Do accents disappear?

From The Conversation:

In Boston, there are reports of people pronouncing the letter “r.” Down in Tennessee, people are noticing a lack of a Southern drawl. And Texans have long worried about losing their distinctive twang.

Indeed, around the United States, communities are voicing a common anxiety: Are Americans losing their accents?

The fear of accent loss often emerges within communities that face demographic and technological changes. But on an individual level “losing one’s accent” is also part of a profit-driven industry, with accent reduction services promising professional and personal benefits to clients who change their speech by ironing out any regionalisms or foreign pronunciations.

. . . .

But is it really possible to lose one’s accent? Linguistic researchers like us suggest the answer is complicated — no one becomes truly “accentless,” but accents can and do change over time.

To us, what’s more interesting is why so many people believe they can lose their accent – and why there are such differing opinions about why this may be a good or bad thing.

Is there a ‘standard’ accent?

It’s best to think of an accent as a distinct, systematic, rule-governed way of speaking, including sound features such as intonation, stress and pronunciation.

Accent is not a synonym for dialect, but it’s related. Dialect is an umbrella term for the way a community pronounces words (phonology), creates words (morphology), and orders words (syntax).

Accent is the phonological part of a dialect. For example, when it comes to the Boston dialect, a key feature of its accent is r-deletion, or r-dropping. This occurs most frequently after certain vowels, so that a phrase like “far apart” could be pronounced like “fah apaht,” with the “r” sound vocalizing, or turning into a vowel. This results in a longer vowel pronunciation in each word.

Many people believe that there is a single standard way of speaking in each country, and that this perceived standard is inherently the best form of speech. However, linguists often point out that the concept of a standard accent is better understood as an idealization rather than a reality. In other words, no one speaks “standard English”; rather, it is an imagined way of using language that exists only in grammar and style books.

One reason linguists agree there is no one true standard is that, through the years, there have been multiple supposed standards, such as Received Pronunciation in the U.K. and Network Standard in the U.S. – think of a newsreader’s cadence in a 1950s BBC newsreel, or Kent Brockman’s on “The Simpsons.”

The idea of a standard changes over time and place. There has never been a single standard that’s been fully agreed upon – and broadcast outlets across the spectrum have never consistently held to those standards anyway.

Even so, this idea of a standard accent is powerful. An episode of NPR’s podcast “Code Switch” tells the story of Deion Broxton, who in recent years applied for jobs as a broadcasting reporter but was repeatedly turned down because of his Baltimore accent.

Many other workplace and educational environments similarly perpetuate the idea that nonstandard accents are less appropriate, or even inappropriate, in certain professional spaces. Scholars have found that Southern U.S. accent features are more accepted in government, law and service-oriented workplaces than in the technology sector. The acceptability of nonstandard accents may correlate with differences in class and culture, with newer or higher-prestige industries expecting more standard speech in the workplace.

What is accent leveling?

The pressure to sound standard is one force that can lead to what linguists describe as “dialect leveling” or “accent leveling.” This occurs when there is a loss of diverse features among regional language varieties. For example, if a U.S. Southerner feels social or economic pressure to shift from pronouncing the word “right” with one vowel – sounding like “raht” – to make it sound like “ra-eeyt” with a diphthong (two vowel sounds), they may be diminishing their use of a common marker for Southern speech. This is technically not accent loss, but rather accent change.

But accent leveling can also be motivated by language contact, when people with multiple dialects come into regular interaction because of migration and other demographic mobility. Areas that have in recent decades experienced high levels of immigration have often pointed to the mixing of different languages and accents as driving the loss of traditional, distinctive speech patterns.

Link to the rest at The Conversation

8 thoughts on “Do accents disappear?”

  1. The answer is no, both true to the trope (title be a question) and true to life 🙂

    My father’s Bahamian accent is less pronounced to my ears, but it comes out when he says certain words or letters, e.g., Zed instead of Zee for the final letter of the English alphabet. My American grandmother is visiting and she’s from the South. I had a fun moment at the grocery store when I brought her a box of raisins and it turned she wanted razors. By this point she’s lived in the North longer than the South.

    And sometimes a quality to one’s voice gives it away even if the accent is smothered. I was confused during the “Murder She Wrote” episode where Jessica claimed not to be a British subject. To me she was obviously an Englishwoman, and I didn’t realize she wasn’t supposed to be. Angela Lansbury just sounded a bit like my fourth grade social studies teacher, who moved here from England when she graduated college.

