How Accents Work

By: Alia Hoyt
Sofia Vergara arrives for the Emmy Awards on Sept. 18, 2016 in Los Angeles. Vergara plays the bombshell wife of Ed O'Neill on the TV show 'Modern Family' and many would argue her Colombian accent contributes to her sexiness. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Although the simplest definition of an accent is how a person sounds when he talks, to the well-trained ear there's a lot more going on. In fact, an accent gives away a lot about the speaker. These details include from where he hails, perhaps down to the neighborhood, and sometimes subtler personal characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity and whether his first language is a foreign one.

Though some professionals, like newscasters and actors, strive to sound "unaccented," this is actually a misnomer and pretty much impossible because everyone has some type of accent. Those people are instead striving for "unmarked speech," which omits any telltale accent signs specific to their particular geographic area.


Accent should not be confused with dialect, which is a variation of language that includes grammar, vocabulary (like slang), pronunciation and phonology not typically taught in a school setting, but acquired socially, according to Guy Arthur Canino, who specializes in business English and linguistics in Stuttgart, Germany. "If, say, a Scottish person wanted to communicate with a North American, he probably wouldn't use dialect because he wouldn't be understood, but he would still have a Scottish accent," Canino notes in an email interview.

Although there are probably thousands of accents in the world, they all fall into two main categories [source: Birner]. The first is the way people sound when they speak in their native tongue. For example, consider two people, one from New York and one Alabama, for instance. Both are native English speakers, but they sound very different.

The other category is how someone sounds when they speak a second language with influences from their native one. When most people learn a second language, they're taught to pronounce words or sounds differently from how they're used to speaking them in their first language. In other words, they have to put aside the language rules and habits they grew up with. This is very difficult, unless you've been highly trained or have a natural flair for languages. When we continue to use the rules of our first language, it makes the second sound obviously foreign. That's why we're advised to learn other languages as children, when our brains are more open to this type of change.


How Accents Develop

Babies aren't born with the ability to speak, and most of them don't utter much more than a coo, cry or squeal until at least 8 or 9 months of age. However, research indicates that their little brains are soaking in the speech characteristics of those around them from about the age of 6 months [source: Kiester].

Further study has found that infants as young as 5 months old can discriminate between accents, even relatively similar ones like French Canadian and Parisian [source: Cristia, et al.]. Yet another bit of research determined that infants actually cry with an accent of sorts. Obviously, they're not pronouncing words, but their cries mimicked the intonation they heard, with French babies raising the pitch of the cry toward the end of a "sentence," so to speak, and German wee ones doing the opposite. These findings are in line with the accents respectively of French and German adults [source: Kaplan].


University of Washington speech professor Patricia Kuhl has been exploring how humans develop language for more than 25 years — why for instance, American English speakers can easily distinguish between "lake" and "rake" while Japanese speakers can't. Or why an American keeps mixing up chee (wife) and shee (west) when learning Mandarin, which a native speaker wouldn't do.

By working with babies from the U.S., Japan, Sweden and other countries, Kuhl discovered that 6-month-old Japanese babies could distinguish between an "l" and a "r" as easily as American babies. But by the time they were 1 year old, they had lost the ability to do so; instead the babies honed in on the familiar pronunciations and tuned out the "strange" ones. The study involved allowing babies to turn their heads to sounds coming from a loudspeaker [source: Kiester].

"The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears," Kuhl told Smithsonian magazine. "That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain's network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic. You don't think about it."

This is great for learning your primary language, but not so great for learning subsequent ones.


Language Transfer

Bronson Pinchot (L) and Mark Linn-Baker lean against one another in a promotional portrait for the television series, 'Perfect Strangers.' Pinchot played a naïve shepherd with an unplaceable accent. Lorimar Television/Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images

Some words are harder to pronounce than others. Certain traits from a person's native language typically bleed over into the new language, a phenomenon known as language transfer. Language transfer can be positive or negative — meaning, it can help or hinder you when trying to pronounce words in the language you're unfamiliar with [source: Conti].

"For example, English uses two sounds which we can refer to the 'th' sounds (a voiceless sound as in "think" and a voice sound as in "the"). Many languages do not include this sound in their inventory — and in fact, don't make any sounds where the tongue is between the teeth," emails accent and dialect coach Melanie Fox.


This negative transfer might cause a person new to the English language to substitute a similar sound, in place of the unfamiliar "th." "For example, German native speakers may substitute an 's' or 'z' for the 'ths,' while a speaker of Italian or South/Latin American Spanish may use a 't' or a 'd.' This could cause 'think' to sound like 'sink,' 'tink,' or even 'fink' depending on the native language of the speaker," Fox says.

