Where Do Accents Come From?
The Birth of a New Accent – Antarctic English
Accents are truly fascinating.
A recent study in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America has found the beginnings of a new English accent among the residents of the British Antarctic Survey, a group of researchers who spend months alone in isolation.
Over the course of the study, there was a shift in the way residents pronounced various words. This likely happened because of their isolation from other people, meaning residents’ accents began to influence each other’s to create a whole new mixture.
This opportunity to view linguistics in action is incredibly rare. In a world so well-connected by the Internet and social media, allowing us to talk to – and have our accents influenced by – anyone, anywhere, it’s almost impossible to capture new trends in spoken language.
The current situation with Covid provides an interesting complement to this study. With a majority of people still practicing isolation and social distancing, some people are reporting changes in their native English accent due to having fewer external influences on their speech.
This study prompts us to ask the question, where do accents come from?
What Makes an Accent?
The concepts of accent and dialect are often confused, but they are equally as affected by the influences we’ll mention.
An accent is defined as a distinctive way of pronouncing the words of a language. On the other hand, the word ‘dialect’ describes the particular words used which are unique to a person or region.
The best examples of English accent variances can be found in the UK. In a country the size of Michigan, there are at least 37 distinct accents and dialects, each with wildly unique features.
Reading Irvine Welsh, watching Peaky Blinders, and listening to The Archers will give you a flavor of the variety of sounds found on the British Isles. Some UK accents are barely intelligible even to fellow Brits from other regions: broad Scottish accents and North-East English accents are often confusing for other Brits.
But how did all these accents come into being?
How Do Accents Develop?
Put simply, accents are born when speakers of the same language become isolated and, through evolution, unwittingly agree on new names or pronunciations for words. Dozens of these small changes result in a local ‘code’ that’s not easily understood by outsiders.
This new ‘code’ is what we call an accent, dialect, or in extreme cases, even a new language.
For example, English, Swedish, and Dutch were once all one same language called Proto-Germanic. Linguistically isolated from each other for centuries, Proto-Germanic speakers in different regions developed their own codes, which in turn evolved into different languages: English, Dutch, Swedish, and dozens of other Germanic languages.
Learning about these common origins makes it obvious why some languages, such as English and Dutch, or Spanish and Portuguese, share so many common linguistic features.
Isolation and Accents
The reason why accent and dialect are so much more prominent in the UK, as opposed to the US, Australia, or Canada, is because English has been spoken in Great Britain for more than 1400 years.
This is a lot of time for incremental code changes to develop and accumulate, finally taking shape as distinct accents.
The main contributor to this was the isolation of Great Britain’s inhabitants. For most of the 1400 years since Anglo-Saxon settlers first brought their language to the UK, the population was isolated and immobile, with mass transit only becoming popular with the middle classes toward the end of the 19th Century. Working-class people would rarely venture outside of the village they grew up in, meaning that their ‘code’ also served as a badge of group identity and pride.
Likewise, there was no concept of “the media” as we know it prior to the first radio broadcast in the 1920s, so, for centuries, direct spoken contact with people from other towns – and therefore other codes – was difficult to achieve.
This isolation over such a prolonged period led to the spectrum of accents found in the UK today.
Social Class and Accents
Social class is another factor that can affect an accent.
Before the late 20th century, English working-class people in the regions were less able to travel and therefore more isolated than the middle classes, allowing for broader accents to develop.
The accents of the upper- and upper-middle-classes, though, are not as dependent on geographical location, their main influence found in social groups and status.
People in higher social classes use a distinct accent, known as Received Pronunciation (RP). This neutral accent is similar to the Mid-Atlantic accent in the United States, in terms of both prestige and nature, and is commonly heard spoken by politicians in Westminster.
The upper social classes are taught RP in schools and mainly socialize with others from the same classes, meaning their accents remain largely uninfluenced by the working classes and their regional dialects.
Invasions, Migrations, and Accents
Invasions, settlements, and migration all have a huge influence on accents.
Settlers and migrants bring culture and language from their origin countries to their new homes. With a large enough proportion of migrants in a population, there will be sufficient linguistic influence to cause significant changes to the local accent.
In the UK, for example, the Danes ruled the East Midlands and surrounding Eastern areas for around 250 years between the 9th and 11th centuries AD. This led to a distinctive, flat-vowelled accent in the North and East of the country. The difference in speech between the Danish-ruled and Anglo-Saxon-ruled populations still exists even today, called the North-South Divide.
This phenomenon is also the reason for different accents in American English. Settlers in the New World came from a range of towns throughout the British Isles and beyond. Those towns – and the regional accents the settlers had – founded the basis of the different varieties of American English heard today.
The 20th Century saw large shifts in many accents. As our lives changed dramatically due to new technology, globalization, and wealth, so did the way we speak.
The primary trend is that strong regional accents are less prevalent now than 50 years ago. Our accent and dialect appear to be leveling out, leaning more towards generic, non-localized versions of English.
There are various reasons behind this shift. Firstly, there has been an increase in the number of college-educated adults. These adults may have been born into higher social classes where neutral accents are prevalent, or those from working-class backgrounds might try to ‘lose’ their accent once accepted into college.
Secondly, access to the rest of the world (and the influence of accents) is easier than ever. Following the explosion of social media and increased access to low-cost travel, more and more people of all classes are stepping outside of their hometown’s linguistic isolation to meet and speak to others.
London Jamaican English
Not all accent and dialect features are disappearing, though. New language, influenced by urban music, multiculturalism, and immigration is appearing among British youths. Words like “sick”, “bae”, “blood” and “bare” have surged in popularity, forming an entirely new dialect known as London Jamaican English.
The Future of Accents
The multiple influences on accents are so varied, that it is easy to see how one language – Proto-Germanic – turned into thousands of individual dialects across at least ten modern languages, and across the world.
As the world – and technology – develop, we can expect to see more unexpected accents and dialects emerge, like London Jamaican English and the beginnings of the Antarctic accent at the British Geological Survey.
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