Why do people have accents? And what exactly is an accent anyway? We take a look at what makes an accent, and ask: what does your accent say about you?
What is an accent?
Everyone has an accent. Some people may argue this, but hear me out. Simply put, an accent is the particular way your voice sounds when you speak. It’s not sounding “foreign” or different to the “norm” (whatever that is), but rather the unique way you sound. Your voice fingerprint, if you will.
Certain sounds you use may also be used by others from your country, city, or social group. People from that area or group may use these sounds so consistently, that it becomes a well-known feature of their speech (for an example of such features, take a look at Erik Singer’s video below). When a particular way of speaking becomes associated with a particular area or group of people, we start calling it an accent: e.g an “Irish” accent, a “New York” accent, or a “posh” accent.
However, an accent can be more than just an indicator of where you live. Before we dive in, let’s take a look at some of the things that make up an accent:
How you say certain words. Different languages use different combinations of consonants and vowels, and your accent will use a certain selection of these.
Stress and prosody
Basically the tone and rhythm of your voice. When people describe an accent as “sing-song,” they are talking about prosody.
This depends on how your specific anatomy produces speech sounds. Variations, such as in the size and shape of your lungs, cheeks, nose, and vocal cords, all play a role in shaping your voice. Pitch, for example, is usually lower in men’s voices due to longer vocal folds (vocal cords). Women and children have smaller folds, giving them higher-pitched voices.
Accent or dialect?
People often confuse accent with dialect. A dialect is a particular way of speaking a language that includes accent as well as particular vocabulary and grammar. Standard Australian English (as well as Standard American and Standard Canadian) is considered a dialect of English as it has forms of pronunciation, vocabulary and certain grammatical expressions that are characteristically Aussie (e.g. “She’ll be right”).
Why do we have accents?
Humans are very social creatures. And not always nice ones. We like to know who we can trust, and who we can’t. From when we lived in tribes, humans could use accents to tell, very quickly, if someone was from their group (friend), or an outsider (potential foe). Studies have found that humans can detect this difference as early as 30 milliseconds into hearing someone speak. As such, we learn from a young age to distinguish the sounds of our native language, as spoken by the people around us. Babies as young as 10 months can already distinguish between their native language and a foreign language. As we grow, we learn to mimic these sounds, consequently developing an accent like those around us. Accents allow us to feel part of a social group, and can give us a sense of identity and belonging.
What does your accent say about you?
One way of understanding accents is by first dividing them into two groups: native accents, and non-native accents.
- Non-native accents
When someone speaks a language that isn’t their native language, they usually have a non-native accent. They often use a manner of pronunciation that is influenced by their native language(s) which to native listeners can often sound “funny” or “incorrect”. The accent usually occurs because the sounds they need to make in their second language do not exist in their native language, so they can be hard to learn. For example, Japanese speakers have trouble pronouncing l and r in English as those sounds are not distinguished in Japanese. Similarly, Italian and French speakers may have trouble pronouncing the English h.
- Native accents
Every native speaker has an accent. The accent depends on where they learned it, and who they learned it from. This is how we get Australian accents, Texan accents, and Glaswegian accents and the myriad of other native accents. You may not be able to hear your own accent but others (particularly those not from your area) certainly can.
Accents can also be associated with socioeconomic status (e.g. an upper-class or “posh” accent), ethnicity, culture and age. In the UK, and for a long time in Australia too, speaking with an accent known as Received Pronunciation (RP) has long been associated with positions of power and higher status. RP is not associated with any particular area of England, and according to recent studies only 3% of people in the UK actually use it. Instead, it is used more as the standard English accent across the UK and abroad, and often known as “BBC English”.
Accents change over time. The voice changes across the lifespan, from childhood, through adolescence, and into old age. Learning another language, as well as living in different areas (e.g. a study abroad) can also alter your accent in subtle ways. We tend to imitate the speech of the people we talk to, which can make understanding each other easier, and help build connection.
Society and pop culture can also influence accents. Some young women these days are demonstrating vocal fry, a phenomenon exemplified by Kim Kardashian, which has also been the topic of debate and criticism. In some countries, womens voices are actually getting lower, seemingly because a deeper voice is perceived as more competent and authoritative. Even external influences such as drinking alcohol, smoking, pollution or a dry climate can temporarily alter the sound of your voice.
