Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

You, Yes You, Have an Accent.

with 4 comments

In following up with my previous post on accents, I’ve collected a few interesting tidbits about accents that you may find interesting.

But first things first.

You have an accent. I don’t care where you’re from or how many elocution classes you’ve taken. If you speak, you speak with an accent.

An accent simply describes the way you produce your words. An accent is necessary in speech like a gait is necessary in your walk – whether you notice it or not, you have to have one.

“But wait,” you say. “Other people have accents, I don’t.”

They’re thinking the same thing about you. You just notice it because their pronunciation is different from your own, or different from the standard one that we hear in most media.

Ever notice how most news reporters don’t seem to have any specific, identifiable accent? Probably not – and that’s the point.

A lot of TV stations prefer to hire people who can modify their speech to sound more generic to appeal to the widest audience. They’ve studied how to hide most of the idiomatic patterns in their speech.

It’s also common in the UK to hire people who can speak RP (Received Pronunciation), a more standardized accent often referred to as the Queen’s English (though we’ve seen the Queen change her English over the past decades).

Accents aren’t just segmented by geography.

We each have a unique accent, no matter how akin it is to those around us. Again, it’s all in how you pronounce your words, and no two people speak exactly alike. Linguists call this an idiolect, and it includes more than just your accent; it also includes your word choice, grammar and vocabulary.

And your idiolect is formed by more than geography. It’s also influenced by your culture – someone growing up in a Pennsylvania-Dutch household will speak differently than someone next door who’s of Hispanic descent. The interesting thing is, these two kids might switch their accents depending on whom they’re with.

Forensic linguistics can identify your idiolect.

Forensic linguists often comment in court on legal texts, plagiarism and other mostly mundane legal language stuff. But the real fun comes for those who analyze a writing or speech sample to identify the writer or speaker based on the idiolect. Or to provide some insight into a suspect’s background: for instance, if you spent your first ten years living in Charleston, SC as the child of Middle Eastern immigrants, then moved to London for another ten years, then off to New Zealand, a forensic linguist could listen to samples of your speech and tell you all that.

You can change your accent.

We can all pick up a new accent, or at least parts of one, over time and exposure. Plus, almost every day we change how we pronounce our words depending on our audience. In college, my roommate could always tell I was talking to my parents on the phone just by how my accent reverted back to that of where I’d grown up.

I’ll leave you with another fun link.

Listen to a sampling of English accents collected from all over the world at this site.

Written by Nathanael Green

April 2, 2009 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Linguistics

4 Responses

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  1. Nate,

    If you’re already doing this, let me know. If not, I’m shotgunning it for myself right now: a story about a forensic linguist.

    Great post. I’ll have to check out the links when I’m not at work.

    Brian O'Rourke

    April 3, 2009 at 10:48 am

    • Brian,

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Some of the links are fun – especially the one where you can hear accents from all over the globe.

      It’s funny you mention writing the story about the forensic linguist; I started kicking around ideas for that, but haven’t come up with anything that’s blown me away just yet. I’m going to let it germinate a while, but if you get one down on paper first, it’s all yours.

      When can we expect to see your new story on your blog (or in print)?

      Nathanael Green

      April 3, 2009 at 4:41 pm

      • No way, man, I’m not going to take your idea from you. It’s all yours.

        As for the new story, it’s coming along well but I’ve only just entered the editing stage.

        Brian O'Rourke

        April 4, 2009 at 3:54 pm

  2. […] Sure, to be technical, every single book can be categorized into one or more genres. You can’t have a book without a genre any more than you can speak without an accent. […]

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