Accents and Names

We've seen people discuss how their names sound in other accents. How about we talk about the effect of accents on names? I'll start with mine:

I grew up in rural inland California. My parents were from the coast; my father from Orange County, my mother from Oakland.

I am fully merged for Mary, Merry, and Marry. All take the "short e" sound: IPA /mɛɻ i/. Sorry, Karyn.

I am Don/Dawn and cot/caught merged. All these sounds become a central open unrounded vowel: /ä/ ("ah" for me). I do have a distinction between the "ah" vowel and the "aw" vowel--"aw" is further backed, but it is not rounded: /ɑ/. I use "aw" for words like all, saw, Laura, Paul. Lara uses "ah". Not all of my childhood neighbors have an ah/aw disticntion, however. For those that do not, Laura is Lore-ah, and Paul is Pahl.

We raise the i in -ing. King is keeng, English is Eenglish, and so on. I don't think this affects many names, but it's definitely a consideration. Although ae can be sometimes raised, I personally don't; I use the same vowel in "rang" as in "ran."

Here's an example of a person with the accent I grew up with: Michael from Bella Viva Orchards: Listen to Juan, too; that was very commonly heard as well.

How about you and your accent? Are there any questions about how a name sounds in my accent? Any names that change significantly? Are there any names that you wouldn't want to bestow because the locals would pronounce them differently? (I try to avoid the Northeast's "aer" and "open-o" sound /ɔ/. Both grate on me, for some reason.)


June 21, 2012 12:09 PM

Where I grew up Johnny was Chunny (ch- as in chair, rhymes with money).  In New Orleans John is Jawn, as in jaw).  If she moved to New Orleans my sister Suzanne would be Suzahnne (a as in father).  I don't think she would like it.

By hyz
June 21, 2012 2:33 PM

"Chunny" is interesting--I wonder how that pronunciation came about.  John is Jawn for me, too (rhymes with Don and Dawn)--I thought that was pretty standard.  Where is it said differently?  Also, with Suzanne in New Orleans, wouldn't people say the last syllable as Ann if she wanted it that way, or is it the Karyn/"Kairen" sort of a thing where people don't really hear much difference or just consider any difference to be a regional variation that they don't need to bother trying to change?   

June 21, 2012 7:26 PM

But Don and Dawn don't rhyme!   Not even close.  Chunny is Cherman.  I grew up in the Pennsylvania Dutch country where English is spoken as if it were German.  No born and bred New Orleanian would say Suzanne like Anne.  My sister were she there could issue corrections, but I doubt if that would make a difference.

June 27, 2012 8:31 AM

Don and Dawn do not rhyme. Don rhymes with Bon in Bon Jovi while Dawn rhymes with fawn or has the same vowel sound as saw.


June 27, 2012 11:26 AM

Those all rhyme for me....

June 27, 2012 12:06 PM

For me, saw is the only one that is different of all the others, and I cannot figure out how to say Dawn or fawn with the vowel of saw! I'm glad that nobody is here to see me saying these words aloud, over and over.

By EVie
June 27, 2012 1:47 PM

Dawn and Don do sound mostly alike when I speak them, but I can hear the difference in my head, probably in part due to the influence of my English stepfather (and I can say them differently if I mimic his accent). The trick is that pawn sounds the same as porn pronounced in a standard non-rhotic English accent. Another way of thinking about it is that it's halfway between pon and pone (which are not really words, but hey, they get my point across). 

June 27, 2012 2:28 PM

Hah! When I try it in an English accent, I can do it, but when I try it without, I still feel like one of them has the accent! Thanks for the tip :)

June 27, 2012 3:54 PM

Pone is a word, as in corn pone, not heard much since the dish itself is generally off the menu these days:-).

By EVie
June 28, 2012 1:02 AM

You're right! Things I learn from this site (and I looked it up, too, but I guess my dictionary is subpar).

June 28, 2012 12:48 AM

Wow--I can't imaging porn and pawn sounding anything alike.

June 28, 2012 6:39 AM

I'm afraid they do to me - it occasionally causes some interesting misunderstandings.

June 28, 2012 9:00 AM

I'm reminded of Wallace & Gromit's A Close Shave, in which a sheep gets sheared and given a sweater made from its own wool. The sheep was named Shaun, which of course, was a pun on "shorn."

Then there is Pirates of Penzance, where they pun "orphan" and "often." (We never pronounced the t growing up, either... that's changing, too.)

By hyz
July 3, 2012 9:50 PM

Hey, I never realized that Shaun the Sheep was a pun on shorn!  Makes sense, though.  Fun.

