Ask-A-Linguist: What is an Accent?

Answers for this blog excerpt were provided by Anthea Fraser Gupta, Senior Lecturer at the School of English, University of Leeds, with input from other panelists. For a full response, please see the Ask-A-Linguist FAQ section about accents.

What is an accent?

AccentAn 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 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.

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.