There are similarities in our physical nervous systems, how humans think, how they process experiences and communicate through language. These similarities enable humans of vastly different backgrounds to use their various verbal and cognitive tools to exchange information and maintain relationships across great social and technical differences.
I continue to get periodic enquiries asking more questions about accents. People are fascinated by the differences in human speech.
Like fingerprints and voiceprints, every individual speaks differently. An accent is individual, then there are just more similar or less similar variations from individual to individual. Yet even though all this, and even through the muddle and confusion of language, with so many things that can go wrong, we still communicate to such a high degree of precision.
There are two aspects of what we call "accents." The difference among native speakers, region to region – what we call dialects or "accents" within the same language – and the accent one brings from the native tongue to a foreign language. I have focused in other articles on foreign language accents. Here I am thinking primarily of differences among different native speakers of the same language. These are two aspects of the same phenomenon, but the queries motivating this discussion seemed to be focused on these differences within the same language.
Accents differ among the speakers of the same language. We all know you can often tell where a person is from by their accent. For instance we can speak of a British accent (and there are many), an American accent, a Canadian Accent, an Australian accent, etc. And this is just in English! It is a human characteristic in whatever language.
Why do some people have different accents from others?
Start by thinking about an individual’s voice. How can you recognize someone’s voice over the phone or the radio? Because every person’s voice apparatus is physically different. The same applies to the way a person speaks.
How one speaks is based on what one hears in the earliest years of life initially when first learning to speak. As we grow older, more and different influences affect the way we speak. So it is common for a person's accent to change through their life.
People who go into public service, like radio and TV news, will consciously change their accent or it will automatically change as they develop their career. They will move towards a less regional speech to a more general form. The audience we are speaking to will affect how we speak.
Formal speaking is different from informal speaking. There are about five levels of speech we all hear or use in our normal interaction with others. We automatically learn these and switch as needed without even knowing it. The more educated a person is and the more variety of people a person speaks with, the more an individual masters these different levels of speech and social context.
People with less experience outside their home environment, the less adapted they will be. Someone who lives in a rural area, for instance, and rarely travels or interacts with people from a different region or lifestyle, will normally have a more noticeable "accent," and will sound more the same in any situation.
Can you change your accent?
Think of movie stars you know. Charlize Theron, for instance. Born in South Africa and having a South African English accent. In most of her movie parts she sounds like an American. If you hear her giving interviews, she even uses her American voice now in public situations. When I lived in South Africa, Charlize was back home and involved in some public events, including dedicating a charity, I believe it was an orphanage.
She spoke with an American accent even in her home country! She had worked so hard to cultivate her American sound for her acting roles, and had become so comfortable with it, that had become her accent now, even when she was back among the country she grew up in among native speakers of the language she first learned.
You know Simon Baker, star of "The Mentalist." He sounds like a native-born American. But his "natural" accent is Australian. He speaks with his Australian accent in real life.
And what about "Dr House"? A Brit, with a great American accent in his TV role. Off the set, I've heard Hugh Laurie speak in public in both his American and his British accent. These are all examples of how people can consciously change their accent. Most people to some degree change their accent without concentrating or even realizing it when they move to a different place, change work settings or other environmental factors change.
Most people who have moved to a different part of the country to go to college, or who have moved to work in another state, come to speak with the accent there. Most people naturally adapt. It is a part of the way we relate to the social environment around us.
The younger urban generation normally speaks differently than their parents. Schools are one of the causes in a change of accent. School normally encourage the student to adapt to a central or standard form of speech. This tendency is not as strong in the US as in some countries, like UK, where if you go to higher education in a particular college, you are expected to speak like that college. This attitudes applies also to regional accents.
Each school has its own notable accent. It is a part of the caste elitism. This seems to be more of a factor in the UK than in other areas, though the strict boundaries seem to be breaking down gradually.
A similar thing happens in the United States, when a family moves to a different part of the country, and the locals, students and teachers alike, comment on how differently the newcomer speaks. They may make fun of them. Even a teacher may berate the students for not “talking right.”
The student will change their form of speech fast in most cases. Some individuals have more trouble consciously changing and taking command of their way of speaking, but most adapt to the local speech in a matter of hours or days.
Younger people are able to adapt more quickly and more completely. A German student working on a volunteer mission with our church in the US spoke very good English when she arrived, but with a notable German accent. In a very short time, she sounded like a local. She either consciously or naturally continued to adapt her speech to more closely match the sea of native English speakers around her. In Germany she had few if any native speakers to relate to.
Non English speakers learning English normally have great advantage, because of the universal presence of American and British music and movies. They have many more models to hear and imitate than an American learning French of Spanish or Swahili in the USA.
Why do some people who speak the same language have different accents?
First of all, all people, not just some people, who speak the same language have different accents. We just notice the more different ones. Every individual's speech in unique. Linguists refer to individual speech as an idiolect.
