Variations occur in the way different individuals produce sounds because of the infinite variation of the shape and size of mouth, throat, tongue, teeth, and in the way each individual makes the sounds. The term "accent" usually refers to the sound aspect of language.
As We Learn
Each individual is unique in the way they produce the complex combinations of sounds which make up words and word sequences. Simply put, by the word "accent" we simply mean the way an individual or community speaks. Everyone has an accent in their native form of speech. Our brain and nervous system master the motor skills and cognitive patterns for the language we first hear and learn around us.
The pattern first mastered to become competent in the mother tongue then affects how and individual would learn and master the speech requirements of a foreign language. Thus we bring an "accent" from our the patterns of our first language into the next language we learn. Some individuals or whole communities have the advantage of learning two languages simultaneously as mother tongues. These are referred to as native bilinguals
No one is born with the ability to speak a language, but we are all with the ability to learn any language. The only way we can learn a particular language is by hearing and imitating those around us. Additionally the form of our speech is affected by the form of speech around us. The reason people in one area sound more alike is that they learn their language from those around them. This is one aspect of what we call dialects.
Thus a child growing up in one city or country hears and imitates the language around them. Likewise in any other locale each child learns the language spoken there. It depends on what model we hear when we first learn. Primarily the model of speech would be our parents, but siblings are also influential especially in large families.
In our current era of constant and ubiquitous media access, more in each new generation are affected by the variety or varieties of speech commonly heard universally on the general national or international media. Thus influences external to one's family and initial ethnic or regional community have more affect now than in previous generations.
These are regular and systematic, and are noticeable and definable characteristics of human speech. These variations occur with every individual. Slight variations within groups of closely related individuals can be likewise grouped in a range of characteristics distinct from other definable groups of speakers. All speech forms can be thus analyzed across the whole of humanity.
Thus "accent" is simply one term we use to refer to some noticeable difference in production. The greater the differences, the more difficult it is for certain speakers to hear others. Those who can hear each other we group together and refer to their set of speech forms as a language or dialect of a larger set of speech forms.
Thus accents are not variations from some metaphysical standard handed down from some divine source, but simply a valid form of production of some set of speech sounds within a recognizable set.
Everyone Has an Accent
This means every one who speaks has an accent. To speak is to have an accent. Where do accents come from? Well, accents don't really "come from" anywhere.
Let's ask rather: What does the word "accent" refer to? The word "accent" is the term we apply to the pronunciation of sounds in any certain speech form.
Thus a German sounds a certain way speaking his native speech form. A Hollander sounds a certain way speaking his native speech form. An American sounds a certain way speaking his native speech form. All these speech forms are broadly related, as all can be traced back to a proto form which may be called proto-Germanic.
Some speech forms are more similar so we can call them by one name, such as English, Dutch or German. Or as we zoom in closer, American, British and Australian. Then closer, Cockney, Geordie and Glaswegian, etc.
The patterns learned and internalized when any person learns their first language (called "mother tongue" or "native language") are carried over into the pronunciation and production of a second language. This applies not only to the pronunciation patterns and intonation, but to grammar formats and thought forms as well.
The patterns follow the speaker's mother tongue, enabling us to systematically identify the "accent." Thus one set of native language patterns leads to a German accent in English, an English accent in Swahili, an Italian accent in Arabic.
In multilingual persons, an accent in their third language often reflects the pronunciation of the speaker's second language. I have observed this when a West African from a French-sphere country is speaking English. Though he sounds like an African, he has a French accent in English also. Fascinating!
Likewise, a European in East Africa, who has become proficient in Swahili before learning Kikuyu, might reflect not only an English or Norwegian accent in Kikuyu, but a Swahili one also (if he learned Swahili well).
Some speakers are more able than others to overcome the patterns of their native tongue and thus have less of a foreign accent in another language. This depends on many factors, some of which seem to be related to genetics, others to early life experience.
Thus we can speak of a German accent in English, an American accent in French, etc. This is all a manifestation of the same characteristics we observe in the various "accents" of one range of speech forms we call "English."
For more details, see:
Accent, Dialect and Language
Accents - Developing and Changing Them
Approaches to Language: Models
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
How Words Develop Multiple Meanings: How Word Meanings are Negotiated
Language and Cultural Worldview
Language as Worldview Window
Mastering the Models
Principles and Techniques of Language Learning
Shared Significant Experiences
Tunes and Tones: Singing the Language
Vernaculars, Pidgins, Creoles And Lingua Francas
What Makes a Dialect a Dialect?
Related on the Internet
Language Acquisition Device – Chomsky
Language Acquisition Device – Language Theory
Zapotec speech – Ethnologue
Linguist Noam Chomsky Many 'change accent to get ahead'
Originally written April 2001 on an Internet discussion group
Finalized and posted 24 November 2004
Rewritten 27 February 2007
Last edited 13 June 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2004 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.