Systematic Comparison of Speakers & Accents

As we have seen on the preceding pages, the phonetic phenomena we may want to dicuss when analysing or describing a particular accent usually occur on different levels, so we should include as many of these as is practicable. Furthermore, simply describing an accent without any particular ‘point of reference’ is also a very difficult undertaking, which is why it is usually best to compare a given speaker to at least one speaker of a reference accent or, ideally, a number of them. If possible, also try to compare ‘like with like’, i.e. if you’re analysing a male speaker’s accent, compare to another male, etc. If this is not possible, e.g. due to a lack of suitable comparable materials, then always try to bear the (physiological) differences in mind. The following materials represent a rough ‘checklist’ of at least some of the features you should investigate, but is by no means exhaustive.

Segmental Level

On the segmental level, the most obvious thing to compare ist the phoneme inventory or differences in inventory. Here, it is generally helpful to work with the concept lexical sets as developed by John Wells in his book Accents of English. You can find out about lexical sets, as well as about the concept of cardinal vowels, on this page.

With regard to vowels in general, perhaps one of the most important features to investigate is whether a particular accent tends to have monophthongs, rather than diphthongs, in comparison to the reference accent(s) – or vice versa. Long monophthongs tend to exist in many of the more traditional accents of English, as well as in many accents of English as a foreign or second language. Of at least equal importance in the investigation of vowels, though, is to investigate the presence or absence of reduced vowels (weak forms) in the appropriate contexts, since not reducing vowels is often a feature of non-native accents or, as we have seen, a way of emphasising certain items, in which case we are already dealing with a feature that is at least partially ‘located’ on the suprasegmental level as well.

On the consonant level, the most interesting features to investigate are usually the presence/absence of rhoticity and aspiration. Again, however, the general inventory is always worth surveying, too. You can also find further hints on particular consonant features in different accents on this page.

Intersegmental Level

On the intersegmental level, all features of linking or non-linking are relevant and may provide an indication of the overall ‘fluency’ of a particular speaker. Here, you always need to be careful, though, not to confuse issues of fluency with rhetorical issues. Some of the traps that even eminent phoneticians have often fallen into in this respect are explained on my connected speech page.

Suprasegmental Level

As we have seen in the most recent session, analysing suprasegmental features, such as pitch, stress and intensity, is often much more difficult than to look at segmental and intersegmental phenomena. Basic things to look out for here when comparing accents, though, are features like final vs. non-final patterns, e.g. potential rises at the ends of statements, etc., the use of weak forms, word stress & stress shift, the use of certain pitch ranges for specific purposes/effects, etc.

Sources & Further Reading:

Weisser, Martin. (2001). A Corpus-Based Methodology for Comparing and Evaluating Native and Non-Native Speaker Accents. PhD thesis: Lancaster University.

Wells, J. (1982). Accents of English 1: an Introduction. Cambridge: CUP.