Horseback Writing

A couple of days ago I got on the phone to organizers of other writing groups in the Surrey–Hampshire area, trying to drum up interest in a joint effort at publicity.  My first call started in confusion and only got worse: 

“Where did you say you got my name, again?”

“Your group’s web site.  Your writing group.”

“I don’t belong to a group like that.”

“Oh! I beg your pardon.  Um, but it does say ‘The Art of Writing’, with your name.”


“And this number.”

“Oh, dear.  I think there’s been some dreadful mistake.”

“I’m sorry.  But maybe…that is, do you happen to know who’s in charge of the group now?”

“Well… I don’t know.  What kind of horses are you interested in? 


It was my accent.  I grew up in the bluegrass region of Kentucky (though they didn’t let the likes of me get anywhere near the thoroughbreds); she grew up in England.  I said writing; she heard riding.* 

A drama student who tends bar at one of the pubs on my normal flight path (the Seahorse in Shalford, if you want to know) tells me that in drama school here, they’re taught a generic American accent and a generic American Southern accent.  I don’t think it’d be polite to point out that there’s no such thing as a generic American accent and there are any number of different Southern accents, too, so I don’t.  I’d be very surprised if American drama schools did any better than that at teaching British accents; from what I can tell, there are as many different British regional accents as there are American regional accents, even though the UK is only a little more than twice the size of Kentucky. 

That drama students learn a generic US accent explains a thing or two about what I hear on the radio.  You get actors in dramas (we have excellent spoken-word radio here) who are meant to be playing Americans, but who sound at times as if they’re from Wisconsin, and at other times in the same program/programme as if they’re from Virginia.  Or less often, you hear actors whose speech bears no identifiable relation to anything I’ve ever heard, anywhere in the USA. 

And then there’s the case of the intrusive R. The British seem sometimes to save those Rs they don’t pronounce at the end of words (supah for super, ka for car) so that they can tack them onto the ends of words that don’t have an R in the first place; I’m already tired of hearing Obama called President Obamer, and I once came in on a radio broadcast I couldn’t understand at all until I figured out that what I heard as career actually meant Korea.  Some American accents do include the intrusive R, but when you get that R mixed into the speech of an actor trying to sound like he’s from, say, Texas, it falls very oddly on my American ear. 

Then again, sometimes you get extremely accomplished actors with very convincing American accents and you can even think you’re listening to an American actor until the speaker falls foul of a tiny exception to an otherwise valid rule—which brings us back to the T pronounced as D.  While it’s true that Americans don’t pronounce a T anywhere near as crisply as the British do, even so, we do leave some Ts alone.  A supposedly American character in a BBC Radio 4 drama the other day was exposed when he got to a line about something that happened in 1939.  Now, it’s a big country, and perhaps some Americans somewhere say ninedeen for nineteen, but I’ve never come across one.  And even though we don’t say ninedeen, most do say thirdy-nine andninedy-three.  The poor actor needed to keep in mind that what most Americans would actually say is nineteen thirdy-nine.  

(I haven’t looked at this in detail, but I’m guessing the N in front of the T makes the difference.  We say antique, not andique, for example, and untried, not undried.  I’m sure a linguistics scholar somewhere has already figured this out, probably a century ago, and formulated a multisyllabic name for the rule.) 

It’s practically impossible, I think, to defuse all of the pronunciation landmines for a British actor playing an American on the radio (although it wouldn’t cost much to hire an American to listen to the cast during just one rehearsal, and correct their slips, and I’m available).  As for me, fortunately I don’t have to say anything for broadcast, and I’ve learned to modify what I say over the phone.  When I have to give out some number—phone, credit card, National Insurance (that’s like Social Security)—I take care to alter the way I say five and nine so that my Kentucky I vowel doesn’t throw the person at the other end. 

But I’d never encountered confusion over writing and riding.  Now that I’m aware of the problem, I’ll watch for it.  And the conversation gave me a great idea for a new hobby, perhaps even a new art form: horseback writing. 

