English accents in South Africa

In South Africa the English accent is influenced by the Southern African languages. In particular the Black South African languages are characterized by:

Strong Throat Resonance:

Voice is produced in the middle to back part of the mouth. This results in a deep, full warm voice. But because of this, there is blurring of the forward, round English vowel sounds, such as ‘er’, ‘ar’, and ‘or’.

Vowel Differences:

Long and short English vowel pairs can be pronounced differently – e.g. ship/sheep; pot/port.

Lip rounding is uncommon in the African languages, so forward rounded English vowels are pronounced as middle vowels. For example ‘work’ can be pronounced as ‘wek’ or ‘wuk’. There is also no ‘A as in man’ sound in the African languages so this a is pronounced as e or u. This is mother tongue influence. Most African languages have between 5 and 7 vowels, as against 23 English vowels, and these vowels are formed in the middle to back part of the mouth.

Vowel differences can result in communication problems when different words can sound the same – eg much/march/match or paper verse pepper.

Stress Patterns:

The South African English accent has a strong stress pattern. Each part of a long word is stressed whereas in English usually only one syllable in a word is stressed. This can lead to a breakdown in communication as there is meaning in stress patterns. For example the different ways of stressing the syllables in the word ‘economic’ can cause considerable confusion.

Consonant Differences:

There are only a few consonants in South African English accents that differ from standard English. These are R and TH/THR. Generally, consonant production is harder than in standard English, again as the African languages are consonant based languages. English is a vowel based language.

The Western Cape Accent is influenced by Afrikaans and is very unique. There is less change in pitch than in the other dialects of English and speech is fast. Vowel differences are mainly characterised by the flattening and lengthening of vowels. There are lots of consonant differences. These include the trilled or bray R, the substitutions of ‘s’ for ‘sh’, ‘sh’ for ‘ch’ and ‘z’ for ‘j’. These differences can make understanding difficult for other speakers. In general, consonant production is harder than other dialects of English.

Michelle Clifford

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