universally true, in English and other languages, too.

I think about the experience of being in another country where my English is not predominant.
Great patience and tolerance is required of speakers and listeners with the emphasis needing to be on understanding one another, not blaming and complaining about each others poor speech and language shortcomings. That is not to say that we each shouldn't make an effort to speak more precisely, clearly and even acquire words, phrases and other languages.

Actually, I think in some settings, such as medical, rehabilitation centers, public contact offices, an offering of speech class intervention is highly desired, but these accent reduction classes are rarely offered for our U.S.A. limited English speakers Unfortunately, doctors, nurses other staff are generally quite busy working long hours, some also training additionally to advance their professional levels and careers. They often do not have the time to attend such ESL adult education classes, or those offered at many community colleges.

The most difficult words and ideas to be understood by those acquiring English are idioms and colloquial sayings. (The latter are phrases more often spoken than written, sometimes slang.) One idiomatic story I recall from many years ago occurred when the college I was attending began admitting foreign students from a war torn Far Eastern country.

Soon after arriving on our campus, one such foreign limited English speaking (LES) student was hurriedly trying to find a new friend of his. The LES speaker had lived several years through a war in his home country. He had witnessed or known of all sorts of human atrocities to which a person could be subjected if he/she was simply unliked or in any way different from others. His perspective of life that anything could happen to a person prevailed here, too, as he was still unfamiliar with the ways of our country, much less our idioms. He managed with a limited few English words to ask a mutual acquaintance where his friend might be. He was quite unprepared for understanding the answer he was given. "Oh, you'll find him hanging around the corner." His shocked reaction quickly revealed further language explanation was needed, that his friend was well and not literally hanging.

Spelling words in any language present their own unique problems. Years ago I briefly assisted foreign speakers for whom English was a Second Language (ESL.) Fortunately, I already was quite aware of why so many find our language very difficult to understand, speak, read and write. We have quite a few words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently and have very different meanings. For example: four/for is a very simple one, but many far more complex words can result in significant meaning differences if used incorrectly. Some native speakers still have trouble with such words, too/to/two.

Thoughts of all these speech and language matters, especially spelling issues, came to mind when I visited a local restaurant recently that appeared to be staffed by natural American citizens. This isn't the most fancy restaurant in town, but it's clean, respectable, has the highest "A" rating, with the food reasonably tasty, considering the inexpensive cost. The restaurant's near proximity to my residence also serves as an attraction when I make a sudden spontaneous decision to eat out and don't want to drive far. While paying my bill, I noticed a hand printed sign posted on the cash register:

"Sorry we can not take creit cards. This is temporitory."
Signed "Manager"

I don't know if these spelling anomalies can be attributed to someone for whom English is not their first language, to a weakness in the writer's education, or if, perhaps, the writer has a learning disability. I wish I knew the answer as it might affect my attitude toward eating there in the future. I guess spelling accuracy and quality of food preparation don't necessarily reflect poorly on one another, but I must admit that simple sign planted questions and doubts in my mind.


  1. I would have been compelled to point it out! I did so several years ago, when the flower shop I was doing some contract work for put a sign out front announcing the holiday specials. There were two words spelled incorrectly and I simply could not let it pass without correcting them.

    The first year I was in college (in WV), my school had an influx of students from NYC and also a few from Iran. I was mesmerized by the accents of both those groups; it being the first time I'd had any contact with either. It certainly did make for a few misconceptions, though, until we sorted each other out and learned to understand.

  2. Dialects and accents are universal in all languages. In my work I have to speak Spanish and Guatemalans speak it differently than Mexicans who speak it differently than Cubans who speak it differently than Venezuelans who speak it differently than Spaniards and so it goes. With some I have to listen harder than others.

  3. I find my own accent changes depending on where I am living and who I am hanging out with...

  4. Hi joared. I read this with interest and remembered in my younger days how I longed for an English lilt. Every office I worked in the best jobs were held by gals with an English Accent. I settled for several secretarial courses but I think I would have done better by skipping those classes and pubbing with the English gals. Those who spoke with such clear diction the soft sounds the rest of us seem to smudge or totally ignore. I'm retired now but even the last large office I worked in had English gals heading up more departments than seemed possible by simple coincidence.

  5. Read this yesterday but no time to comment until today. When my children were in elementary school I was frustrated by the school's policy to use Whole Language rather than Phonics. I felt this made poor spellers and Texas was one of the last bastions to revert back to teaching phonics. The teachers then told me that with computers and spell check, it wouldn't make a difference.

    I've found that to be true; the speed of typing and lack of formality of email - one of the things I studied in grad school - has led to a more casual approach to spelling. And now, texting for youth means a variety of short cuts. Twitter users are limited by the number of letters so shorten them to get meaning across.

    Benjamin Franklin's time used variations. The King's English was less formal here across the pond. I've written theatre all my life.

  6. I included the following example of regional names and the confusion they can cause in a story I wrote. However, they are relevant so I will recap them.

    We moved from Arizona to Massachusetts when my son was a teenager and the kids kept asking him if he wanted a tonic. He thought they meant tonic water used in cocktails and turned them down for months before finding out they were the regional name for coca-cola.

    Years later we had a visitor from Massachusetts who asked a Park Ranger where the "bubblah" was. She was referring to a drinking fountain.

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  8. Roberta: Here in the U.S. there's quite an attraction for the lilt of the well-spoken English accent of many who live across the Pond. I'm not talking Cockney, here, which has it own uniqueness. Your experience is interesting 'cause you live in Canada, I believe.

  9. Kenju: I considered mentioning the spelling errors when the cashier finally made it to the register, but thought I'd let others enjoy the sign, too. (She was having to serve double duty hosting and seating, too.) I just didn't want to get into a discussion with the long line behind me waiting to leave.

    Kay: Yeah, that's one of the many universals that apply to speech and language behaviors.

    motherpie: I, too, think we do unconsciously absorb speech and language of those with whom we spend extended time as you describe.

    I think it really will be interesting to see how written language and spelling evolves with the increased use of text messaging.

    Interesting perspective comparing the sight whole word teaching vs phonics. Depends on the student which system works best I think, though phonics seems to be best for most. I tend to think dependence on spell check isn't what school's should be encouraging, any more than math teachers should fail to emphasize skills because calculators can compute. Master the skill then gives license to using the tools, practicing shortcuts and breaking the rules and even making new ones would be my view.

    Darlene: Liked your "tonic" and "bubblah" story -- and that's just confusion within English.

  10. This is a copy of an original comment made here and removed in error.


    "I enjoyed your Along the Way site, as well as your post on Elderstory, and wish to invite you to post a story on Red Writer, which, like Elderstory, invites stories for posting. Red Writer is at www.xmarxthe.blogspot.com. I'm trying to build traffic to the site, and Ronni Bennett has been very helpful to me. If you have tips to pass along, I'll gladly receive them. -- Robert Lamb, winner of the July Storytelling Excellence Award on Elderstory.

    "8/08/2008 5:34 PM"

    Robert: Thank you for your comment. Congratulations on your ESP award! Perhaps some readers here will also visit "Red Writer" to enjoy reading and to submit stories.

  11. In September1994,I started tutoring in an ESL class. It was something new to me. The experience has brought me to love our English language in a way that was and is fresh and exciting. I'm always amazed how people from other lands learn this so difficult and complex language. Your idioms links clearly demonstrates the complexity of English.

    As usual this post is another one of high quality. Your links truly enrich your writing.