* Even though, like most Americans, I turn the T of writing into a D when I pronounce writing, the words writing and riding sound different to me.  In my Kentucky accent, the first I of writing gets a diphthong and sounds like the more mainstream American I, while riding gets a monophthong, the long I that people associate with the American South.  I was in my thirties before someone asked me why I pronounced the I in bike differently from the I in bicycle, and I stopped to think about it; turns out it’s controlled by whether a voiced or voiceless consonant follows the vowel, and is a phenomenon well-known to, well, to the kind of people who study such things. 



Filed under Language, Uncategorized

30 responses to “Horseback Writing

  1. Bob Williams

    I’ve been enjoying your blog very much and have been happy to have begun with it at the same time as it began. As for the D/T confusion, I’ve noticed this to be particularly strong in speakers with an Irish background.

  2. I wonder whether “horseback writing” would be a good name for a blog…

  3. smashingmelons

    My older sister had nearly the same experience when she was applying to college back in the 70s. She was being interviewed for admission to Rice, and the interviewer asked her what sort of pastimes she enjoyed. She mentioned “writing” as a favorite activity, and grew more and more bewildered as the interviewer started asking her questions that she didn’t deem pertinent to her answer. Several questions on she figured out that he thought she had said “riding.” I don’t know if the interviewer was British, but my sister definitely has a Texas twang.

  4. Sharon Minsuk

    Classic! And you don’t have to be from the south for the two i’s to sound different. My east-coast “writing”/”riding” are distinctly different, in about the same way you describe. Is that not the case for Brits?

    I’ve read that each of the major American accents derives from a specific British predecessor, as separate waves of immigrants from different parts of Britain settled in different parts of the American east coast at different times in history, and then spread westward. I remember a map showing three main tiers of migration / accent — northern, southern, and one across the middle.

    • Sharon Minsuk

      (Oops, what I meant was, do Brits not pronounce the i’s differently? I get it that they pronounce “writing” with a crisp t.)

  5. M.F. Case

    Although I’m a relatively well-educated American, I must admit that the diphthong/monophthong thing is way, way over my head. But, I think I understand your post enough to wonder whether you’ve waded into a subject that will be considered controversial by some of your English readers. If I’m right about that, then you are to be commended as a brave woman, (to voice, for example, our American bewilderment at all those Rs getting added onto the end of words). Thanks for “riding” an enjoyable post.

  6. MANY thanks for all of the comments from everyone!

    As for accents being a controversial topic, well, I wasn’t rude about anybody’s accent, I was just…observing. And somebody asked me to write about the differences in UK/US health care, so I think where to put the Rs is rather tame!

    Sorry about diphthong and monophthong. In my defense, I’ll say that they were in a footnote and that I thought diphthong was a pretty well-known term; once you’ve got diphthong figuring out monophthong isn’t much work, I think. Apologies.

    Sharon asked about whether the British use a different I-sound in ‘writing’ and ‘riding’–I don’t think they do. I’ll go find some and ask. Um…don’t I remember you saying something about being from New Jersey? I am truly surprised that you use different I vowels in those words and especially that you see them mapping to the two different vowels described. I learn something new every day —

    Finally, if Horseback Writing is a good name for a blog, maybe I’ll us it — thanks!

    Thanks to everybody! I hope this composite reply is an acceptable way to respond (I’m still new at this). Thanks for reading.

    • Sharon Minsuk

      Yup, NJ. My “riding” i sounds like “I” (as in me), kind of starts with “ah…”. “Writing” i is shorter, chopped off, mouth doesn’t open as wide. Not the same two i sounds you’d use, but different from each other in the same way, I think. I would love to hear both you, and a Brit, say both these words out loud!