But if there is a level of similarity between the first and second languages, then transfer can be helpful. For example, people who speak Italian have less trouble pronouncing the "p" sound in Spanish because the two languages say it the same way, which results in positive transfer [source: Conti].

Everything about how a person talks, from tongue placement to lip curling to nose airflow, can affect pronunciation. Blocking airflow with your mouth or vibrating your vocal cords when you shouldn't can also cause you to mispronounce words. These seemingly small variations have a major effect on the outcome of an accent unless the speaker successfully adapts, typically through in-depth practice and a variety of oral pronunciation activities [source: Lingholic].


British Versus American English

Nigerian English, Indian English and American English all sound very different from British English — and each other — even though all were influenced by English colonizers. So, how does this happen? Let's look at the phenomenon as it applies to American English.

Surprisingly, "when the British colonized America, they sounded similar to Americans today," says Canino. "The English spoken by both the British and the Americans was rhotic, meaning the letter "r" was pronounced. "This all changed around the American Revolution when wealthy people in southern England wanted a way to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. That's when British English became, for the most part, non-rhotic. Over time, this 'highbrow' manner of speaking became standardized."


Of course, there are several types of American and British accents depending on which part of the country the person lives, and, particularly in the case of Britain, what social or economic class he or she may come from. But that "r" distinction is one that is obvious. "Americans are heavy on the "r" sound while Brits use the schwa sound all the time (think of the last sounds in words such as butter or better)," says Katja Wilde, head of didactics at language-learning app Babbel, via email. "Also, the British accent is widely known for its pronunciation of 't' in words such as 'water' or 'later'. While [some] Brits put a glottal stop (water becomes war'er) Americans usually have a soft sound closer to a "d" than a "t" (water becomes wa-dder)."

Another reason for the differences in accents between Americans and Brits is the influence of immigrants on the U.S. "Certain regions of Boston are heavily influenced by the Irish immigrants who settled there, and others more so by their Italian heritage. Traits of the accent or even the language spoken by the settlers often leave traces in the language, including pronunciation, word choice and overall melody of one's speech, " says Canino.

But then we have the phenomenon of British singers — as varied as Adele, George Michael and Tom Jones — sounding like Americans when they belt out tunes. "The reasons for this are debated by experts, with some saying that the shift in accent when singing is due to the success and popularity of American pop singers, with a lot of genres actually originating in the United States," says Wilde. "Others argue that singing in an American accent is a stylistic choice — with so many influencers in the music industry coming from the States, it is simply easier to sing lyrics in the American accent to follow the music."

Canino has an interesting theory on the phenomenon. "Each accent has a unique set of characteristics such as tone, inflection and rhythm. When we sing, we follow a melody which often cancels out these unique characteristics. That's why many singers sound like they have a very neutral standard American accent," he says.

There are exceptions, of course, like the Scottish band The Proclaimers, who sing in thick Scottish accents or the band Oasis, which hails from Manchester, England. "[They] would never be mistaken for Americans, but they probably make an effort to sound British when they sing," Canino adds.


How Accent Affects Perception

Mickey Rooney played the Japanese Mr. Yunioshi in 1961's 'Breakfast at Tiffany's.' His portrayal is now considered very offensive. Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

Most of us are raised not to judge a book by its cover. So why do we make snap judgements about others based on how they sound? Indeed, a person's accent can certainly affect how she is perceived, even when she is fluent in the non-native language.

The disparity in accent perception is hardly one-size-fits-all, however, with some accents seen as more favorable — or sexier — than others. Babbel, the language-learning app, surveyed users of its app to find out which language and accent was the sexiest. Results showed that French was the most attractive, with German the least.


"There seems to be in the American mind a ranking of accents that are acceptable and accents that are not," says Regina Rodríguez-Martin, an American culture coach who has worked with many international clients to help them better assimilate in America, professionally and personally. "There's a different level of patience for someone with an Indian accent versus a French accent," she adds. "We call them harder to understand, but I'm not sure that they're harder or that we don't value them as much."

Rodriguez-Martin also notes that Asian clients report frustration with social acceptance compared to those of European origin. Indeed, Asian accents have been persistently mocked in television, film and general society for decades, as seen in films like "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Sixteen Candles" and "A Christmas Story," which has bled into society at large.

