One of the classes I'm taking this semester is Phonetic Transcription. I've had some questions about what exactly that means, so in a nutshell, this is a way to represent speech as people are actually pronouncing it. Instead of using standard spelling, you use International Phonetic Alphabet symbols to represent individual sounds. As you might imagine, this is a great way to uncover patterns of sounds people might be having trouble producing.
Anyway, we've been discussing vowel sounds in American English recently. The official line is that dialectal variations are fine, and that no one dialect is superior to another. (I can say from experience that many people's attitudes differ from this official line). One feature of my own dialect that has re-entered my mental universe is that I generally do not distinguish between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/. For people who do distinguish between these two sounds, think about the difference in the vowel sounds in cot and caught. I've known for some time that I don't usually distinguish between the two sounds (I think ahh... vs. aww... might be the only time I distinguish between the two), but what I didn't realize until now is that I'm not consistently correct about where the /ɔ/ sound "should" be. I don't mind not distinguishing between the two sounds, but for some reason, I find not knowing where /ɔ/ might show up vaguely annoying.
Another thing I've noticed is that while I, like many other people, have tried to rid my speech of certain "non-prestigious" features (see my observation above regarding people's attitudes about different dialects), I have not been totally successful. For me, the feature I've focused on is distinguishing between /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before nasal consonants (pin vs. pen is a classic example of this). I've gotten that particular pair of words down for the most part, but then in class, our instructor mentioned friend as an example of a word with the /ɛ/ vowel sound. I pronounce it with /ɪ/. Fortunately, of course, in this case, the difference in pronunciation does not change the meaning of the word.
I'll be interested as time goes on to learn more about which dialectal features are associated with which regions. I was born and raised in North Carolina, and my parents are from Alaska and Michigan. In addition to North Carolina, I have lived in Ohio, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Virginia. And I've also had several stints living in other countries. I'm curious if my speech fits into a certain regional profile fairly neatly, or if it's a hodgepodge of all the dialectal influences I've had.