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Ask A Linguist FAQ


Accents

Answers provided by Anthea Fraser Gupta, Senior Lecturer at the School of English , University of Leeds, with input from other panelists.
 
Questions:
What is an accent?
Why do languages develop different accents?
Why are the accents a particular place like they are?
Is there a standard English accent?
Which English accent is closest to the spelling?
Can I change my accent?
Suggestions for further reading?
 

What is an accent?
An accent is a way of pronouncing a language. It is therefore impossible to speak without an accent.

Some people may think they do not have an accent. Or you may think that there are other people who do not have an accent. Everyone has an accent. The term 'accentless' is sometimes used (by non-linguists) about people who speak one of the high prestige 'reference' accents (such as 'General American' or, less commonly, 'RP'), which are associated with people from a fairly wide region and with people of high social class. But these are also accents. I will mention them again later in this FAQ.

Your accent results from how, where, and when you learned the language you are speaking and it gives impressions about you to other people. People do not have a single fixed accent which is determined by their experiences. We can control the way we speak, and do, both consciously and unconsciously. Most people vary their accent depending on who they are speaking with. We change our accents, often without noticing, as we have new life experiences.

How accurate people are in knowing about you from your accent depends not only on the features of your accent, but also on who the listener is, and what they know about the other people who speak with a similar accent to you.

Your accent might be one that is associated with people from a particular place (for example, with being from New York, London, or Delhi). Some people might just hear you as simply being from the US, England, or India. Your accent might give the impression that you spoke some other language before the one you are speaking at the moment (you might speak French with an English accent, or English with a Korean accent). It's impossible to speak without conveying some information through your accent.

All languages are spoken with several different accents. There is nothing unusual about English. And not everyone who comes from the same place speaks the same: in any place there is a variety of accents.

Language changes over time. We get new words, there are grammatical changes, and accents change over time. If you listen to recordings made by people from your own language community 100 years ago, you will hear for yourself that even over that time accents have changed. Try out some of the links from the Spoken Word Archive Group , for example.

Why do languages develop different accents?
Human nature. In all sorts of ways, we behave like those we mix with. We are members of social groups, and within our social group we like to behave in similar ways and show that we belong. We do this in language as well as in other ways (e.g. what we wear, what we eat).

When groups become distinct, the way they speak becomes distinct too. This happens socially and geographically, but is easiest to illustrate by geographical differences. If a single group splits into two (imagine that one half goes to Island A and one half to Island B), then once they have separated, their accents will change over time, but not in the same way, so that after just one generation the accent of Island A will be different from the accent of Island B. If they stay completely separated for centuries, their dialects may become so different that we will start wanting to say they are speaking two different languages.

Humans like to travel. Since humans left their place of origin in East Africa, more than 100,000 years ago, they have spread all over the world. And they have moved in waves in some places, mixing with, or conquering, people who were there earlier. One of the last places humans reached was New Zealand, which Polynesian people (now known as 'Maoris') settled in the fourteenth century (CE), joined by Europeans four hundred years later. English developed in England as a result of people moving to England from across the North Sea in the fifth century (CE) -- they were at least the fourth major wave of humans to reach the island of Britain, and the descendants of the previous waves were still there when they arrived to mix with them. In modern times (the last 400 years) the activities of aggressive and acquisitive Europeans has resulted in them moving all over the world and taking their languages (especially English, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French) with them.

Why are the accents a particular place like they are?
Separate development accounts for some accent variation. But sometimes we need to talk about the first generation of speakers of a particular language brought up in a new place. The first children to grow up in a new place are very important. The children who grow up together are a 'peer group'. They want to speak the same as each other to express their group identity. The accent they develop as they go through their childhood will become the basis for the accents of the new place. So where does their accent come from?

The first generation of children will draw on the accents of the adults around them, and will create something new. If people move to a new place in groups (as English speakers did to America, Australia and New Zealand) that group usually brings several different accents with them. The children will draw on the mixture of accents they hear and create their own accent out of what they hear. The modern accents of Australia are more similar to London accents of English than to any other accent from England -- this is probably because the founder generation (in the eighteenth century) had a large component drawn from the poor of London, who were transported to Australia as convicts. The accents of New Zealand are similar to Australian accents because a large proportion of the early English-speaking settlers of New Zealand came from Australia.

