Where do accents come from?
As outlined in a previous blog post Accent, Identity and Prejudice, accents are the systematic features in the speech that tell a listener about our regional, social and ethnic origin. Your speech also provides information about your biological make-up and your current health and well-being. But where do accents come from?
Everybody speaks with an accent
Everybody speaks with an accent and from a purely linguistic point of view they all have equal value – none is better than another. Accents develop and change over time as people tend to live and communicate in specific and delineated communities. Accent is the social marker that signals either affiliation with a group or distance from a group.
Recent research in social networks show how these affects the way we speak and communicate. Standard or prestigious accents, such as received pronunciation, develop where a group gains a higher social status and speaking with that group’s accent becomes the key to group membership and the associated social benefits, e.g. careers, education, credibility, and power. That is the origin of rules about not dropping the H at the start of Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire as well as broader judgements that a person cannot talk properly or speaks sloppily.
Whilst we have some control over the speech patterns we produce, it can be rather limited or involuntary. Speaker or accent accommodation is a common occurrence where we subtly and unintentionally change the way we speak depending on who we are talking to. If we like our interlocutor or see him/her as socially dominant, we often adapt our speech patterns to make them more like theirs (Burin, 2018). We show affiliation to that person. If we dislike them or perceive them as socially inferior on the other hand, our speech patterns may start to diverge from theirs.
Speaking is a social activity which is affected by the environment in which it occurs. Think for example of how you speak in different situations and where you might have used the ‘wrong voice’. Teachers may be familiar with accidentally and sometimes disastrously using their ‘teaching voice’ to their spouse or partner or you may have noticed that quite different voice your mum uses when she answers the phone.
Learning to speak with an accent
However, speaking is also a biomechanical activity based on learned motor patterns. We learn how to move our articulators in early childhood. Once we have acquired a specific set of motor patterns these are often difficult to modify, although this is not impossible (see for example Setter & Jenkins, 2005). When we learn a second language which is usually after we have acquired the speech patterns of our first language, this can become very apparent. Keeping in mind that most people will learn more than just one first language, first language acquisition usually happens as far as speech is concerned before the age of six.
However, there is some variation as to the age range in the literature (Kuhl, 2004). Second language acquisition then occurs when we have already acquired one or more first languages to a high level. Their structures and patterns have become automatised, usually around the onset of puberty. There is some discussion around these timings in the existing research. What we do know is that language acquisition, both first and second, is a very individual and variable process.
In first language acquisition, accent or socio-phonetic features are acquired alongside linguistic features as children are exposed to sociophonetic variation in their ambient language/s. Foulkes and Docherty (2006) report that social indices of gender, for example, are magnified in child-directed speech (CDS). Whilst non-standard forms are reduced in CDS, when speaking to very young children, as children grow older mothers introduce more of the socially marked forms and use a greater percentage of non-standard forms with boys than with girls.
They go on to describe several studies that confirm that social indices emerge in children’s speech aged 4-6 and are acquired fully before puberty (Foulkes & Docherty, 2006). Pre-aspiration in Newcastle is a gendered feature more typical of female speakers which is reflected in the speech of children by age 3-6 (Foulkes & Docherty, 2006). Kerswill and Williams (2000) studied language change in children's speech in Milton Keynes showing that children developed more homogenous accent by age 8 and showed no features of the parental accent by age 12.
In second language acquisition, the adoption of regional features is low even when individuals are immersed in the target language. Those who adopt regional features tend to have established stronger social networks with local native speakers. Regional variants which are more salient with simpler to say are more readily adopted. For instance, the pronunciation of lettER vowels is a social index of Mancunian speech. In writing, this social index is often represented by spelling the <ER> ending with the letter <A>, e.g. proper as “propa”.
Howley (2015) reports in her study that 25% of (migrant) Roma adolescents living in Manchester replicated this pattern, whereas others did not. The regional variant occurred in the speech of those Roma adolescents who developed wider and stronger friendship groups with non-Roma adolescents, whereas it was absent in the speech of those who chose to highlight the value they assigned to their Roma identity.
Where do accents come from?
Speaking is a social and biomechanical activity. We adapt to and learn speaking patterns in the social communities and networks we live in. Therefore, we all speak with an accent that represents our identity and social backgrounds. All accents from a linguistic point of view are of equal value and they are not an indication of ‘wrong’ speech or not being able to talk correctly. Judgments about the value or correctness of accents reflect the social structures that surround us and act as gatekeepers, frequently resulting in exclusion and discrimination because of the way we speak.
Despite or perhaps because of this, everybody likes to talk about accents. In phonetics lectures, it is always the part when all students participate and contribute an opinion or observation. When all is said, accent variety brings richness and depth to communication. Accents illuminate our social interactions and help us connect better, particularly if we keep an open mind and suspend judgment.
- Burin, L. (2018). Accommodation of L2 Speech in a Repetition Task: Exploring Paralinguistic Imitation. Research in Language, 16(4), 377-406.
- Foulkes, P., & Docherty, G. (2006). The social life of phonetics and phonology. Journal of Phonetics, 34(4), 409-438.
- Howley, G. (2015). The acquisition of Manchester dialect variants by adolescent Roma migrants. University of Salford,
- Kerswill, P., & Williams, A. (2000). Creating a new town koine: Children and language change in Milton Keynes. Language in Society, 65-115.
- Kuhl, P. K. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(11), 831-843. doi:10.1038/nrn1533
- Schoonmaker-Gates, E. (2020). The Acquisition of Dialect-specific Phonology, Phonetics, and Sociolinguistics in L2 Spanish. Critical Multilingualism Studies, 8(1), 80-103.
- Setter, J., & Jenkins, J. (2005). Pronunciation. Language Teaching, 38(1), 1.
Dr Nicole Whitworth is Head of Subject for Languages in the Carnegie School of Education. Her academic background is Linguistics and Phonetics. She specialises in first and second language acquisition of speech and the teaching of phonetics and pronunciation.