    • Good piece, Mary Ellen. Yes, we actually do have accents here in the US. I remember my first year at Stanford one of the linguistics professors remarking upon the very lovely, upper-crust, deep south accent of my dorm’s resident upper-classwoman (can’t remember what her actual job was; she was the person we went to if we had some sort of problem). He said, It’s so sad that accents like hers are disappearing. Everyone is trying to sound like Dan Rather now. Luckily, we all failed. I can still pick out a Midwesterner who has lived in California for many years, and when we were in Mexico I nailed our hotel-owner as from Georgia and she was stunned. “Ho-ow could yo-ou paw-sibly know tha-at?” she asked. How could I not? We just watched the BBC’s [latest] Bleak House and it had a lovely performance by Dana Scully from X-Files as an upper-crust Brit. I wonder how real Brits found her accent? So few Brits can do an American accent convincingly, but we’re so nice, we don’t get on their case about it!

      • But Dan Rather is a Texan! I think he’s great, but I certainly don’t want the whole televised world to sound like he does.

        Haven’t heard any British people complain about Gillian Anderson’s British accent. I believe she does a lot of work on the London stage, so she must have it pegged down pretty well.

      • Tricia

        Actually Gillian Anderson grew up during some of her childhood in London, so I think her accent would be a bit more authentic than most Americans, including those of us who have lived here for a long time.

  7. Am I too late?!

    I don’t think it’s ‘n’ and ‘t’ – I think it’s a stressed syllable. Teen is stressed, ty isn’t. So we say fordy but fourteen, thirdy but thirteen, fifdy (sort of) but fifteen – and so on. Trenton is Tren’on (sort of) – ‘on’ is unstressed. Butter is budder – ‘er’ is unstressed. With a stressed syllable…there’s kind of room to say the T properly.

    • Sharon Minsuk

      Interesting point, except that I don’t always stress “teen”. For some reason, if I say, for example, “How many apples? Nineteen.” — then I stress the “teen”. But in most other situations, not. In “nineteen apples”, I don’t think I do. In counting, “16, 17, 18, 19”, I definitely don’t. And yet even when unstressed, it keeps the “t” pronunciation. The mystery continues!

      • Ah – that is interesting. I don’t really stress it if I’m counting quickly, either.

        But do you, even without stressing it, still say it as a complete syllable (however swallowed) rather than an incomplete one? I’m guessing it’s still more of a voiced vowel than the er in butter. We say, sort of, budd’r, but we don’t really say ninet’n (much less nined’n). The double ee won’t let us – we know we owe it more than that.

      • Sharon Minsuk

        Yes, I do. But I don’t see how that’s different from the -ty in ninedy. “NINEteen NINEdy.” I really have no clue what could set them apart!

      • Is this going to be in the right place, I wonder? There’s no reply button under Sharon’s reply…

        “NINEteen NINEdy.”

        Well I’m just guessing – I’m not a linguist! – but my guess is that the elongated syllable makes the t sound or feel right while a swallowed syllable doesn’t.

        But that doesn’t really explain anything – *why* does an elongated syllable do that, if it does, and why is this an American thing. I have no idea. It’s a mystery.

  8. Separate question – you say there is no generic American accent, which is of course true if you’re a linguist, but if you’re not…? In other words, there are lots of American accents that I have no clue how to locate – I mean, American accents belonging to lots of people, in which I don’t hear enough difference to identify origin. I flip (mentally) through various people on tv and radio for instance and find I have no idea how to label their accents. To me those accents are pretty generic. You know?

    • Yeah…I do know what you mean, but… is unanalyzable/unidentificable the same as generic? I’ve known lots of people with accents I couldn’t pin down, but they weren’t what I’d call generic. Someone who grew up in California but in a community moved, the whole town, from Texas by an oil company — this guy grew up in California but surrounded by people with Texas accents, and ended up with an unpin-downable accent, but I wouldn’t call it generic. Ditto somebody else who grew up overseas but with a mother from the midwest — his accent is mostly unpin-downable, with a few midwestern twangy vowels thrown in. Is that generic, because it can’t be analyzed?

