US Regional Accents and the Philadelphia Accent

New Year’s Day, for me, is all about the Philadelphia Mummers Parade.

It’s not necessarily something I always watched growing up—my family never went to see the parade in person or made the TV broadcast a viewing priority—but it was always there, as a background thing that was on the TV, with the costumes and the parasols and Two Street and “Oh! Them Golden Slippers!“. Like everyone with extended family in or near Philadelphia, I have some great uncle or distant cousin who was a Mummer. Now that I’m an adult and away from the Philadelphia metro during the holidays, I usually catch at least a few of the Wench brigades and String bands on streaming or on YouTube after the fact. I’ve used video clips as a jumping-off point to talk about New Year’s traditions.

Listening to the street-level interviews with some of the Mummers, you can also hear plenty of examples of the Philadelphia variant of the Mid-Atlantic American English accent. If you’re curious, Sean Monahan has a pretty solid library of videos about the specific features of the accent, as well as some (tongue-in-cheek) examples.

I grew up just outside of the what would be considered the geographical constraints of this accent; both of my parents grew up within the suburbs of Philadelphia and then migrated just a smidge north. Naturally, to my ear, neither of them have a particularly pronounced accent (though my dad, who grew up closer to Philadelphia proper than my mom, has an accent that will come out when he talks to his brother) and I don’t, either. We say “water,” not “wooder,” “radiator” doesn’t rhyme with “gladiator,” and “crayon” and “crown” aren’t homophones. The regional dialect, for me, is more reflected in word choice than in accent.

One of the more telling pieces of vocabulary when it comes to American English regionalisms is what you call “a large sandwich consisting of a long roll split lengthwise and filled with layers of various ingredients such as meat, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and condiments.” I grew up calling these “hoagies” and was naturally very confused the first time I encountered a branch of the Subway chain, wondering if this meant an entire subway system had suddenly appeared in town. (This sounds facetious but I must have been just five or six years old when this happened, I should point out.) Maybe other of the various regional appellations for this kind of foodstuff will eventually die out, but thanks to Wawa, “hoagie” will probably live on. At least in Wawa country.

The other word that remains for me is “jimmies.” This is perhaps best illustrated by examples.

Seven cupcakes on a wooden table, with white frosting and rainbow sprinkles.
Image courtesy Rich Helmer

These cupcakes are decorated with sprinkles.

A white hand in a blue and white striped shirt holds a chocolate cupcake decorated with rainbow sprinkles against a pink brick wall.
Image courtesy Charles Etoroma

This cupcake is also decorated with sprinkles.

Image courtesy Uros Jovicic

But this cupcake is decorated with jimmies.

Some further reading on the Philadelphia accent can be found on The Dialect Blog and this more recent piece from the Washington Post. The thing about a Philadelphia accent is that, as Arika Okrent points out, is that there doesn’t seem to be a pop cultural touchstone for it. (“But Rocky Balboa!” Yes, Philadelphia loves Rocky, but Sly Stallone isn’t a solid representative of how the locals actually talk, though at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if his performance has single-handedly shaped the accent.) Give a close listen to Chris Matthews, Tina Fey, Jim Cramer, or James Rolfe.

Happy New Year, youse guys!

Anki Pronunciation Deck: Short “I” and Long “E”

It’s been a while but I’m happy to bring out another pronunciation deck for Anki! This is a minimal pair deck that focuses on short “I” and long “E.” If you’d prefer IPA notation, that’s /ɪ/ and /iː/.  (The difference between “hit” and “heat.”)

I originally put this deck together for a Spanish-speaking student, but I’m sure this will be of interest to a number of English students. These two vowel sounds can be tricky for many English students.

I’ve shared this deck publicly, so you should be able to download it from its main page: English Pronunciation Deck: /ɪ/ and /iː/.

If you already have Anki installed on your desktop, simply download the file and open it on your desktop (not on your phone!). Once you’ve opened it with desktop Anki, hit the “synch” button to add the downloaded deck to your cloud. Now you can practice it on your phone as well as on your computer.