Judging a book by its cover
Humans have developed this incredible ability to read each other’s voices. By listening closely to someone’s accent, we can make guesses about their age, gender, nationality, social status, the languages they speak, and even where they went to school. Unfortunately, this finely-honed skill also has a dark side. As an accent can tell us so much about a person, we often attribute qualities to that person based on their voice, just as we often make assumptions about a person based on how they look.
In many countries, having a regional or “non-standard” accent is associated with negative characteristics such as being poor or unintelligent. This is known as negative accent bias. Accents such as the Brummie accent in England, the Southern American accent in the USA, and even the broad Australian accent in Australia, have all fallen victim to this negative bias (see Australia’s “cultural cringe”). Mainly, this is caused by negative stereotypes that people are exposed to growing up, along with other accents being given more “prestige” (e.g. Received Pronunciation). Interestingly, while “non-standard” accents are often considered “less educated,” they are also often perceived as friendlier and more sincere.
While certain non-native accents are considered “sexy” (though this is entirely subjective), non-native accents are also susceptible to negative bias. Those with non-native accents are often perceived as less intelligent, less competent, and even less trustworthy. This bias is particularly harmful for those from “low-prestige” minority groups, and can often lead to discrimination. While many countries, like Australia, have laws against accent discrimination, such discrimination is only unlawful if “it is clearly linked to… race or ethnic origin”. Employers can still require a “high level of English,” but to what extent this allows for foreign accents is unclear. While clear pronunciation is important for effective communication, and is undoubtedly necessary for jobs where clear communication is vital (e.g. healthcare), we must be wary of our own unconscious biases
These biases also appear when negative attributes are associated with a person’s age, gender, social group or economic status. Have you ever wondered why Siri, Alexa and the Google assistant are all female? According to the companies designing them, their customers simply preferred female voices. Critics argue, however, that only offering female-voiced assistants reinforces harmful gender stereotypes that women are subservient and better suited to roles as “assistants” than men. Similarly, young women’s use of vocal fry, has been criticised as making them sound “less competent, less trustworthy, less educated and less hireable.”
In a new book, How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do – And What It Says About You, Dr. Katherine D. Kinzler explains that we make all sorts of assumptions about someone based on their accent. Often without even realising it. These assumptions can be positive, however, they can also be harmful and discriminatory. Whether positive or negative, they reinforce accent stereotypes and we’d do well to be more aware of these attitudes.
It may not be racism…
From another perspective, some scientists studying non-native accents suggest that a negative accent bias may not be due to race-based stereotypes (necessarily), but because processing unfamiliar accents may require more effort. Our brains tend to prefer what is easy. If we’re listening to a familiar accent (like our own) we can easily predict the sounds we are going to hear, so our brains don’t have to work as hard. When listening to a foreign accent, suddenly we hear words pronounced differently to what we expect, and it requires more careful listening and attention (i.e. more effort) to understand and remember. Like how trying to listen to someone talking on a busy city street can feel more challenging than if you were in a library.
Fortunately, many studies have shown that humans are flexible learners. We adapt quickly to new accents, and the more we hear a certain accent, the easier it becomes to understand! All the more reason to embrace a variety of accents, particularly in a world where non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers 3 to 1.
If you have trouble understanding certain accents, you’re not alone. Here are some tips to improve your comprehension:
- Pay attention. Every accent differs in consistent ways. For example, the Australian accent is characteristically “non-rhotic”: meaning Australians usually don’t pronounce “r”s in words such as “car,” “shower” or “here”. Expecting these differences can make it easier on your brain.
- The more we are exposed to an accent, the easier it is to understand. Want to get better at understanding an accent? Listen to podcasts or watch films and series in those accents.
- Studies have found that imitating someone’s accent can also make it easier to understand. So start practising your impressions.
If you have trouble being understood:
- Speak slower. Speaking slower helps listeners by giving their brain more time to process what you are saying. You don’t have to yell though!
- If you’re learning a language and you’d like to sound more “native-like,”: listen and repeat! Listen to someone you would like to sound like (e.g. Hermione Granger) and practice pronouncing words exactly as they do.
- Record yourself speaking and listen back. It will give you an even clearer idea of what sounds you need to fine-tune.
Everyone has an accent, and they are not inherently bad. Accents can tell us a lot of interesting things about someone’s life, such as where they’ve lived and who their friends are; they can also give us a sense of identity and belonging.
Unfortunately, when accents become associated with harmful stereotypes, this can lead to negative accent bias and discrimination. By being aware of our biases and challenging these stereotypes, we can ensure that we don’t fall into this trap.
So remember, don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge a person by their accent. You will most likely be fooled.