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Where Do Accents Come From?
The Queen

Everyone’s got one, but where do they come from?

Buzzfeed, everyone’s favorite source of listicles about cats who totally look like the cast of Saved by The Bell is also a serious journalistic outlet which now has an investigative journalism arm and foreign news bureaux around the world, and has raised $47 million in funding.

Why is this interesting? Well, it’s probably not, but I’m trying to justify the fact that I check it regularly and often find some things there thought-provoking, like an article last week entitled ‘Why Don’t British Singers Have British Accents‘. It’s a question we’ve all probably asked ourselves but haven’t given much thought to. Josef Fioretta, a linguistics professor at Hofstra University, managed to get in a couple of quotes in between animated gifs of Elton John saying that “What gets lost in singing are the suprasegmentals,” a linguistic term used to indicate qualities like stress, tone, and syllabification. A song’s rhythm limits the singer’s ability to pronounce vowels in the usual way shifting the tone, the intonation, the rhythm of a language. Of course, a lot of English artists probably want to sound American to create an emotional bond with the biggest market on earth, and shift records, maximize Spotify streams and tickets. Some bands obviously go the other direction, like the sincerity of the Clash or the mockney accent of a Kate Nash.

What Is An Accent Anyway?

In sociolinguistics, an accent is the form of pronunciation that is specific to an individual, location, or nation. An accent can tell someone where you’re from, down to the specific city, and can give some cues as your socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or influence your first language has had on you. An accent is a way of pronouncing a language, which means it is categorically impossible to speak without an accent. Everyone has an accent.

Does An Accent Last Forever?

Anthea Fraser Gupta, Senior Lecturer at the School of English at the University of Leeds, answering questions at The Linguist List states that “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.”

As language changes over time, with new words (selfie!) entering the fray, and modifications to accepted grammar, accents also vary over time. All you have to do is listen to recordings of archival news footage from Pathe to realized how much accents can change within the same geographic space over decades.

Why do languages develop different accents?

Humans are all about belonging to peer groups. When groups become distinct, the way they speak becomes distinct too. This happens socially and geographically. As humans travel to, mix with, and conquer other nations, their accents evolve and intertwine. First generation children play a big role in this as they draw on the accents of the adults around them, and create something new.

If people move to a new place in groups 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 closer to London accents of English than to any other accent from England. This is because the founder generation of the new colony took hold in Sydney in 1788 and 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.

Do People Purposefully Change Their Accents?

It would appear so. Many people in the public eye, from Margret Thatcher to David Beckham, change their accents to coincide with their new social status. Techniques for this can be used such as accent reduction are a systematic way to learn or adopt a new accent. The methodology involves several steps, which include identifying deviations in the person’s current speech from the desired accent (such as pronunciation, speech patterns, and speech habits), changing the way one uses the mouth, teeth, and tongue to form vowel and consonant sounds, modifying one’s intonation and stress patterns, and changing one’s rhythm. Throw in Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison and you’ve got yourself a musical.

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  • YMC

    Great article! A lifelong question about accents and singing has finally been answered.