By hyz
June 21, 2012 1:56 PM

Interesting questions, and I do enjoy this topic.  I can't think of any names I'd avoid due to accent issues specifically, because I'm in an area where people either generally share my accent, or differ in ways that don't bother me, so the question is more whether how I like the sound of a name when I say it, not whether local pronounciation would deter me.  There are foreign names I love when said in their own accent, but because it would seem odd for me to insist upon a foreign pronunciation here, I wouldn't use it--but that's a slightly different issue, since the pronunciation I like isn't even my own native pronunciation.  There are also names that were knocked out or at least downgraded on our list due to the way my Korean in-laws would pronounce them (f-->p is a big one, and I don't love the idea of Forrest sounding like Poorest, or Fiona as Peona), which is also a bit of a different issue. 

Or, actually--I thought of one--the only accent-based sound I can think of that I avoid in my own accent is possibly the A in Dan and Ann, which I think sounds a bit nasal/whiny/unattractive.  It's the same A as in Mary, although if I differentiated Mary/marry and imagine Dan/Ann said with that ae sound as in the British Harry, I'd think it was more attractive.  But it's the A followed by the N which really emphasizes the nasal quality--the same A in Sam and Claire don't bother me in the least.  Similarly, Anna/Hannah seem better because the N attaches more to the second syllable, so the first A isn't as nasal.  And Andrew and Alexander are also a bit better for some reason--the -nd doesn't seem to have the same effect as the N alone. 

I grew up in the DC area, with parents from western PA (a place with some very distinctive accents!), and always thought of myself as having "no accent" in the sense that I think I sound the same as your standard national news anchor or what have you--but I guess even still there are subtle differences that qualify as something of an accent.  I listened to the link you provided, and I didn't hear any big differences in pronunciation between my accent and Michael's, although he has a certain cadence or pitch or something that I do associate with CA--I have some friends with that speech pattern, and the only way I can think of to classify it is something like stoner-surfer-dude-lite (meaning not really exaggerated, but definitely noticeable).  But maybe that's just how people talk out there, even non-stoner-surfer dudes?

And following up on your examples, Don and Dawn are fully merged for me, while there is a really slight difference between cot and caught (cot is a bit more rounded and in the front of the mouth, caught is an aw sound in the back of the throat).  I feel a difference when I say cot and caught, but I'm not sure I can hear the difference.  Paul rhymes with all and awl.  I think I say Laura the same as you do, although Lore-ah sounds very natural to me, too.  Lara depends on the bearer's preference--I have a cousin Lara who goes by lah-rah, but I think all others I've known go by lair-ah (or maybe they said laer-ah, but I just wasn't hearing the difference).  And to use one of Miriam's examples from another thread, I say horse and hoarse a little differently--horse has the lore sound, and hoarse is more like Laura--it has a bit of -aw in it. 

June 21, 2012 2:14 PM

I went to Penn State, so yes, I'm familiar with the Western PA accent, too. Quite unique.

And yes, the cadence, choice of words, the "relaxed" quality of the vowel sounds, that's all Californian, and so yeah, we all kinda speak surfer dude. I like Michael because he's from the same area I grew up, and he's well-spoken, so you can really hear what goes on in the accent. I would say that he sounds generally "normal American" but I'm very curious what other people think.

By EVie
June 21, 2012 4:27 PM

hyz, I'm trying to imagine the nasal sound of Dan and Ann that you're describing—is it similar to the accent in which Ann and Ian sound very much alike? I lived in western New York for a few years, and that was one of the things that really stood out to me about the accent there—and I imagine it's similar to the accent of western Pennsylvania. 

By hyz
June 21, 2012 7:09 PM

Well, I'm not sure.  Ann and Ian are similar for me, but very distingishable.  Ann is kind of like ay-yen, slurred quickly into one (or 1.25) syllable(s), and Ian is ee-un, more distinctly said as two syllables.  

I have only spent a little time in W. NY, but I don't think they have quite the same accent.  This site --  --has a great overview of the accent I'm talking about, although some of the more rural outlying counties have variations that are not exactly the same as represented here.  I only have tiny bits of this accent (and actually I think I have more regional words/phrases than actual accent), and even my parents have mostly lost it, although we can all slip into it if desired.  My mom has retained the switched EE and I sounds, which can cause some confusion--I teased her about it a bit as a kid.  She would say that she gets tired walking up a big "heel", especially if she is wearing high "hills".     

By hyz
June 26, 2012 1:17 AM

What's funny is that that is not at all exaggerated compared to some actual w. PA speakers, especially some lower working class natives.  I'd say the video is a fairly mild example--I have more than a few relatives that would put them to shame. :)

By Guest (not verified)
June 21, 2012 2:52 PM

One thing I dislike about how most Americans, at least in the South, say certain names is that we replace T's with a dull D sound or a glottal stop, and I think it ruins a lot of names.  The T's in names like Martin, Burton, Brenton, etc sound nice and crisp when I hear British people say them, but Americans make it something like Mar'n, with a glottal stop instead of a crisp T.  That would keep me from ever using a name like that for my kids.

