Dear grammarians:
Being a translator, one becomes interested in anything related to language. In our post today, we have chosen the accent as the core of our reflections and research, since accent is not just a way of speaking. On the contrary, studying accents made us ask ourselves about certain issues that are customary, but we usually just have mere conjectures based on our own experience and observations to find answers to them.

An accent is the unique way that groups of people who speak the same language sound. A person’s accent depends on many things. The most common groupings are:

  • Regional Accents. These are common among people who come from different parts of the country. People who are from Texas often sound different than people who are from New York.
  • National Origin Accents. These are sometimes heard in people who learned English as an adult. Someone who speaks only English may sound different than someone from France who speaks English as a second language.

This quite simple and obvious definition of accent does not respond to certain phenomena that we have been observing for some years, such as: why do people change their accent in certain circumstances? What is the reason behind accent modification? How do accent and the human vocal apparatus reciprocally nourish each other? What is the relationship between accent and bilingualism? Today, we try to give an answer to some of these questions.

In order to answer to these questions, it is necessary to go back and consider the language acquisition process. As pointed out in English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, children are born with the ability to produce the entire set of possible sounds available to all human beings, but eventually restrict themselves to the ones they hear used around them. Thus, children exposed to more than one language during the language-acquisition process may acquire more than one language, if social conditional factors are favourable. At some time in adolescence, the ability to acquire language with the same ease as young children atrophies. It happens the same with accent acquisition, which occurs at the same time as language acquisition.

However, why do people change the way they speak? People may be or may not be aware of this change that normally depends on the person they are talking to or they are with. Reasons for changing accent include for job interview or to be understood. From trying to sound more sophisticated at a job interview to wanting to impress on a date, the motives are many and varied. Many of us will adopt a regional dialect when we move to a different area, and some people have been forced to change their regional accents to help people understand them. Some people from English-speaking countries have tried to make themselves sound more posh.

Besides, there is the phenomenon of bidialectalism, that is to say, being able to speak with two accents. According to Dr Damien Hall, a linguistics expert at Newcastle University:

“Bidialectalism is almost always subconscious. Doing it consciously is very hard indeed. Subconsciously, you always have the impulse to adapt to your surroundings, wherever you are. So in London you’ve adapted the way you speak to a lowest common denominator accent – in other words, you’ve learned to speak without any regional peculiarities at all that would make you difficult to understand. When you go home, you take yourself out of the professional milieu and back to friends and family members who know you well. You relax, because there isn’t that constraint of needing to be understood.”

Linguists and psychologists define these changes of accent as phonetic convergenceamong interacting talkers, phonetic convergence might contribute to mutual comprehension and/or rapport through a decrease in social distance. Therefore, accent is key to social identity.

While doing our research on accent modification and bidialectalism, we came across a rare condition related to accent that makes the patient lose a part of their identity in the process: it is called “foreign accent syndrome” and we will develop it thoroughly on our next post. Meanwhile, why not taking a look at all of Ticket to Translation posts?


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