American pronunciation

I am teaching an ESL classes at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey this term, and am having great fun introducing American English to speakers of other languages; in this case, mostly Chinese and Malay, with two Arabic speakers and one Portuguese speaker. Our next class will be on the phonetics of American English, and it seems to me that this is something native American speakers should be familiar with too.

Americans brought many forms of English with them, and learned English in many different ways when they got here, so it is hard to make too many generalizations; however, there is a generally accepted Standard American English.

The standard for American pronunciation has changed from a style which comes from the south of England, to a style which today is heavily influenced by waves of immigrants – Italians, Jews whose native tongue was Yiddish, and now Spanish, among others. American English has also been influenced by the African languages spoken by the tens of thousands of Africans from various tribes who were brought here as slaves. Even today, there is sometimes difficulty understanding people who speak what is known as African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.  A case could be made that the social standing and power rank of people of color depends more on the language they speak than on the color of their skin.  With hip-hop and rap, some aspects of this language have become standard, and show up in the everyday speech of young Americans of all colors and backgrounds.

In some parts of the U.S., communities which were historically isolated retain language habits from several centuries ago, making them hard to understand.  Some examples are the dialect spoken deep in the Appalachian Mountains, and Gulla, spoken in coastal parts of Georgia. Television, radio, and increased mobility for purposes of work and education has gradually begun to conform these accents and dialects to Standard American English. You might wonder aloud in your class whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

For the most part, and to a greater degree than on the British Isles themselves, Americans can understand each other, and always have been able to.

For English learners, the distinctive sounds of Standard American English which they must learn to reproduce are the “flat a,” represented as [æ] as in flat, laugh, ask, the soft r [ɻ] of rat, harm, really, and diphthongs, diphthongs, diphthongs.  For example, the common word “hi” is pronounced languidly, going from a breathy h to a long ahhhhh to a tiny ee.

Exercises: Give the class some tongue twisters.

For th:      The thirty-three thieves thought that they thrilled the throne throughout Thursday.

For r:        Pirates Private Property
Fresh French fried fly fritters

For ei and ai:   Six slimy snails sailed silently
Seven slick slimey snakes slowly sliding southward.

For r and l:      On a lazy laser raiser lies a laser ray eraser.

Can you figure this one out?

11 was a racehorse,
 22 was 12, 
1111 race, 
22112. (Answer:  Wunwun was a racehorse, Tutu was one too, Wunwun won one race, Tutu won one too.)


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