I haven't heard Northerners speak enough to know if that is regional or just here in the South.

By hyz
June 21, 2012 3:22 PM

Oh, good one--I forgot about that.  I had Thornton on my list for serious consideration at one point, but ended up dropping it because I do say that second t as a glottal stop most of the time, and that just seemed like an awkward sound to have in a name.  I would pronounce it as a crisp T if I were conciously enunciating, like if I were announcing students at a graduation, or asking for a stranger on the telephone, but in casual conversation it would be all thor'un, which I don't like as much.

June 21, 2012 9:21 PM

Oh, I just realized I wasn't logged in earlier- that was me above.

June 22, 2012 7:50 AM

This Californian does it too. When I stop to think, or I want to be formal, then yes, I sound out the T, but otherwise it's all glottal stops. Mountain = Moun'n.

June 22, 2012 10:01 AM

Weird--I'm in WA State, and I don't do the glottal stops. I was confused by the Thornton -- Thor-un thing. :-)

June 22, 2012 12:14 PM

Mind you, some British people use glottal stops too, so Martin could end up as Maa'in at times.

June 22, 2012 1:21 PM

You're right, it probably varies person-to-person.  I used that example though because I've been watching the BBC series Doc Martin and I love how some of the characters say Martin- it's so crisp and beautiful, but I've never heard an American say it like that- and I don't even say it very well!

June 22, 2012 11:49 PM

It may not be beautiful, but it's definitely crisp when I say it!

June 23, 2012 6:29 AM

Aw, you've made me proud of my accent :-)

June 21, 2012 8:39 PM

I always find these conversations enlightening.

My Australian accent has Don and Dawn and Mary/Merry/Marry completely distinct from each other. Cot and caught are also very different. I can't imagine them being the same sound at all!

I think the biggest problem here is that everyone kind of merges/drops the last sounds of names. So Olivia is Oh-liv-i-uh rather than -ah and Emma is EM-uh where the last sound is very much an afterthought.  There are better examples but I can't think of too many. Maybe Martin is MART-n. No distinct last syllable.  

I don't worry too much about loal accents when picking a name. Everyone is pretty similar around here and while we travel for holidays we aren't planning on living anywhere else.

Like previous posters, though, I do like some names that sound lovely in their native accents but get a bit butchered with the angliscisation and I can't see the foreign pronunciation being enforced easily. 

June 21, 2012 10:44 PM

Wow, I was only MIA for one day and I missed a lot!

Yes, there are definitely names that I would avoid. Primary among them would be anything that would get engulfed by the Mary-merry-marry merger. The other thing that I would tend to stear away from is anything with a final "T", because as mentioned above, people tend to leave them off.

I have a unique accent in that I'm a Jewish, Anglophone Montrealer. There is actually a noted sociolinguist named Charles Boberg who has done years and years of research on the different accents of Anglophone Montrealers with different cultural backgrounds, mostly Jewish vs. Italian vs. British descent. (Threre was a series of articles done in the paper, which you can find here.)

One of the things that characterizes my speech is very strongly enunciated "t"s and "g"s, especially when they're word-final. (It amuses my husband to no end the way that I say "hanging" because both "g"s are very very distinct!) Another is the merry-marry disctinction (Mary is often said like merry, though not always.) (There is one thing mentioned in the article is that "Jewish Montrealers tended to pronounce the 'i' in words like 'sigh' so it sounds like 'soy,'" but that is really only present until the baby boomer generation, and not nearly all of them, either.) Oh, and I don't differentiate Don-Dawn nor cot-caught, and they all have the /ɑ/ of father, but cot and caught both have lovely, strong "t"s on the end of them :)

Other things are present in the speech of Anglo Montrealers from French influence. For example, we tend to say garage as gəræʒ (sort of guh-RA-zh, where the RA is the beginning of "rag". If you listen to the Canadian French example here, you can see why.) We also say gas as gaz, since that's the French way. I'm sure that there are others but I can't think of them right now.

Right, so names. As I've mentioned before, my husband is from Ontario and he converted to Judaism, so he does not have those speech traits. He cannot say my name and he does not enunciate word-final consonants. Therefore, I will not use a name that includes any of those traits. Examples of ær abound (Lara, Tara, Cara, Caroline, Harrison, Barry, Carrie, to name but a handful,) and they are definitely out, but luckily that letter combo doesn't seem to appear on my list of favourite names. Name-final "t"s are out, too, but I think that I could handle it in a middle name. Therefore, Everett, for example, won't be my son's first name.

