Dear Language Lady,
I’m from Chicago and have a passion for languages and accents. I have a Polish friend who has an accent when she speaks English. Even her “hello” sounds different. Is this because she hasn’t mastered the diphthong sounds of our vowels? I’ve heard that the vowels in other languages are pure and ours are diphthong-y. Is this what gives her (and other foreign English speakers) an accent?
- Liz from the WIndy City
Dear Windy City Liz,
Interesting question! But the reason your friend has an accent is not because she is unfamiliar with diphthongs (i.e., elongated vowel sounds) – Polish has those too. The reason your Polish friend has an accent is because she is inserting her Polish vowels and consonants into American words. So before going into diphthongs, I will first explain about accents.
Foreign accents – whether it’s Americans speaking another language or vice versa -- are the result of placing your tongue in the same position for a foreign word as you would for your own language. This goes for consonants as well as vowels. For example: when you’re at a bar and ask for a Dos Equis using your American alphabet sounds, see how gringo you sound? That’s because Spanish speakers pronounce the letter “d” with the “th” sound we use for “the.” So if you say “Dos” using the Spanish “d,” your tongue is then in position to produce their shorter, tighter “o;” add an “s” and – olé – you might even sound authentic (well, until you get to “Equis”).
European, Asian, Uralic and many other languages tend to keep the tongue in the middle of their mouth to say their vowels – this gives the vowels a certain tension. Try this: while keeping your tongue between the roof of your mouth and your jaw, say ah-eh-eee-oh-oo. Now do the same using our vowel sounds, and notice how your tongue lies naturally in the lower jaw. This is what elongates our vowels and gives them that distinctly American sound.
For a foreign-accented “hello,” you start with your h-sound + short “e” (heh) in the middle of your mouth, where it naturally produces a clipped “e” sound; this in turn leads to a light, clipped “l” sound tapped quickly on the roof of your mouth, and ends with a tense “o” in the middle of your mouth: Heh-Lohhh! An American, however, would start “hello” with the tongue in the lower jaw, tongue behind the teeth. The “h” + relaxed “e” produced from the lower jaw then leads the tongue to slightly flatten against the roof of the mouth for a heavier-sounding “l” and ends with the “o” elongating in the lower jaw. Hel-LO-o-hhh!
THONGS (Monoph-, Diph-, and Triph-)
Thong is an unusual word – not just because we now associate it with the smallest piece of lady’s underwear ever invented. It’s because it’s not only Anglo-Saxon, going all the way back, pre-950 A.D., to the Old Norse word, “thvengr,” meaning “strap,” or piece of material or animal hide to secure something (as the middle piece of a flip-flop or thong-style sandal holds your foot in place), but also a Greek word meaning “sound.”
The “diphthongs” (pronounced either “dip”- or “dif”-thong) that the writer from Chicago referred to in the letter above literally means “two-sounds,” which many English vowels have, even in a word of only be one syllable, like “day” or “lie.” When you say the names of our English vowels – A, E, I, O, U – you are saying diphthongs, whose two-sounds can be heard in words like play, rear, fried, boat, and cute. “How” and “low” are diphthongs, too. What each of those vowel sounds has in common is that it forces your mouth and/or tongue to move to complete the sound:
If you say, “boat,” “how,” and “cute,” notice how, after the initial vowel sound, your lips round together to complete it. After saying the initial sound in “play,” “fried,” and “rear,” your tongue arches upward to make a type of “y”- sound, making these vowels two-sounded. “Pure” vowel sounds, or monophthongs (“monof”thongs), on the other hand, do exist in English – in words like “pop,” “lend,” “please,” and “love.” They’re called “pure” sounds because there is no glide from one sound to another, but are relatively fixed from the beginning to the end of the word. (So, a monophthong is literally FUN!)
But English hardly has a monopoly on diphthongs; they exist in all major Western languages and in tongues as varied as Estonian, Mandarin Chinese, and Zulu. For instance, diphthongs are why it’s so hard for us English-speakers to say “oeil” or “loi” or “soeur” (eye, law, sister) in French. “Rey,” (king) and “hoy” (today) are among the many diphthongs in Spanish, just as “meu” (my) “oi” (hi) and “muito” (very) are in Portuguese. Say “München” or any umlauted-u or o in German, and you have a diphthong.
Finally, there’s the “triphthong” – as in the English words, “fire,” “iron,” and “hour” --where a vowel glides from one sound to the next and to another (3 times), all effortlessly with native speakers. You probably never even realized just how acrobatic and articulate your vowel sounds are – but that same speed and subtlety in someone else’s language is elusive to adult non-native speakers; and that will always, to one degree or another, keep the world swimming in foreign accents.