Where Do Accents Come From? | The Pimsleur Language Blog (2023)

The Birth of a New Accent – Antarctic English

Accents are trulyfascinating.

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 thestudy, there was a shift in the way residents pronounced various words. Thislikely happened because of their isolation from other people, meaningresidents’ accents began to influence each other’s to create a whole newmixture.

This opportunity toview linguistics in action is incredibly rare. In a world so well-connected bythe Internet and social media, allowing us to talk to – and have our accentsinfluenced by – anyone, anywhere, it’s almost impossible to capture new trendsin spoken language.

Where Do Accents Come From? | The Pimsleur Language Blog (1)

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 usto ask the question, where do accents come from?

What Makes an Accent?

The concepts of accentand dialect are often confused, but they are equally as affected by theinfluences 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 Englishaccent 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 theseaccents come into being?

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How Do Accents Develop?

Put simply, accents areborn when speakers of the same language become isolated and, through evolution,unwittingly agree on new names or pronunciations for words. Dozens of thesesmall changes result in a local ‘code’ that’s not easily understood byoutsiders.

This new ‘code’ is whatwe 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 thesecommon 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 timefor incremental code changes to develop and accumulate, finally taking shape asdistinct accents.

The main contributorto this was the isolation of Great Britain’s inhabitants. For most of the 1400years since Anglo-Saxon settlers first brought their language to the UK, thepopulation was isolated and immobile, with mass transit only becoming popularwith the middle classes toward the end of the 19th Century. Working-classpeople would rarely venture outside of the village they grew up in, meaningthat their ‘code’ also served as a badge of group identity and pride.

Likewise, there was noconcept 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 – andtherefore other codes – was difficult to achieve.

This isolation oversuch 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 20thcentury, English working-class people in the regions were less able to traveland therefore more isolated than the middle classes, allowing for broader accentsto 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 migrantsbring culture and language from their origin countries to their new homes. Witha large enough proportion of migrants in a population, there will be sufficientlinguistic influence to cause significant changes to the local accent.

In the UK, forexample, the Danes ruled the East Midlands and surrounding Eastern areas foraround 250 years between the 9th and 11th centuries AD.This led to a distinctive, flat-vowelled accent in the North and East of thecountry. The difference in speech between the Danish-ruled and Anglo-Saxon-ruledpopulations still exists even today, called the North-South Divide.

This phenomenon isalso the reason for different accents in American English. Settlers in the NewWorld came from a range of towns throughout the British Isles and beyond. Thosetowns – and the regional accents the settlers had – founded the basis of thedifferent varieties of American English heard today.

Modern Influences

The 20thCentury saw large shifts in many accents. As our lives changed dramatically dueto 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 variousreasons behind this shift. Firstly, there has been an increase in the number ofcollege-educated adults. These adults may have been born into higher socialclasses where neutral accents are prevalent, or those from working-classbackgrounds might try to ‘lose’ their accent once accepted into college.

Secondly, access tothe rest of the world (and the influence of accents) is easier than ever. Followingthe explosion of social media and increased access to low-cost travel, more andmore people of all classes are stepping outside of their hometown’s linguisticisolation 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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