June 22, 2012 12:12 AM

I learned English from California public school teachers and students -- my mother still has only the vaguest concept of English grammar, and her accent is quite noticable (she gets 'sheep' and 'ship' backwards about half the time, for example), so she (quite rightly) spoke only Hungarian with my sister and me. This means that in my accent, all the vowel sets mentioned by Linnaeus and other commenters are completely merged. I think my Hungarian background actually helps this along -- Hungarian vowels are very clear and distinct, with no schwa or diphthongs, but there are only nine distinct vowel sounds (14 if you count length). Writing the various dialects of English in IPA requires a lot more than 9 vowel symbols...

(Aside: this discussion demonstrates why English spelling reform is an impossible idea. If I pronounce Mary identically to merry and marry, should I write them all the same way, even though other people say them differently?)

There weren't really any names that were off the table for us because of regional pronunciation differences. I can hear such differences if they're pointed out to me, but I don't notice them on my own, so they're not important to me. In fact, there are two prevailing ways of pronouncing my daughter's name in English, and I don't care which one people use. (She's not quite two, so she hasn't expressed a preference yet.)

The trouble with having an accent with fewer vowels than others is that it makes it really hard to discuss pronunciation online. I can't just write "like in X" using the first X that comes to mind, because other people may not say X with the same vowel as I'm trying to describe.

Case in point: when people say 'a' like in 'father', what sound do they mean? Is it like lawn, Don, far, shop, ball, saw (and yes, those are all the same vowel for me), or is it like line, down, fire, shout, bower, south (which all have the same beginning part of the diphthong for me)?

By Guest (not verified)
June 23, 2012 12:30 AM

"a" as in "father" as opposed to "a" as in "faint" 

June 28, 2012 11:49 AM

Um, circular reasoning? I'm asking what sound "a" as in "father" actually is. I know it's not the Great English Vowel Shift's "long a" (IPA [ei], I think), but is it [ɑ] or [a] (or [ɔ] or [ɒ] or something else)?

By EVie
June 28, 2012 2:04 PM

If it's IPA you're looking for, the a in father is [ɑː]; followed by an r (as in car), it's [ɑr]. The [a] sound doesn't really exist in English (though it's the standard a in Italian, French and Spanish—in English terms it would be halfway between the [ɑː] of father and the [æ] of cat). [ɒ] is the closest of the ones you suggested, and that's the o in lot, which for most Americans is probably hard to distinguish from the [ɑː] of father (and maybe in some/most accents they're interchangeable?) With [ɔ], things get complicated because then you're dealing with the cot/caught merger. It's the vowel that comes before the r in north; in accents without the merger, the vowel in caught, dawn is the similar [ɔː], but those of us with the merger pronounce that vowel as a [ɒ] (like cot, Don). 

I find the IPA charts on Wikipedia to be super useful references: This one is also very cool for comparing different accents:

They also have them for many other languages—just search "IPA chart for [blank]"

If you compare the English chart to the ones for Italian, French, etc., it becomes very obvious why English is considered a difficult languge. We have so many more vowels than anyone else, and the differences are quite subtle. It's a weird language.

June 29, 2012 12:45 AM

I love IPA :)

And yes, English is a giant mutt of a language, containing elements from many sources, and evolving over time and space. I'm quite grateful that it's my native language!

June 27, 2012 12:01 PM

The Don/Dawn merger looks quite interesting, since many people have it, and many people don't. I distinctly remember this merger causing an issue in a business meeting, when one (merging) person said that she would forward everyone's results to Dawn, an analyst, but all the non-merging people in the room heard Don, the CFO! It took a while before everything was worked out, and everyone, on all sides, was embarrassed by his or her own accent.

What other names are affected by the merger? I'm personally not sure how to split the Don words from the Dawn words. Does anyone have a rule, or is each word learned individually?

June 27, 2012 6:49 PM

i have a cousin Dawn, who is amazed at how many people think she is saying her name is Don, when on the telephone, or in person, at work. she told me that it has happened to her ever since she moved to the South East in the U.S.  she is often asked why she has a man's name! she says it Dawn like fawn, as do I. not don like ron.

June 28, 2012 9:12 AM

Where are you and your cousin from, danasurfside? It sounds like you aren't Don/Dawn merged, but maybe your Dawn sound is different from your cousin's neighbors' Dawn sound. A Northeast "Doh-ahn" heard by someone who is expecting to hear a Southern "Dah-ohn" will hear "Dahn", which is Don.

July 3, 2012 9:09 PM

I'm with hyz: Don and Dawn feel different in my mouth, but I'm not sure they sound very distinct when they come out!

A few years ago my mind was blown when a poster on this site said that her name was spelled Maygan (or maybe Maegan) because her parents didn't like the Meg-an pronunciation (as opposed to Mee-gan). I can't hear the difference between Megan and Maygan and had no idea there was one.