It all started with the World in Words podcast three years ago, in which I was Patrick Cox's guest. Here's how he titled the segment:
Patrick had asked me about how my speech is received in England (I can't remember if this bit is actually in the podcast), and I'd remarked that it disconcerts me when it's said that I have a twang. To me, people from Kentucky have twangs. I have an accent (of course, we all do), but it's not anything I'd describe as twangy. My accent is (among other things) mumbly. I don't see 'mumbly' and 'twangy' as going together. (Regarding mumbly: I liked Ben Yagoda's post this week about new -y adjectives.) I expect a twangy accent to sound like a country (AmE jocular) gee-tar.
Patrick went along with my puzzlement at being called 'twangy' in his blog post, but the twangs kept coming my way, and I kept hearing twang applied to accents that I don't consider to be 'twangy'. The final straw came (on) Thursday when the Guardian referred to Peter Capaldi's accent as a 'Scottish twang'. I thought: what in the world does twang mean if it applies to Peter Capaldi? (If you're reading this aloud, note that in my accent 'Peter Capaldi' comes out as Peter Capaldi Swoooon.)
Some discussion on Twitter started to lift the scales from my eyes, and a little on-line survey I've done has confirmed: BrE has a meaning for twang that's not found in AmE, nor in its own dictionaries (e.g. Oxford, Collins). Have/take a look:
Both AmE and BrE have the sense 'a strongly nasal quality in a person's speech, esp in certain dialects' (as Collins puts it). That is reflected in the light green bar in the chart. The orange 'neither of the above' bar may be populated by people who didn't like that I didn't say 'nasal' or something similarly specific in my definitions. The teal bar represents 'has a hint of an accent', and that is much more strongly BrE than AmE--just edging out the (presumably) older meaning. Similar numbers of Americans (107) and British (103) are represented in the results.
The 'hint of an accent' meaning explains the cases where people say that I or Peter Capaldi have a twang--we're not speaking with the full force of the accents associated with our regions. I think this use is probably found in Ireland too, or else I can't explain this sentence about the X-Men character Magneto, as played by Sir Ian McKellen (who once had a sip of my Coke when we were marching in the Johannesburg Pride parade; oh, and I like to [orig. AmE] name-drop):
At least he does sound German when he speaks German, but you'd think that he might have had a slight German twang when he was speaking English, what with him being RAISED BY NAZIS AND ALL. (from GloBWE)
German? Twang? This does not compute, given the meaning of twang that I use, but it works fine if what you mean by twang is not 'having a certain kind of accent' but 'having a bit of an accent of some kind'. One of the British respondents described it as "the hint of a weird or unusual accent that jars with the listener's expectations".
I also asked which accents people think are twangy, but since I didn't do that with a multiple-choice question, I can't give you a nice chart. When talking about other countries, the British mostly said the US (especially south and midwest). Some said Australia. When asked about twangs in their own country, the West Country was mentioned most often.
People from the US strongly associated it with the US South (from Appalachia to Texas) and often said they would not use the word of non-American accents.
Lots of people from both countries mentioned banjos.
I know people from other countries would like to a breakdown of results from those, but there weren't very big numbers from any other country. Still, 11 out of 14 Canadians preferred the 'definite regional accent' meaning, as did 10 of 11 Australians. So, the 'hint of accent' looks particularly British.
And this makes a lot of sense. British people are generally highly sensitive to and about accents. As famously written by G. B. Shaw, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. Britain's diversity of accents in its small geographic space means that the accents can communicate a lot about geographical, educational and social status--reflecting and contributing to the famous British class system. Since many British people (including one I live with) form immediate and lasting impressions of others based on their accents, it's not surprising that they're interested in not just "accents", but hints of accents.
I can't go without saying a little something about nasal. Nasal is a word that people apply to all kinds of accents, even those that are anything but nasal from a physiological perspective. Allan Metcalf has discussed this on the Lingua Franca blog, which he closes with "And don't get me started about twang..."
Many thanks to all 252 of you who so kindly responded to the survey. I was particularly touched that some used the comments space to write nice things about this blog or my Twitter feed. I feel like the luckiest linguist on the internet.