Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....
, an accent
is a manner of pronunciation
Pronunciation refers to the way a word or a language is spoken, or the manner in which someone utters a word. If one is said to have "correct pronunciation", then it refers to both within a particular dialect....
peculiar to a particular individual, location, or nation.
An accent may identify the locality in which its speakers reside (a geographical
Geography is the science that studies the lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena of Earth. A literal translation would be "to describe or write about the Earth". The first person to use the word "geography" was Eratosthenes...
or regional accent), the socio-economic status of its speakers, their ethnicity, their caste
Caste is an elaborate and complex social system that combines elements of endogamy, occupation, culture, social class, tribal affiliation and political power. It should not be confused with race or social class, e.g. members of different castes in one society may belong to the same race, as in India...
or social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...
, their first language
A first language is the language a person has learned from birth or within the critical period, or that a person speaks the best and so is often the basis for sociolinguistic identity...
(when the language in which the accent is heard is not their native language), and so on.
Accents typically differ in quality of voice, pronunciation of vowels and consonants, stress, and prosody
In linguistics, prosody is the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect various features of the speaker or the utterance: the emotional state of the speaker; the form of the utterance ; the presence of irony or sarcasm; emphasis, contrast, and focus; or other elements of...
. Although grammar, semantics, vocabulary, and other language characteristics often vary concurrently with accent, the word 'accent' refers specifically to the differences in pronunciation, whereas the word 'dialect
The term dialect is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors,...
' encompasses the broader set of linguistic differences. Often 'accent' is a subset of 'dialect'.
As human beings spread out into isolated communities, stresses and peculiarities develop. Over time these can develop into identifiable accents. In North America, the interaction of people from many ethnic backgrounds contributed to the formation of the different varieties of North American accents. It is difficult to measure or predict how long it takes an accent to formulate. Accents in the USA, Canada and Australia, for example, developed from the combinations of different accents and languages in various societies, and the effect of this on the various pronunciations of the British settlers, yet North American accents remain more distant, either as a result of time or of external or "foreign" linguistic interaction, such as the Italian accent.
In many cases, the accents of non-English settlers from the British Isles affected the accents of the different colonies quite differently. Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants had accents which greatly affected the vowel pronunciation of certain areas of Australia and Canada.
Children are able to take on accents relatively quickly. Children of immigrant families, for example, generally have a more native-like pronunciation than their parents, though both children and parents may have a noticeable non-native accent. Accents seem to remain relatively malleable until a person's early twenties, after which a person's accent seems to become more entrenched.
All the same, accents are not fixed even in adulthood. An acoustic analysis by Jonathan Harrington of Elizabeth II's Royal Christmas Message
The Queen's Christmas Message is a broadcast made by the sovereign of the Commonwealth realms to the Commonwealth of Nations each Christmas. The tradition began in 1932 with a radio broadcast by George V on the British Broadcasting Corporation Empire Service...
s revealed that the speech patterns of even so conservative a figure as a monarch can continue to change over her lifetime.
Pronunciation is the most difficult part of a non-native language to learn. Most individuals who speak a non-native language fluently speak it with an accent of their native tongue.
The most important factor in predicting the degree to which the accent will be noticeable (or strong) is the age at which the non-native language was learned. The critical period theory states that if learning takes place after the critical period (usually considered around puberty) for acquiring native-like pronunciation, an individual is unlikely to acquire a native-like accent. This theory, however, is quite controversial among researchers. Although many subscribe to some form of the critical period, they either place it earlier than puberty or consider it more of a critical “window,” which may vary from one individual to another and depend on factors other than age, such as length of residence, similarity of the non-native language to the native language, and the frequency with which both languages are used.
Nevertheless, children as young as 6 at the time of moving to another country often speak with a noticeable non-native accent as adults. There are also rare instances of individuals who are able to pass for native speakers even if they learned their non-native language in early adulthood. However, neurological constrains associated with brain development appear to limit most non-native speakers’ ability to sound native-like. Most researchers agree that for adults, acquiring a native-like accent in a non-native language is near impossible.
When a group defines a standard pronunciation
A standard language is a language variety used by a group of people in their public discourse. Alternatively, varieties become standard by undergoing a process of standardization, during which it is organized for description in grammars and dictionaries and encoded in such reference works...
, speakers who deviate from it are often said to "speak with an accent". However, everyone speaks with an accent. People from the United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...
would "speak with an accent" from the point of view of an Australian, and vice versa. Accents such as BBC English or General American
General American , also known as Standard American English , is a major accent of American English. The accent is not restricted to the United States...
or Standard American may sometimes be erroneously designated in their countries of origin as "accentless" to indicate that they offer no obvious clue to the speaker's regional or social background.
Many teachers of English as a second language neglect to teach speech/pronunciation. Many adult and near-adult learners of second languages have unintelligible speech patterns that may interfere with their education, profession, and social interactions. Pronunciation in a second or foreign language involves more than the correct articulation of individual sounds. It involves producing a wide range of complex and subtle distinctions which relate sound to meaning at several different levels.
