When linguists talk about “accent” they’re talking about *how* people say things rather than *what* things people say. There are a lot of ways we can talk about an “accent”—we can talk about pronunciation, rhythm of speech, voice pitch, and timbre, to name a few. However, when we talk about “accents” at the level of a whole dialect, we’re usually only talking about two things: pronunciation and the rhythm of speech (called prosody).
Here at the Texas English Project, we’re focusing on pronunciation. The two main things we look at when studying pronunciation are vowels and consonants. Now, since English spelling doesn’t match perfectly to English pronunciation, the first thing you need to do is forget about the way English words are spelled. Although spelling can give you clues about pronunciation, there are so many exceptions to the so-called “spelling rules”, that a regular alphabet won’t work when describing the sounds of a language (for example, English has about 44 different sounds, but only 26 regular alphabet characters). To get around this problem, linguists have created their own specialized alphabet called the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Although many of the characters of the IPA are the same as they are in the English Alphabet (or Latin Alphabet), many are not. All of the characters written between [brackets] are IPA characters, and we’ll introduce them as we need them. Now let’s take a look at consonants and vowels.
Consonants are what most people call the “harder” sounds of a language, while vowels are the more “melodic” sounds (though linguists never use those terms). A good rule of thumb is that if you can hold a note while singing on a sound, it’s more than likely a vowel (try singing “The Eyes of Texas” to see for yourself!). English has about 25 different consonants and about 19 vowels, depending on the dialect. While there’s a lot that can be said about consonant sounds in dialectology, most of the research involves vowels, so it helps to know a little more about how linguists talk about vowels.
Here are the 16 vowels of Common American English in IPA characters, with two examples to the left of each. Click on the symbols to hear how each is pronounced.
Now, if we imagine the inside of a person’s mouth, then we can talk about vowels in terms of where they are produced in the mouth. So, here’s a picture of Doug, one of the Texas English Project crew. We’ve drawn in where his lips, teeth, tongue, the roof of his mouth, and throat would be if we could see through his skin. On top of that, there’s an orange trapezoid. This trapezoid is what linguists call the vowel space, a rough guide to where each vowel is produced in a person's mouth. All of the vowels in the box above are made somewhere in this space.
Vowels also come in two main “flavors”—monophthongs (pronounced MON-off-thongs), or vowels that stay steady on only one main sound (like the “E” sound in beat), and diphthongs (pronounced DIF-thongs), or vowels that move between two main sounds (like the “A…U” sound in house). Remember, spelling has nothing to do with vowel sounds (in fact, confusingly enough, many monophthongs are spelled with two letters while many diphthongs are spelled with one letter).
So, in reference to the vowel space trapezoid, here is where the monophthongs are produced. Try it for yourself. When you say “beat”, the [i] vowel, you should feel it at the very top and very front of your mouth; it probably even makes your nose tickle. Now, say “hot”. This vowel, the [ɑ] vowel, should feel like it’s as far away from [i] as possible, at the bottom and back of your mouth, kind of down in your throat. Finally, say “Bert” or “heard”. This vowel, [ɚ], should feel like it’s very near the middle of your mouth, exactly where it is on the vowel space trapezoid!
We can do the same thing for diphthongs, but remember, diphthongs move between two different vowel sounds. So, the [ɔɪ] diphthong represents the sound in “boy” or “joy”. When you say it slowly, you should feel the sound beginning at the middle-back of your throat (at [ɔ]), and then moving up and to the front (to [ɪ]). And again for [aʊ] in “house” or “cows”—it begins at [a], down in the bottom of your mouth, and moves up and back to meet [ʊ].
If these examples don’t work for you, don’t worry. This is just a symbolic representation of the vowel space and isn't a complete truth. But at least now you know a little more about accent and how vowels work. The most important thing is that you understand what we mean when we talk about "vowel space". But why does this matter?
For many of the people we've recorded, the way they pronounce their vowels is one of the defining features of their own "Texan English". Because vowels can be so important to dialects, in nearly every speaker's "fact file", you'll find a comparison of that speaker's vowel space to the Common American English vowel space seen in the pictures above, along with descriptions of what that speaker is doing with his or her vowels. So, for example, Aaron, a 26 year old male from Dallas, fronts his [u]. The "fronting" of [u] means that Aaron pronounces the [u] vowel, like in knew, you, who, shoe, etc. more towards the front of his vowel space and less towards the back, where it is in Common American English. This "fronting of [u]" is incredibly common for speakers from The South or The West. Now by itself, this single feature of his pronunciation wouldn't mean much, but, Aaron also "fronts" his [o]... *another* feature of Southern and Western speech. When we look at all the ways Aaron's 16 vowels differ from the 16 vowels of Common American English, we can begin to piece together what these differences tell us not only about Aaron's Texan English, but, if we find enough speakers all doing the same things, then we can also begin to make generalizations about Texas English as a whole. And that, in a nutshell, is why vowels are so important for dialect research.