The chimney sweep stopped by the Lounge the other day for his annual visit, to clear the flume of various things gone up in smoke over the last year, and he was telling us about his recent visit to Smith Island - a community in Chesapeake Bay somewhat renowned for its peculiar accent. One fellow he met there used all sorts of unusual expressions that the sweep had never heard, but what caught our attention - we're always on the lookout for this kind of thing - was this peculiar, if not particularly sweeping statement: "You know, he had that brogue."

At this, the Loungeurs exchanged a mutual arch look which to us all signaled: this bears investigation. What was a resident of Smith Island doing with a brogue, anyway? (Which to our minds, since we always think etymologically, suggests an Irish accent). After the sweep had left, we poked around on the Internet, whipped out the Visual Thesaurus, and gathered up our corpora from the sideboard to see whether such a statement could possibly be justified.

Smith Island, it turns out, was settled by English and Welsh settlers, so a genuine brogue there seems unlikely; but we found this statement on one website: "The roots on Smith Island are so deep that even the modes of speech hearken to another era. Islanders have an accent-a slight English lilt warmed by a Southern drawl."

Huh? This got us to wondering about the words people use - in our opinion, quite vaguely and perhaps without a proper idea of their defined meanings - to indicate that someone else's way of talking is different from their own. Both of the foregoing words, lilt and drawl (as we'll see) hook up in the Thesaurus with the more generic pronounce: "utter in a certain way."

First to drawl. The VT tells us that it is " a slow speech pattern with prolonged vowels." Looking at various examples of drawl in context, we find it collocates most often with regions. Americans put drawls all over the map: in addition to the Southern one noted above, people have observed Midwestern, Tidewater, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana drawls. In general, drawls seem to be found charming: they are characterized as folksy, sexy, and even soothing and butter-like, though occasionally a drawl goes the other way and is characterized as acerbic or nasal. Britons, on the other hand, recognize drawls in different places: theirs are Cockney, Harvard, London, West Midlands, and Somerset drawls. One British novelist bridges the Atlantic divide by noting a character who "spoke with a hint of Scottish accent through his Canadian drawl."

Another word that people use to distance themselves from someone else's speech is twang. Twangs seem to be uniformly either rural or remote: Americans identify them as western, Aussie, Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, or Southern. Brits, on the other hand, note twangs that are cowboy, Texas, Irish, or Australian. There seems to be at least a consensus that Aussies and Texans have a twang, despite the lack of any noticeable similarities in their speech. Can you have a Texas drawl and twang at the same time? Would this be a social handicap?

Like drawls, twangs can be nasal, but twangs are also unusually often characterized as flat, whereas drawls are not. Ever hear the flat twang of Iowa or of New Zealand? Someone has. What sort of flat is this? In the dizzying word picture for this adjective, we suspect that the inspiration for application to speech are synonyms such as vapid, flavorless, savorless, and insipid on the one hand, and lacking contrast or shading between tones on the other. Conclusion: flatness is to be avoided if you want your drawl to be charming.

An almost entirely commendable quality in someone else's voice (speakers rarely acknowledge one in their own) is the lilt, which we have already seen attributed to the Smith Islanders. A cruise through corpora reveals interesting things about lilts: they're seductive! They're soft and sexy! They're both husky and feminine! Singer Melissa Etheridge is reputed by one writer to have a trademark husky lilt. Americans don't seem to be inclined to regionalize the lilt, but Brits banish it to the outliers: Geordie (by this they mean Tyneside), Irish, Welsh, Bajan, Nigerian, Scots. (Bajan? It's in Barbados.)

If you're waiting for the meaningful pattern to emerge here, it seems to be this: somebody with a lilt, drawl, twang, or brogue is someone who talks noticeably differently than you do. A Houston Chronicle reporter covers all of his bases in this observation (our emphasis added):

"Conversations on airplane flights to this once-sleepy provincial capital [of Maturin, Venezuela] lilt with the twangs and drawls of the U.S. oil patch."

The other justifiable observation is that with slight tweaking via modifiers, all of these words (lilt, twang, drawl, brogue) are also used to convey that someone else's pronunciation is rather charming, or (in the case of "flat" and "nasal"), rather irritating.

So much for the good news. The ways to rubbish someone else's way of speaking are relatively fewer, but unambiguous. One thing you surely want to avoid is any accusation of sounding clipped. Presumably this is clipped in the sense of "cut short," but it never says anything nice about speech. You've got your clipped Oxford-style diction, your British upper-class clipped tones. Tones, in fact, are a favorite collocate of clipped, and the are often noted as cold, short, or deliberate. How about " the clipped tones of one who was raised in the military"? Somehow you know that if anyone ever said "I love you" in clipped tones, it would be deliberately calculating rather than sincere and you couldn't bank on it. How about this damning characterization in a British newspaper:

Those tight-lipped, clipped voices curl the toes of anyone who lives north of Watford and can't say "five thisand pinds."

Finally, besides clipping, you'll want to avoid lisping, a definite no-no in endearing speech for anyone over the age of five. Lisp has a technical definition and is classified as a speech defect. Why is it then that we tend to use it disparagingly? Examples from our corpora abound:

lisping, greasy obsequiousness

a lisping foreign accent

lisping, limp-wristed homosexuals

a stage-Jew/menacing/eerie lisp

Further reading:

To learn more about the Smith Islanders and their dialect, you can visit:

http://www.smithisland.us/history.htm

If you want to do your own sleuthing on speech characterization words to see how folks use them, here are some corpora you can query:

For British English:

http://sara.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/lookup.html

For American English (the Brown Corpus):

http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/concord_e.html


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Thursday February 1st 2007, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Gayle F.
I am writing a novel where three of the characters have southern accents. What is the acceptable way of portraying this in their language?

Great site, glad I joined,

Gayle

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