Differences occur from the individual level, are still very similar in the same family and local or social group, and differences become more pronounced as you move farther and farther from the core where you started. Notice how different speech is form older to younger generations in the same household and family. You'll get a clue how language changes from generation to generation as well as from individual to individual.
Most of this is due to individual learning ability, the physical shape of the individuals speech organs and the interest in conforming. Some people are more sensitive and hear distinctions better. But then human creativity is a great source of innovation in language. We are naturally changing language as we experiment with new and better ways to state our thoughts, with funny or colorful ways to make our point.
Some may hear but not care whether they sound like others or not. Some, for instance, may not think it is a negative to sound “country” in the big city. Social prejudices also arise because of the regional or social differences in language. People may attach an attitudinal connotation to a certain accent.
A linguist friend of mine told a hilarious story about a clueless Michigan teacher. My friend, from Texas, was in advanced studies at a university in Michigan. He enrolled his daughters in the local school system when they moved to Michigan. He was amused and at the same time offended, when he learned that their teacher had put them in the remedial English class.
These girls spoke with a different vowel pattern from the local Michigan folks. These sharp Texas students spoke like Texans, so they needed help to learn good English! Because they had a different accent, this prejudiced teacher concluded that they were deficient in language and unable to keep up with the class!
When people from the Great Lakes area come to Dallas, locals note their odd pronunciation, strange phrases and unusual use of words. But do any of these people really have trouble communicating? Not really. And it is often a congenial source of fun as we compare our verbal idiosyncrasies.
Not Just Accent
But keep in mind "accent" is only one aspect of this phenomenon. The phrasing and word choice are integral parts of each individual and social groups way of speaking. People naturally attach a social connotation to each form of speech they hear. This is part of our normal identification of an individual.
And everyone is naturally oriented to their own and their family's or group's way of speaking. So what we notice are the differences. "Accent" itself (phonetic pronunciation or sentence intonation) may not be the real difference, but the accent is noticeable as a reference to the overall differences between social or regional dialects of speech in each language family.
But the question comes down to “What do you mean by language?” If it sounds different is it the same language? What make some person's speech a different “language?” Every individual's language is different. Every individual uses a different range of choice in vocabulary, alternative pronunciation of various words, ways of constructing a sentence.
The question is how broad a variation any one individual or group of individuals can hear. When the difference becomes so great we cannot understand much and have to ask for meaning, or ask for a third person to help interpret, it can be called a different language.
Many forms of speech that the speakers or others call English are not mutually intelligible. That is, a speaker of one form of English cannot understand and fully communicate with another.
How We Learn
This is because of the many complex factors involved in how we learn, what we are focused on and know about, and how similar the different experiences each has had. All these are some of the common factors involved in language, how we speak and interact with others, how we learn and convey information.
I address in other articles on this topic various factors involved in making the speech of one individual different from another. See the links at the end of this article.
In general people who live together, work together, go to school together and share significant life experiences will speak similarly. The farther away another set of individuals, the more different their way of life or type of work, the greater their set of common life experiences, the more alike they will speak.
In general there is a great coherence across the huge section of the world that speaks a form of speech they call English, and that participate in the broad sphere of life related to English language and culture. As the English-speaking population moved out into the rest of the world, they kept in touch.
They did not lose contact and separate themselves, as did many other migrating groups in the history of humanity. The "Anglo" world, with all the different world influences unique to each region, has still remained a coherent and communicative language and social bloc of the modern world.
There is a broad common world of experiences and influences in music, news media, entertainment, education, business and commerce, and a rich shared culture across the world.
The varieties of English around the world are all closer together now that the varieties of speech in parts of the U K and North America were at the time of British colonization of the Americans. There is more similarity between the broad forms of speech in every native English speaking population in every continent now that between some of the regional varieties still existent in the United Kingdom today.
This is all because of the great shared experiences and culture through new and entertainment media. The whole world has instant access to things that took months and years to move through populations in the past.
Similarities and Differences
The influences that are common to people are important in the similarity of accents between individuals and between various communities of individuals. Further some communities are more concerned about distinctions and place greater importance on pronunciation or word usage as a matter of identity. Do you sound like one of “us?
In the US we can often tell where someone is from by the way they speak, but people move around so much and the systems are so intertwined in business, education and society, it does not matter so much as it used to. The more rural and isolated, the more notable the difference and perhaps the more different an outsider will sound.
It is just the influences that we have and how we adapt to them that lead to the phenomenon we call “accents” and that cause changes in our accents.
Accent, Dialect and Language
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?
Why do People Have Accents?
Related on the Internet:
Changing accent when you move to somewhere else?
Harrow School Accent
How likely is it that your accent will naturally change?
How to pick up a British accent?
Losing/Changing your accent
Many 'change accent to get ahead'
What do American accents sound like to the British?
Material in this article was originally written in answer to an email query May 25 2012
Article developed for OJTR 28 May 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2012 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.
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