Simanaitis Says

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IMAGINE: THERE I WAS A (likely) fourth-generation American, and a teacher asked me that question. (I had yet to appreciate sarcasm.)

True, as a native-born Clevelander, I spoke a dialect as flat as the American midwest, the eastern extremity of which includes Ohio. (Real midwesterners consider Cleveland to be an eastern city; real easterners do not.) As an example, I was late in learning the difference between “are” and “our.”

I recently recalled this traumatic experience when listening to Marnie Chesterton’s “Why Can’t I Change my Accent?,” on BBC CrowdScience, October 21, 2022. Marnie speaks that beautifully cultured English favoured by BBC, and she addresses a question from Monica, “who, despite 45 years living in the U.S., is still answering questions about where her accent is from.”

I couldn’t perceive Monica having any accent whatsoever, but maybe her Romanian family arrived in Cleveland when she was 16. 

Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits from this BBC podcast.

A Baby’s Learning. Marnie spoke with Yosiane White, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at University College Ulrecht in The Netherlands. White explained that infants immediately begin learning sounds suited to their particular language. 

In fact, this set of necessary sounds is pretty much acquired by the age of two. Certainly by the age of puberty it’s difficult to add new phonemes (linguists’ name for these sounds) simply because one doesn’t even hear the subtle differences.

Different Sets of Phonemes. According to Merriam-Webster, Japanese and Spanish each has 25 phonemes compared with English and Thai, each of which has 40.

Jane Setter, Professor of Phonetics at University of Reading in the U.K., gave Marnie another contrast between Spanish and English: The latter has 16 different vowel phonemes, Spanish, only five. Thus a native Spanish speaker learning English would be challenged hearing the subtleties of different vowel renderings. 

Tonalities. Mandarin Chinese and Thai are among the world’s tonal languages; others are spoken in Africa, Central and South America. Professor Setter describes the oft-cited Mandarin example of “ma.”

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The neutral tone is very light and quick. And imagine asking about the mother horse hair’s curse. 

Tomorrow in Part 2, Marnie and we learn about flowers, noses, and call centers. 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022


  1. john McNulty
    October 28, 2022

    I have heard many times that central NY state is the most neutral English speaking. Many TV people start here to try and get it

  2. Mike B
    October 28, 2022

    Both of my parents grew up in San Francisco. One was born there, of immigrant parents. The other came as a very young child from Germany. Neither had much if any accent – they were very neutral, though (a SF thing) with slight mid-20th Century Mission District accents. So am I, though for some reason I’m still pretty good at hearing people with accents, and if left with them for a while I quickly assume theirs. Odd. It was funny that my German teacher downgraded me because my accent was Bavarian (my mother’s) rather than hers (Saxony) – not that there was much chance of me passing anyway…

  3. -Nate
    October 29, 2022

    Fascinating .

    I grew up Down East and when I arrived in California I was teased about my awful accent, it seems I picked up whatever slang I heard, making me sound strange .

    That was about the time I became interested in girls so I undertook a self crash course in normal American English .


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