The mix found in the speech of the settlers of a new place establishes the kind of accent that their children will develop. But the first generation born in the new place will not keep the diversity of their parents' generation -- they will speak with similar accents to the others of their age group. And if the population grows slowly enough, the children will be able to absorb subsequent children into their group, so that even quite large migrations of other groups (such as Irish people into Australia) will not make much difference to the accent of the new place. Most parents know this. If someone from New York (US) marries someone from Glasgow (Scotland, UK), and these two parents raise a child in Leeds (England, UK), that child will not speak like either of the parents, but will speak like the children he (I know of such a child!) is at school with.

To understand what happened in the past we need strong evidence from both language and history. We need to know about the places that migrants came from, and something about the kinds of accents they are likely to have had.

Is there a Standard English accent?
There is not a single correct accent of English. There is no neutral accent of English. All speakers of English need to cope with many different aspects and learn how to understand them. Some accents are associated with social groups who have high prestige (the kinds of accents spoken by highly educated people, for example), but there are also many of these high prestige accents, all of them regionally based. The accents that are traditionally taught to non-native speakers of English are high prestige accents from various places.

The two most commonly taught accents (in the world as a whole) are both rather artificial: 'General American' (more or less a Mid-Western and West Coast accent, and used by some high prestige speakers outside this region too); and the British accent 'RP' (which developed in the private boarding schools of the nineteenth century, and is associated with high prestige groups in England). Both these accents are used over a wide geographical area, though in world terms both are regional accents (General American is a US accent, and RP is an accent of England). They are heard more, by more people in the country, than are accents which are associated with a smaller area: so people are familiar with them. These accents are the ones transcribed in dictionaries. Because they are used over wide areas, and used by people of high social class, they are seen as being suitable to teach to foreign learners of English. For this reason, they are called 'reference varieties'.

When radio was developed in the early twentieth century, many radio stations in the US and the UK selected their continuity presenters and news readers by their accent. So 'General American' is sometimes known as 'Network English' and 'RP' is sometimes known as 'BBC English.' The effect of these policies of course was to add even further to the prestige of the reference accents, and to increase the population's exposure to them. The BBC, incidentally, no longer has this policy and now uses news readers and presenters with a wider range of accents.

In all languages some accents have higher prestige than others. Tests of judgment have been made in many languages which show that people within a community often share judgments. In the UK, for example, the accent associated with the city of Birmingham consistently comes out as being 'ugliest' while London accents tend to be heard as 'criminal'. These judgments are based on stereotypical associations.If British accents are played to Americans, they do not make the same judgments, because they have not learnt to associate different British accents with the same stereotypes British people have. In the US many speakers are prejudiced against 'Southern' accents, but British people would not judge Southern accents badly in the same way. Judgments like this are not based on anything in the accent itself -- if different accents of English are played to Russians who speak no English, they cannot distinguish the high prestige from the low prestige accents.

You should try to speak neutrally about different accents, and not suggest that one accent is better than another.

The reference varieties are not 'Standard Accents', because no one is required to use them: compare this to spelling -- we are expected to use the Standard Spelling and do our best to correct mistakes. The reference varieties are not more 'careful' or more 'correct' than other accents -- it's just an accident of history that their speakers were the ones with power.

Which English accent is closest to the spelling?
English spelling is based on the pronunciation of the fourteenth century. No one speaks in that way now. English spelling therefore represents all accents of English equally well, or equally badly. As there are so many accents of English, it is fortunate that we have such an old spelling system which we can all use; otherwise we would be arguing about which accent we should base our spelling on!

No modern English accent is exactly like any accent of the past. All accents change over time. It has been suggested that some isolated rural accents (such as in rural Virginia) preserve more features of older accents than do cosmopolitan and mixed urban accents. This is controversial.

A very large change took place in some accents of England that seems to have started in the seventeenth century. Speakers in parts the south and east of England started to pronounce /r/ only when it was followed by a vowel. This led to changes in the way the vowels were pronounced. This change has spread over most of England, and is also found in accents (like Australian, Singapore, and New Zealand English) which developed from English accents of the last 300years (in these accents 'sauce' might be pronounced the same as 'source' and 'spa' pronounced the same as 'spar'). But accents which developed from English accents older than that (such as most US accents of English) still pronounce /r/ at the ends of words and before consonants. Because this is such a large change, the accents that have kept this 'post-vocalic r', like most kinds of US English, Scottish English, and Irish English, seem more like accents of the seventeenth century than do those of accents which have lost the /r/. But in those accents too, there have been many other changes in the last 400 years.

