Standards of pronunciation and regional accents

Authored by: Kirk Hazen

The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary English Pronunciation

Print publication date:  November  2017
Online publication date:  November  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138856882
eBook ISBN: 9781315145006
Adobe ISBN:


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Variation is part of nature, and, within language, humans create variation as part of its basic fabric. With the foundational role of language variation, regional pronunciations are part of every vibrant, living language worldwide. Both social and linguistic factors play roles in guiding language variation, and this chapter provides examples of both stigmatized and non-stigmatized language variation patterns in English. In looking back at the history of English, we see diachronic variation that moved across different regions and left variable pronunciations, such as the voiceless velar fricative [x], still present in words such as ‘right’ in some areas of Scotland. Such changes flow from the daily variation we all exhibit in our pronunciations. With hundreds of millions of speakers, there are many opportunities for pronunciations to move in divergent directions. Consonant variation in regional varieties is less pervasive, and often less socially marked, than vowel variation. In general, consonants go through language change more slowly than vowels, often taking centuries rather than decades to undergo significant changes. The Wh/W merger in words such as which and witch has almost come to completion in the US, with some speakers still holding on to the historical word class distinction. Vowel patterns are more robustly variable in all languages, including English. Most of the major changes to English have been in vowel systems, and the regional varieties of English today are undergoing similar changes. For all regional trends in pronunciation, regular synchronic variation provides opportunities for social differentiation and perhaps language change. Whether the language variation patterns are stigmatized or not depends on the social judgements made upon the people who use them, but non-stigmatized patterns constitute regional standards throughout the English-speaking world. This chapter explains how standard pronunciations are socially preferred accents and highlight regional divides in usage to illustrate the importance of local pronunciations for differentiating insiders and outsiders. The chapter cannot encompass the totality of the thousands of regional, non-standard accents of English around the world. Instead, it focuses on the kinds of current and long-term variations that develop in accents.

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