      One of the strangest accents I ever encountered was from an American whose family moved to Norway when he was a kid, and who had then spent his adult years in England. Phew! A really perplexing accent, I would never have been able to place it.

      It would be interesting to see what is actually taught at the drama school as generic English.

      • No, unidentifiable isn’t the same as generic – that’s what I meant about the linguist. Linguists (specialists in US anyway) can identify location – but I’m pretty sure most Americans can’t for most accents.

        For instance there’s that lengthened short a – so that stand becomes stayand – the non-Southern one, I mean. It exists but I have no idea where the non-Southern one comes from.

        Anyway – you know of some odd accents that you can’t place – but you also know of lots of (American) accents that you can’t place other than ‘American,’ right? Like, oh, just at random, the cast of ‘The Office’ (US version) – I’m not aware of any difference in any of the accents and I have no clue where any of them are from by their accents. No clue.

  9. (I see what you mean about the reply mechanism — not at all clear that this will show up as an answer to your/Ophelia’s message of Aug 17.)

    I agree that there are American accents that we can identify as American without identifying which region(s) they come from, but I don’t agree that this means that any or all of these make up (a) generic American accent(s).

    For one thing, there’s the ear-of-the-beholder issue: an American accent with touches of North Dakota (or Narth Dakoowta, as the guy from ND I knew used to say) may sound generic to someone who’s never encountered anyone from ND, but that
    doesn’t make it generic.

    And surely the drama coaches that the bartender studies under have constructed (or accepted from another source) some composite accent assembled for the teaching of a “generic American accent”, and while I don’t really have any money on the issue, I don’t think that the idea of a generic American accent is valid. (Maybe we’re using “generic” differently?)

    There could be any number of of such pseudo-generic accents (and I realize nobody ever implied there had to be only one), and they could have all kinds of different elements. I would prefer, in a perfect world, that the acting coaches teach, say, an eastern-Missouri accent and call it what it is, or a Gulf-coast of Mississippi accent ditto, but they probably have to stop at something that is deemed good enough.

    I read that when Jodie Foster was to play Clarice Starling, they changed the character’s background from Ozarks to West Virginia–or was it vice versa?–because Foster could already do the other accent (er, that is, she could already do whichever one was not the region specified in the book). That seems the right way to go, to me — teach a real accent that exists.

    Whichever cluster of sounds the teachers teach as generic American is almost undoubtedly useful–these actors on the radio are clearly getting work–but then again, if what I hear on the radio is anything to go by, these supposedly generic accents don’t pass muster.

    There exists the possibility that I can’t identify the ones that *do* pass muster, because I might think they are actually American actors! When I first heard Tracy Ullman, I thought she was American–and that’s the point: all the accent needs to be is convincing, and the mish-mash of sounds to be heard on the radio here is not convincing (–to me. Presumably I’m not part of their target audience.

    Or they could just hire Americans for occasional American parts, it’s not like they need Americans every day…

    • Heh – no, I agree about generic – I’m not saying unidentifiable is the same as generic. That’s the point about linguists – the ones who are trained in this stuff can pinpoint people. It’s just that the rest of us can’t. So for us it’s sort of as if there were a generic US accent. I mean, do you know the difference between an Ohio accent and an Iowa accent? Because I sure don’t!

      • Sharon Minsuk

        With the level of geography knowledge common in America, many Americans don’t know the difference between Ohio and Iowa! 😉

  10. Elliott

    That intrusive R in cod BBC American (or Americern) accents drives me nuts too. But it also drives me nuts when it intrudes in standard British speech. For example, my wife puts her “bra ron” whereas I would take her “bra off”.