A Caucasian child with a buzz cut yelling into a complicated, professional micorphone setup.

Jason Rosewell

I used the terminology “short ‘i'” and “long ‘e'” instead of the phonetic symbols because it was easier to type something like “short ‘i'” in a standard keyboard layout instead of futzing around with special characters, and also because not everyone is familiar with IPA. I’m very much in favor of English students learning IPA and I think it’s genuinely helpful, but I also recognize that its use among teachers is hardly universal or standardized. This is also not a vocabulary deck, so the words come without pictures or definitions.

The minimal pair examples are taken from a list at EnglishClub.com, with some modification on my part. The sound files are all from Forvo, and I used American English speakers whenever possible (since I’m American and obviously use/teach American English with my students). I used Gabriel Wyner’s “pronunciation” note format for this deck, specifically the “minimal pair” category.

You might also be interested in this initial “H” pronunciation deck, while you’re knocking around my shared decks on pronunciation. I plan to share more in the future. Hopefully they help you with your studies!

Anki Pronunciation Deck: “H”

One of my tutees, a native French speaker, has a little trouble with “h” at the beginning of words. To help her (and anyone else with similar issues), I put together an Anki deck of “H” words with their respective pronunciations. This deck is not intended as a vocabulary deck; it is for people who know the vocabulary (or most of it) already but have a hard time pronouncing it.

There are 91 words in total, taken from the top 10,000 or so words in English, according to this list from MIT. To avoid repetition, I didn’t include compound words (so “him” but not “himself”). I also, as a rule, didn’t include an exhaustive list of verb conjugations (so “hate” but not “hated” or “hates”) unless there was a meaningful shift in spelling or pronunciation in the main word (so both “hear” and “heard”).

Some of the words are homophones: words with different spellings and meanings, but identical pronunciation. Those words are marked with an asterisk (*) for your convenience. This is to keep people from straining to hear differences in pronunciation where there are none.

Finally, all of the pronunciations are either from American speakers or sound American to my own ears. This is mostly for pronunciation issues when it comes to vowel sounds, rather than the “H” sound at the beginning. The single exception is the word “herb.” In American English, the preferred pronunciation is with a dropped “h” (/ɜːrb/); British English retains it (/hɜːrb/).

To add the deck to your own Anki account:

1. Download the deck to your computer.
2. Open your desktop version of Anki.
3. Select “File -> Import”
4. Browse to the directory where you saved the deck in Step 1.
5. Select the deck.
6. Sync your desktop client to the web. Now the downloaded deck is on your Anki cloud and can be accessed on your desktop client, on the web, or on your phone.

And there you have it! Let me know what you think.

Are there other Anki decks you’d like to see? Don’t have time to make them yourself? Comment or contact me on Twitter (@KobaEnglish) and I’ll see what I can do.

Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Anki

I first came across Anki in Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever. It’s a whole treasure trove of language-learning tips, but the bulk of Wyner’s philosophy revolves around flashcards, Anki, and spaced repetition. I couldn’t begin to summarize the book in a single blog post, so I’ll just recommend it. Wyner is sometimes a bit too gung-ho about all the great tools he wants to sell you, but Fluent Forever is no less helpful because of that.

Wyner sings the praises of Anki, and since the Droid version is free, I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m currently studying Russian, so it came along at the perfect time. Once I got the hang of creating the cards, and got my smartphone synced up with my desktop version, things were a breeze.

Flashcards are for more than mere vocabulary, however. Here are a couple of different ways I would recommend using Anki in your English study—aside from vocabulary.

(Note: I assume that you have a copy of Anki and that you’re comfortable using it. If you’d like more details on how to customize Anki, you can refer to their manual. Another good guide is this one from Alex Vermeer.)

1. Spelling Help

600px-Spelling_icon.svg
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

If you struggle with English’s semi-random yet semi-predictable spelling, you can offload the problem on to Anki.