    Before I even knew the name of the actor who plays Victor Newman on the “Young & the Restless,” I knew he might be German because his accent returns slightly when his character is angry. This is why I always buy it when characters in novels are said to have a more pronounced accent in highly charged moments. It’s just true to life.

    I suspect the only way an accent truly disappears without a trace is if the would-be bearer either becomes bilingual in early childhood, or immigrates in early childhood. All of my examples above were adults at the time they moved countries / learned other languages. If you’re writing a spy novel, keep that in mind. Also note that your character may not be able to pronounce certain words “correctly” if the sound doesn’t exist in their language. In Italian, the letter X isn’t a thing. They tend to use a double S where we use X, Alexander –> Alessandro.

    Also, to the point about professions where you’re likely to encounter certain accents, I noted this community post from YaBoiZack, where someone asks why certain comic book characters used Southern slang even though they’re supposed to be New Yorkers. It’s because they’re ex-army:

    I love questions like this. OG Nick Fury was a native New Yorker just like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. And just like Stan and Jack, he was originally an enlisted soldier in the US Army. Stan served stateside and Jack served in the European theater as an infantryman. Although there are US Army bases throughout the world, most of the Basic Training bases are in the South. A weird amount of Southern culture, slang, and cuisine is infused into the US Army. That’s why you have grits served at every dining facility in the Army. So the weird accent that veterans like Nick Fury have is a New Yorker using Southern slang with a New York accent.

    File that away for worldbuilding.

  2. Jamie, I don’t normally find myself disagreeing with you but in this case my experience directly contradicts your conclusion. My wife’s accent has regularly changed – with no effort or intention on her part – to fit in with that for her place of residence. She currently has a south London (outer suburbs) accent with no trace of the broad Scunthorpe accent with which she grew up, or of the equally broad Suffolk accent which she acquired each year after spending the summer with her grandmother, to say nothing of the French, Oxford or Indian accents her brother reported her acquiring after residence in these locales.

    I take this to be evidence of the danger of making assumptions limiting the extent of possible human variability.

    • Oh hi, Mike, good to see you; it’s been a minute.

      I don’t doubt your wife is a chameleon in the accents department. I read once that more empathetic people (if I recall correctly) will adapt the accents of the people they’re with, especially if they connect to them on some level. If your wife moved around as often as she appears to have, then it’s no wonder she’s particularly adept at accent-switching, especially if she started young. But if she started in adulthood (thus completely disproving my post above) so much the better. And a bonus for anyone writing a spy novel 🙂

  3. I have to agree with Mike on this question, Jamie.

    I grew up in rural areas of Colorado and Minnesota. When we moved to Minnesota, everyone thought I had a Southern accent because of my Western US habit of dropping the g sound in any work ending in -ing. Comin’ in from the barn, goin’ to town, etc.

    In Minnesota, I picked up the ing thing pretty quickly, but never really caught a Minnesota accent (hear: Garrison Keillor and The Prairie Home Companion).

    After going to college where I was exposed to accents from across the United States, I had pretty much a generic accent that didn’t change despite living as an adult in California and Missouri for extended periods of time. I doubt that an accent expert could divine my geographical roots from the way I speak today.

    • Amusing contemporary example: Brad Friedel, former US international goalkeeper, who spent a lot of years in different parts of England, and emerged with an “accent” during TV interviews that left everyone trying to figure it out (and was completely different from interviews recorded prior to his going overseas).

      And in response to the OP: Y’all forgot “imposed by the Powers That Be, such as ‘BBC Standard'”.

    • Technically the first part is a slightly different situation, in that you had an accent at first, but the listeners misattributed it. That said, the fact that yours completely disappeared does indeed disprove my belief that adults can’t ever be completely rid of theirs if they made the switch in adulthood. So, a spy who can go somewhere and completely blend in (accent-wise, at least) is looking more and more plausible for a character.

      • There is (or used to be) what was generally called a “Standard American” accent.

        If I recall correctly, it was the sort of accent that was common in the Midwest, but not in a major Midwest city like Chicago.

        • All of the Rs moved from Boston to Chicago. The R moved from covered off-street parking in Boston to the middle of the name of our first President in Chicago. It’s a disturbing linguistic version of “Go West, Young Approximant!”

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