Turn on a radio anywhere in the world and it won’t take long before you’re listening to an English song. And, if you’re a learner of English, at some point you’ve probably sat down with your favourite one and tried to understand the lyrics. But have you ever paid much attention to a singer’s accent?

Along with physical appearance, accents are one of the first things we notice about a person. Rightly or wrongly, accents can give us an idea of someone’s background, ethnicity and social status.

How well can you identify someone’s accent? Give this accent quiz a go!

 

Changing Accents

Identifying accents is tough. Pronunciation and intonation are not set in stone; the way we speak changes, depending on where we are, who we’re with and what we’re doing.

Sometimes we modify our language intentionally, other times we do it without realising. And, as you’ve probably experienced first-hand, some people are more prone to accent changes than others.

Let’s take Adele as an example. Take a moment to listen to one of her songs. Now, compare this to when she’s chatting with talk-show host Ellen. What do you notice? How is her accent different?

When she sings, she has quite a neutral, American-sounding accent. This is quite misleading, because she’s actually from Tottenham, an area of North London! The way she speaks in the interview is her ‘authentic’ accent.

In the case of Adele, we can’t be sure whether this language shift is something subconscious or a strategic decision to appeal to a larger audience.
Accents are naturally fluid, but there are also plenty of examples of artists who perform in their own variety of English. Here’s a selection of songs that represent part of the great diversity of Englishes found around the world today.

If you’re not familiar with the different sounds of English and their corresponding symbols, here’s an interactive phonemic chart to give you a helping hand!

 

Southern American English

Johnny Cash – Walk the line

America singer-songwriter, Johnny Cash was born in 1932, in Arkansas (pronounced ‘ar-kən-saw’) and lived most of his life in the other southern states of Kentucky and Tennessee.

“Walk the line” is a beautiful song and a sample of Southern American English. In particular, listen out for the vowel sounds in words like ‘mine’, ‘time’, ‘binds’ and ‘line’. Instead of /ai/ it sounds more like /a:/ and this is a characteristic feature.

It’s worth mentioning that Southern American English doesn’t refer to a single accent, but a collection of regional dialects of English. As with all of the examples listed below, there is always variety within the variety!

Jamaican English

Bob Marley – Buffalo soldier

Now, we’re going to set sail from the Gulf of Mexico, past Cuba to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. A British colony for over 250 years, Jamaica’s official language is Jamaican (Standard) English. Although English has a strong presence on the island and in its music, the most widely spoken language is Jamaican Creole (or Patois).

Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae and Bob Marley is an icon of the country and the musical genre. In this song, Marley pays tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of African American soldiers who served on the Western frontier following the American Civil War.

Try the Lyrics Training game to see how well you understand Jamaican English!

Irish English

The Pogues – Dirty Old Town

Across the Atlantic, we move from one island to another. If you’ve ever visited Ireland, you’ll be we aware of the rich music heritage. Live performances – with whistles, fiddles and bodhráns – are commonplace in Dublin’s busy pubs.

“Dirty old town” was originally written by Ewan MacColl, though this version by The Pogues is our favourite. The lead singer, Shane MacGowan, might not be much to look at, but his distinctive voice suits the song perfectly.

This time, pay attention to the pronunciation of words with /r/, such as ‘dirty’ and ‘girl’. This sound is more strongly pronounced in Irish English than other varieties of English.

Estuary English (London area)

Kate Nash – Foundations

As the name suggests, Estuary English is associated with the area along the River Thames (and its estuary). But this accent is common to the rest of London and the South East of English.

Like Adele, Kate Nash is from North London and they can both be described as speaking Estuary English. What’s interesting about her style is that, instead of singing, she talks over the music, so her regional accent is maintained.

One feature of this variety of English is the dropping of the ‘g’ in words like ‘boring’, ‘annoying’ and ‘darling’. Can you hear the difference?

Mancunian English (Manchester)

The Courteeners – Not nineteen forever

Travelling up country, we come to another city with a rich musical tradition. The Courteeners contribute to the sound of Manchester, following in the footsteps of bands like The Smiths, Oasis and New Order.

Manchester is just 35 miles east of Liverpool, but there’s a great contrast in the way inhabitants of each city speak. The Manchester dialect is called ‘mancunian’ and the Liverpool dialect is called ‘scouse’.

You’ll notice that the ‘t’ isn’t really pronounced at the end of words like ‘not’, ‘that’ and ‘night’. The /t/ is often replaced with a glottal stop, which is produced by closing your throat.

Scottish English

Glasvegas – Daddy’s gone

Further north, past the remains of Hadrian’s Wall and we come to the Scottish Lowlands. As the landscape changes, so does the accent.

Scottish English is the most widely spoken language in Scotland. This should not be confused with Scottish Gaelic (a Celtic language, like Irish and Welsh), nor Scots (a Germanic language).

In this song by Glasvegas, listen out for the marked difference in some Scottish English vowels. For example, words like ‘though’, ‘hold’ and ‘know’ would be pronounced with /əʊ/ in ‘standard’ British English. In Scottish English, these words tend to be pronounced with /o/.

 


 

If you enjoyed this post, why not check out 5 Powerful Tools to Perfect your Pronunciation or Improving your Pronunciation with a Phonemic Chart.

Glossary for Language Learners

 

Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Lyrics (n): the words to a song.

To pay attention (exp): to concentrate on something.

To be set in stone (exp): to be very difficult or impossible to change.

Firsthand (adv): If you experience something first-hand, you experience it yourself.

To give a helping hand (exp): to help someone.

To set sail (exp): to begin a boat journey.

Fiddle (n): a violin.

Bodhrán (n): a small Irish drum.

Estuary (n): the wide part of a river at the place where it joins the sea.

Key

n = noun

exp = expression

adv = adverb

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