The first step is being aware of the mistakes you make the most consistently. Maybe you have issues with -sion versus -tion, for example. Or maybe you struggle with irregular verbs: not eated but ate? not runned but ran? Put them in Anki.

You can just use a basic card with, say “eat” on the front and “ate” on the back. Or maybe “b__t (thing on water)” on the front and “boat” on the back. If you feel comfortable typing within Anki, you can set up the card so that you have to type in an answer (rather than just think about it). Anki will then display the correct answer and highlight any mistakes you may have made. For more about how to design Anki cards with typing input, see this how-to video.

I would recommend this method if it all possible. If not, try to keep scrap paper on hand to write on while you study so you can write out the correct spelling yourself. If you don’t have that, then you can move your hand as if you were writing, or imagine writing the answer. Or spell out in your head, like in a spelling bee. The more you do something yourself, or the more you think through the steps of doing something yourself, the better you learn something and the less likely you are to fall into the trap of just assuming you know something.

 

2. Listening And Pronunciation

How's your English listening?
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Håkan Dahlström

Learning the phonemes of a language—its individual, component sounds—is maybe one of the most difficult parts of learning a language. Usually we struggle with sounds in a language because we can’t distinguish them from other sounds, whether in our native language or the target language. I have a tough time with å and o in Swedish, for example. You can use an Anki deck to blitz the difference between them.

Wyner has a number of useful Anki card templates available for download from his site. The template you’d want for this would be his “minimal pairs” template. If you want to make your own, though, you can. But whether you’re customizing Wyner’s template or creating your own, you’re going to be doing a lot of research and input.

First, collect a bunch of words that share your “struggle sounds.” A typical pair of problem sounds in English for many learners is short “i” and long “e” (ship / sheep, chip / cheap), for example. Find recordings from Forvo.com, and then very carefully apply them to cards (you want your recordings to match their answers!) in a pattern like this:

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: ship]

Back: ship

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: sheep]

Back: sheep

If you allow the cards to be reversed, you can practice your pronunciation as well as your listening: the word “ship” or “sheep” will come up, and you can compare your pronunciation with that of the recording. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to hear how close you are to a particular sound. That’s where a teacher comes in handy.

 

3. Grammar Blitz

Tips for studying English grammar with Anki.

There are so many ways you can do this. I’ll just share a small bit of my personal method and hopefully it will inspire you.

I use Anki to study Russian. Where modern English has only three cases (“grammar jobs,” for lack of a better word), Russian has six. Learning all of the ways that a personal pronoun can change depending on the job it has to do is just half the battle—when do you use each case?

First, I sat down and worked out a color scheme for all of the cases. So prepositions or verbs that require the accusative case (“him” in English) are dark blue, and prepositional cases (“by him”) in red, and so on.

Then, when it came to making the cards, I put phrases (“with him,” “without money,” “to the park,” and so on) on one side of the flashcard, with the Russian preposition in its appropriate color and whatever noun in its nominative form. The right answer is to 1) have a correct English translation of the preposition and 2) to know the proper form of the noun (and any attendant adjectives).

The other side of the card has the English translation of the preposition and the appropriate form of the noun (in its matching color). The right answer is the Russian translation of the preposition.

You can apply this similarly to English. If you struggle with catenative verbs and remembering which ones take a gerund, which ones take just the verb stem, and which ones take the “to” infinitive, you can come up with your own color code and little phrases and review those in a similar manner.

(I find it helpful to relate the color to the grammar point in some way. For example, my genitive case prepositions are in green, and instrumental in indigo. You want the color associations to be quick and easy! So in this case maybe green for gerund, taupe for “to” infinitive, and silver for stem. But it depends, of course, on the color names in your native language.)

So those are just a few ways you can use Anki beyond simple vocabulary. Do you have any other tips or tricks? Share them in the comments, or tweet @KobaEnglish!