Active Listening, Part 3: Hair and There

This is Part 3 of 3 in my series on Active Listening for Accents. In part one we talked about why it is so crucial, and part two delved deep into a very specific vowel combination in the Canadian accent. I also provided some great resources for you to find samples of accents – I’ve done more of that here.

But first let’s take one more dive into the ‘active listening’ of an accent and see what comes up:

‘Jafaican’

It’s one of the newest accents to develop in the UK, and is sometimes known as Jafaican – its technical name at the moment is Multicultural London English (MLE). This is said to have developed since the late 80s and now is arguably the most common accent in London apart from Standard English. It’s certainly overtaking Cockney, and that’s what I’m currently researching for my Finding Voices podcast. Have a listen to one of the most famous speakers of this tongue, East London grime artist Dizzie Rascal:

The ‘Jafaican’ label is only relevant to an extent (such as the use of ‘mandem’, and pronouncing ‘this thing’ as ‘diss ting’): the accent takes its sound from a much more diverse set of cultural ingredients than just the Caribbean. It is spoken across pretty much all ethnicities in London (White, Indian Subcontinent, East Asian…), and is even beginning to break the class barrier.

One good sound to master in this accent is the word ‘like’. It’s a diphthong, and to get it right it’s best to focus on its beginning vowel: /a/. As a Standard English (ish) speaker, to say ‘I’, first I would begin with an “aaah” vowel before bringing the tongue up for the /ɪ/. But MLE tongues are much lower for the first vowel, making quite a bold and harsh /a/, pretty much in the same place a Spanish speaker would pronounce the ‘a’ in ‘amigo’.

“Did you hair that, bruv?”

Now have a listen to fellow grime artist – and MLE speaker – MC Bashy:

Yes, it’s the same accent. But if you listen really carefully, there are differences. There is a slightly different sound when Bashy says “year” just after 5 seconds. It’s less, “Yi-er” (as in Standard English) and more like “yeah”. What is usually two vowel sounds (a diphthong) becomes one vowel, or a monothong (the conversion is called monothongisation).

Although this kind of vowel-shortening is typical of the MLE accent (e.g. MLE’s monothongised “pound” vowel to a Cockney-style “paand”), this “year = yeah” vowel isn’t said by all speakers of the dialect. This clip was actually very difficult to find: firstly, it’s not the most common diphthong in the English language anyway, and secondly, not all MLE speakers say it the same way. But I’ve worked in East London a lot, and when I’ve thought people were talking about their hair, they were actually saying “here”.

Is there anywhere else you’ll hear this sound? Well actually, yes – if you venture to a pub in the Fens in East Anglia, UK ask for a ‘pint of bear’ and you won’t get a second glance. The best sample I can find at the moment for this is at this link, right at the start and right at the end of the recording where the woman says the word ‘here’ as ‘hair’. 

Wannabe Ganstas?

A lot of criticism has sprung up on the MLE accent from Daily Mail writers and their ilk, claiming that it sounds unintelligent and that its spread in usage is only down to white people wanting to sound black. As widespread as this perception is, thankfully there are even more write-ups out there that are balanced, accurate and linguistically curious, such as Simon ‘Omniglot’ Ager’s blog, along with a brilliant TEDx rebuttal of David Starkey’s post-riot comments by Paul Kerswill.

More resources

As promised, here’s a list of more resources for you to check out for your next accent project. A lot of these are audio archives working in a similar format, but it’s worth widening your search as they all have different samples.

1. IDEA

International Dialects of English Archive. What a brilliant idea: a map-based search with voice samples and in-depth analysis. Thanks to Paul Meier and his team.

2. Atlas of North American English

Similar to the above, this even has a ‘Cross-Continental Word Comparison’ tool for individual sounds.

3. Center for Applied Linguistics (US)

Another one with interviews of people from most states of the US, along with Canada and Puerto Rico.

4. Telsur Project

Yet another map archive.

5. DARE: daredictionary.com and dare.wisc.edu/

Dictionary of American Regional English. You can also follow them on twitter for words of the day @darewords

6. Speech Accent Archive 

Brilliant for samples of foreign English speakers.

7. BBC Voices 

Great for British accents. They’ve done half the job for you, and you can even research idioms/words of different dialects and join in on the debate.

8. British Library: Sounds Familiar?

Another map-based archive.

Any more hidden gems?

Got your own secret resource for finding accents that I haven’t covered? Or has listening to an accent brought you to unexpected sounds? Stick a comment in below.

Thanks for reading! Please do share if you found it useful.

Paul Baston is a freelance voiceover artist and accent coach – letting companies reach new audiences and helping actors master new voices. Check out his demos here.

About the Author

Voiceover artist, voice coach and creator of this blog.

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