Thursday, 23 July 2009

Narrative in RP and GenAm (GA)

It is always fun to practice Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GenAm, or GA) contrastively. I used to speak English with a quite strong American accent when I was very young, but I learnt RP when I studied phonetics as a postgraduate student at UCL (University College London) in the late 1980s. Now I'm much more comfortable in speaking RP. Nevertheless, being an amateur singer, I occasionally practice American, too.

The following is part of a passage which my UCL tutor instructed me to practice RP with and which Professor Wells used for RP-GenAm comparison in his English accents course. Since then on, this has been one of the very good materials for my pronunciation training. I also have my own phonetics students read it over and over again:

One day last year, when I was driving back to work after I’d had lunch, I had an amazing and unforgettable experience. It must have been two o’clock. — or perhaps a quarter of an hour later, a quarter past two. It was an incredible thing, really. I was sitting there at the steering wheel of my new car, waiting for the lights to change, when all of a sudden the car started to shake this way and that, rocking from side to side, throwing me backwards and forwards, up and down. I felt as if I was riding a bucking horse.

Now, my attempt at RP:

Well, I’m afraid my vowel of "lunch" is probably a bit too close for RP. This vowel is also increasingly getting more front, probably on the verge of possible /æ/-/ʌ/ neutralisation with the quality of [a] for some RP speakers.

My pronunciation of “really” will be a little old-fashioned in terms of the quality of the final vowel: the word will more likely be pronounced /'rɪəli/, rather than /'rɪəlɪ/ as I have pronounced.

Next is my GenAm:

Mmm... It sounds rather artificial, doesn’t it? It is surprising what a great effort I need to pronounce General American now — the accent I used to speak with so easily in my teens and early twenties!

As you may know very well, General American is rhotic, so I have tried to pronounce /r/ for the spelling “r” of “year”, “work”, “quarter”, “hour”,“car”, “started”, etc. I find it quite hard to pronounce all these r’s now that I’m so much familiar with non-rhoticity.

The GenAm /æ/ (more specifically [æ:]) for “last” and “after” is more difficult for me to make than it would be when I sing. I feel much more comfortable pronouncing these words with /ɑ:/: /lɑ:st/ and /'ɑ:ftə/. Interestingly, the case is reversed when I'm singing. Does it mean that the American accent norm Peter Trudgill (1984: 142) mentions can apply even to non-native speakers of English like me? Or is it simply because my pronunciation was American when I started singing POP songs?

In GenAm, /t/ characteristically undergoes lenition in the 'V_V environment. Thus the intervocalic /t/ in words like “unforgettable”, “later”, “quarter”, “sitting”, “waiting” and “started” is most often pronounced as a voiced alveolar tap of some kind.

Trudgill, P. (1984). On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives, Blackwell.

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