    I believe the difference between us is our regional accents. She speaks (more or less) RP (= received pronounciation = BBC English) which, as MEF has noted, omits postvocalic R sounds. The R gets reinserted when juxtapostion makes it prevocalic. e.g. “My cah was made by Ford” but “My caR is a Ford”. This “rule” gets over-applied so that all “ah” sounds acquire an R even if none exists e.g. “bra on” become “bra ron”. But I grew up with a Devon accent, which proudly boasts voiced postvocalic Rs. I never have to add them or subtract them because they are there all the time. The wild insertion of them where they are not wanted sounds as daft to me as it does to Americans.

    • Elliott

      A couple of afterthoughts…

      My most hated British pronunciation, even worse that “bra ron” is “draw-ring” for “drawing”.

      In the comment above I used the term “postvocalic R” because that’s what it was called in my course when I studied linguistics in the 1980s. The course authors claimed it was a more modern and less confusing term for what had previously been called “non-prevocalic R”. Now I think about it afresh, I think they were wrong and I shall henceforth revert to “non-prevocalic”. There is a distinction. In “forthright” the first R is postvocalic and the second is prevocalic. In “quarry” the R sound is both prevocalic and postvocalic. Of these three R sounds, only the first in “forthright” is silent in BBC English but as you can see from the second example the reason is not that it is postvocalic but that it is not prevocalic. Hence accents can be distinguished by their pronunciation of non-prevocalic Rs.

      A postscript to the postscript… both Britain and America are home to accents with silent non-prevocalic Rs. In Britain these are seen as hick, unsophisticated, farmer accents. In the US, I understand the opposite is true. I wonder why.

  11. Elliott

    Idiot. I got that the wrong way round! I meant R sounds are hick in Britain but silent Rs are hick in the US.

    • Sharon Minsuk

      Which U.S. accents are you referring to, Elliott? I’m starting to get lost and not sure this is the same thing you mean, but “warsh” (as in, “warshing machine”) in Indiana is hick, and “Hahvahd” (University) is snooty, not hick. On the other hand, “New Yawk” is not exactly “hick” (too urban for that), but I think would be considered at least uncultured. I think this is complicated. My head hurts.

      • Sharon, I confess I was quoting dimly-remembered generalisations. I suspect the “New Yawk” example was in the mind of the author. “Hick” was my word. Thinking about it harder, perhaps “uncultured” or “uneducated” would be closer. But that doesn’t explain “Hahvahd”. As I said… a generalisation; one that probably doesn’t bear too close scrutiny.

  12. “But it also drives me nuts when it intrudes in standard British speech.”

    Ha, Elliott – you’re not the only one. Mary Ellen and I have been exchanging examples for years. (I hope that’s not a secret!) Drawring indeed.

    I found something in a linguistics reference book (but I don’t remember which one so can’t find it immediately) recently that actually said ‘intrusive r’ (which is another label for it) is frowned on by some people but it helps with the flow of words – something to that effect. That’s what I’ve always suspected – it’s as if vowels are thought to grind like gears and need a squirt of R to prevent grinding.

    But if that were the case – why wouldn’t US or Devonshire English always be grinding and crunching? Why wouldn’t we feel a need for the lubricating R? And yet somehow we manage to say ‘Obama is’ instead of ‘Obamer is’ and ‘China and India’ instead of ‘Chiner and India.’ No grind, no crunch, no need for a squirt of R.

    • I love that image of R as lubricant. I know, from discussing this with utterers of such Rs, that your description closely matches their internal experience. Whereas for me, you and MEF, the R is grit in the gears, not oil.

      • Yes – one can even hear it in people who carefully avoid it – BBC presenters and such. Tom Sutcliffe tries to avoid it (and occasionally fails, when talking quickly) – and there’s always a little hitch, a space, a tiny glottal stop, a breath. I always want to tell him, kindly and patiently, that that’s really not necessary – that it really is possible to run them together. We Murkans do it easily! Little children do it every day! ‘Obama is – come on, Tom – try it. Not Obama Is – just Obama is. Try, Tom, try.’

        Hahaha – this stuff is so funny.

        And whenever I sound too smug I just remind myself that I say budder and Tren’on.

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