Can I change my accent?
Yes. Accents are not fixed. Our accents change over time as our needs change and as our sense of who we are changes and develops. Usually this happens naturally, and often unconsciously. Accents can be expected to change until we are in our early twenties. This is usually the time we come to some sort of decision about who we are. But even after that, if you want (and need) to change your accent, you can.

To change your accent you have to want to. Really want to, deep down. This usually happens without much effort because you move to a new place, mix with different people, or develop new aspirations.

If a change hasn't happened naturally but you want to change your accent, you should ask yourself why. What is it about the messages you give to people that you don't like? Are you finding it difficult to be a member of a group you want to join because you don't speak in the way the group expects? Do you need to change your badge of identity?

Sometimes it is other people's prejudice that you are responding to. Some popular prejudiced against certain groups (many Ask-A-Linguist postings suggest that a lot of people in the US are prejudiced against people from the Southern US). Do you want to accept other people's prejudice? I myself changed my pronunciation of words like book, look because of pressure. I used to pronounce look the same as Luke (/lu:k/), which a lot of people found funny, so I changed look (to the vowel of 'put') to be more like other people. But it is sad to succumb to pressure like this -- it is no different from dark skinned people using skin whitening creams to look like pale skinned people, or East Asian people having their eyelids operated on to get European looking eyes.

Anyway, if you do decide you have good reasons for changing your accent, and you want to put in some effort these are some things to do.
  • Identify the accent you want to speak.
  • Expose yourself to the accent you want as much as possible.
  • Try to get some friends who speak with the accent you want.
  • Try to make sure you are not mixing with people who will criticise you for changing your accent.

Here is what is recommended as a method by one of our panelists, Suzette Hayden Elgin. If you do this, it is best to choose recordings of someone of your own gender.:

I suggest the following procedure, which has worked very well for many people:
  1. Get a cassette tape of someone who speaks English with the accent that you would like to have, at least twenty minutes long.
  2. Listen to the entire tape all the way through once or twice, just to become familiar with its content. Don't write it down or try to memorize it.
  3. Listen to a brief sequence -- just a sentence or two. Rewind the tape to the beginning of that sentence.
  4. Say the sentence aloud _with_ the tape. Don't repeat it after the tape as is done in traditional foreign language courses -- speak with the speaker. Don't worry about making mistakes, just do your best to speak simultaneously with the speaker.
  5. Rewind to the beginning of the sentence and do this again, several times. (Ten times is not too many.)
  6. Move to the next sentence and do the same thing.
  7. Continue until you've worked your way through the whole tape speaking with your chosen model speaker.
The amount of time it takes for this to yield good results varies from one individual to another, depending on many factors. I'd suggest working in at least fifteen minute sessions and at least three days each week. When you become so familiar with the tape that you know it by heart or you're so bored with it that you can't stand it, choose a different tape that uses the same accent and repeat the process. Be careful not to work with any one tape so long that you start sounding as if you were trying to do an impersonation of the speaker.


Suggestions for further reading
(It's impossible to say much about accent without using phonetics. Learn ore about phonetics from the International Phonetic Association web site and other online information, or find a course introducing you to linguistics.)

  • Peter Collins & David Blair. 1989. Australian English. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
  • Crystal, David. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Crystal, David. 2003 (2nd ed.) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dillard, J.L. 1992. A History of American English. London: Longman.
  • Fennell, Barbara A. 2001. A History of English: a Sociolinguistic approach. Oxford: Blackwell. (a fairly accessible history of English).
  • Fisher, David Hackett. 1989. Albion's Seed: Four British folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Le Page, R B & Andrée Tabouret-Keller. 1985. Acts of Identity: Creole-based Approaches to Language and Ethnicity. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Mosser, Dan.. 2002. HEL Website (History of the English Language). Virginia Tech.
  • Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2001. The Ecology of Language Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (a useful home page too)
  • Rickford, John R. 1999. African American Vernacular English. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Wells, J C. 1982. Accents of English. (3 volumes). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Wells's home pages also have a lot of information about phonetics and accents.]
  • Wolfram, Walt, and Erik R. Thomas. 2002. The Development of African American English. Oxford: Blackwell.

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