Pre-existing cultural bias can affect a person's opinion of a speaker. However, if the context is considered acceptable (albeit stereotypical), such as an Italian fashion expert or a Japanese businessman, people see them as more credible and competent. This perception of expertise doesn't always totally mitigate the foreign accent stigma, though. Using an accent can cause a person to stand out, and not necessarily in a good way. This phenomenon can cause others to underestimate the abilities of the person with the accent, leading people to reduce their communication with and trust in her.

This could be due to the trouble that the brain has processing accented information. Researchers from the University of Chicago found that people were more likely to question the validity of a statement if the person making it had a foreign accent. Even when the participants were told what the study was about, the researchers found they could correct their perceptions when someone's accent was mild but not when it was heavy. The reason might be that the effort of deciphering an accent can lower cognitive fluency, or our understanding of given details. This can cause the listener to doubt the accuracy of what the person has said [source: McGlone and Breckinridge].

Although discrimination on many other grounds is now widely forbidden, accent discrimination is murkier water because it's more subjective territory. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) says that there's no legal violation if an employee is terminated due to their accent, provided that their ability to speak and communicate interferes with their ability to perform vital functions. Think, for instance, someone who is working as a customer service representative.

"Generally, an employer may only base an employment decision on accent if effective oral communication in English is required to perform job duties and the individual's foreign accent materially interferes with his or her ability to communicate orally in English," states the EEOC site. "If a person has an accent but is able to communicate effectively and be understood in English, he or she cannot be discriminated against."


Accents Go the Movies

Audrey Hepburn walks with a book on her head, as part of her training to be 'a lady' in a scene from the 1964 film 'My Fair Lady.' Warner Brothers/Getty Images

You've probably seen more than one film featuring a snooty Brit or a rude New Yorker. Accents are often a short-hand way of ascribing characteristics to someone way beyond just their place of origin. Movies have played a big role in associating certain accents with certain types of behaviors.

The 1930s and '40s saw a proliferation of actors and actresses speaking with what's known as "Mid-Atlantic English," meant to describe a hypothetical birthplace somewhere between North America and England. The "classy" accent, made famous by such actors as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, was eventually abandoned as more regular Joes became moviegoers and wanted to see actors who talked like them on the silver screen [source: Taylor]. Still, for those who weren't around back then and don't know any better, the accent is synonymous with the time period, despite its apparent phoniness.


Arguably the most famous bit of pop culture ever to deal with the importance of accent was the classic film "My Fair Lady," based on the play "Pygmalion." "The more privileged classes, with greater access to education, sometimes used accent or educated ways of speaking to differentiate themselves," explains dialect coach Fox. In the play and film, professor Henry Higgins attempts to pass off working-class Cockney speaker Eliza Doolittle as an aristocrat by training her to speak with an impeccable upper-class British accent. It works.

As a result of this and other films featuring highbrow Brits, the English accent remains today entwined with poshness, at least in the minds of Americans. Their fascination with the British Royal family probably helps with that perception as well.

Ironically, the English accent is also associated with the bad guy, at least in Hollywood. "Small-time criminals always have strong New York accents [while] criminal masterminds have very clear and lean English accents," notes linguist Canino, adding, "Characters with Southern accents are often racist and closed minded [while] police officers mostly have East Coast accents, even in LA!"

Some believe that mass media might be homogenizing accents, in America at least. But that's not necessarily happening. Some regional accents, like the Appalachian accent, are dying out but it's because of people leaving the area, not the media. Other accents, like the Pittsburgh accent, are thriving — as a way of giving people who live there a sense of identity [sources: MacNeil].

One thing that does affect the number of people sporting an accent is migration. The Southern accent is now considered the largest accent group in the U.S. because so many people have moved to the area in recent decades. But some think the Southern accent itself may be dying off, thanks to all the Northerners who have moved below the Mason-Dixon line.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Accents Work

Recently, I was playing a friendly (who are we kidding — viciously competitive) game of cards with my husband and some neighbors. The idea of the British pub game is to avoid being the last person holding any cards. It doesn't matter who gets rid of their cards first, you just don't want to be the last with any. I edged closer to laying down my final card, but immediately before that would-be glorious moment my English-born-and-raised neighbor made a move that forced me to pick up the stack, followed by a jovial, "Sorry, mate," which by the grin on his face translated to, "Sorry, not sorry." To that I replied, "See, this is why everyone thinks the British are diabolical." Before you go throwing virtual scones my way, please note that I was joking. Any society that serves teacakes multiple times per day is just fine by me.

Related Articles

More Great Links

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