Teaching of speech/pronunciation is neglected in part because of the following myths:
- Pronunciation isn't important: "This is patently false from any perspective." Speech/Pronunciation forms the vehicle for transmitting the speaker's meaning. If the listener does not understand the message, no communication takes place, and although there are other factors involved, one of the most important is the intelligibility of the speaker's pronunciation.
- Students will pick it up on their own: "Some will learn to pronounce the second language intelligibly; many will not."
Inadequate instruction in speech/pronunciation can result in a complete breakdown in communication. The proliferation of commercial "accent reduction" services is seen as a sign that many ESL
ESL is a common abbreviation for English as a Second Language, see English language learning and teaching.ESL may also refer to:-Companies:...
teachers are not meeting their students' needs for speech/pronunciation instruction.
The goals of speech/pronunciation instruction should include: to help the learner speak in a way that is easy to understand and does not distract the listener, to increase the self-confidence of the learner, and to develop the skills to self-monitor and adapt one's own speech.
Even when the listener does understand the speaker, the presence of an accent that is difficult to understand can produce anxiety in the listener that he will not understand what comes next, and cause him to end the conversation earlier or avoid difficult topics.
Certain accents are perceived to carry more prestige in a society than other accents. This is often due to their association with the elite part of society. For example in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...
, Received Pronunciation
Received Pronunciation , also called the Queen's English, Oxford English or BBC English, is the accent of Standard English in England, with a relationship to regional accents similar to the relationship in other European languages between their standard varieties and their regional forms...
of the English language is associated with the traditional upper class
In social science, the "upper class" is the group of people at the top of a social hierarchy. Members of an upper class may have great power over the allocation of resources and governmental policy in their area.- Historical meaning :...
. However, in linguistics, there is no differentiation among accents in regard to their prestige, aesthetics, or correctness. All languages and accents are linguistically equal.
Accent stereotyping and prejudice
Stereotypes refer to specific characteristics, traits, and roles that a group and its members are believed to possess. Stereotypes can be both positive and negative, although negative are more common.
Stereotypes may result in prejudice, which is defined as having negative attitudes toward a group and its members. Individuals with non-standard accents often have to deal with both negative stereotypes and prejudice because of an accent. Researchers consistently show that people with accents are judged as less intelligent, less competent, less educated, having poor English/language skills, and unpleasant to listen to.
Not only people with standard accents subscribe to these beliefs and attitudes, but individuals with accents also often stereotype against their own or others' accents.
Discrimination refers to specific behaviors or actions directed at a group or its individual members based solely on the group membership. In accent discrimination, one's way of speaking is used as a basis for arbitrary evaluations and judgments. Unlike other forms of discrimination, there are no strong norms against accent discrimination in the general society. Rosina Lippi-Green writes,
Accent serves as the first point of gate keeping because we are forbidden, by law and social custom, and perhaps by a prevailing sense of what is morally and ethically right, from using race, ethnicity, homeland or economics more directly. We have no such compunctions about language, however. Thus, accent becomes a litmus test for exclusion, and excuse to turn away, to recognize the other.
Speakers with accents often experience discrimination in housing and employment. For example, landlords are less likely to call back speakers who have foreign or ethnic accents and are more likely to be assigned by employers to lower status positions than are those with standard accents. In business settings, individuals with non-standard accents are more likely to be evaluated negatively. Accent discrimination is also present in educational institutions. For example, non-native speaking graduate students, lecturers, and professors, across college campuses in the US have been target for being unintelligible because of accent. On average, however, students taught by non-native English speaker do not underperform when compared to those taught by native speakers of English.
Studies have shown the perception of the accent, not the accent by itself, often results in negative evaluations of speakers. In a study conducted by Rubin (1992), students listened to a taped lecture recorded by the same native English speaker with a standard accent. However, they were shown a picture of the lecturer who was either a Caucasian or Asian. Participants in the study who saw the Asian picture believed that they had heard an accented lecturer and performed more badly on a task measuring lecture comprehension. Negative evaluations may reflect the prejudices rather than real issues with understanding accents.
In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on national origin, implying accents. However, employers may claim that a person’s accent impairs his or her communication skills that are necessary to the effective business operation. The courts often rely on the employer’s claims or use judges’ subjective opinions when deciding whether the (potential) employee’s accent would interfere with communication or performance, without any objective proof that accent was or might be a hindrance.
Kentucky's highest court in the case of Clifford vs. Commonwealth
held that a white police officer, who had not seen the black defendant allegedly involved in a drug transaction, could, nevertheless, identify him as a participant by saying that a voice on an audiotape "sounded black." The police officer based this "identification" on the fact that the defendant was the only African American man in the room at the time of the transaction and that an audio-tape contained the voice of a man the officer said “sounded black” selling crack cocaine to a white informant planted by the police.
Acting and accents
See also Acting and accents
Actors are often called upon to speak in Accent other than their own. For example, Missouri-born actor Dick van Dyke imitated a Cockney accent in the film Mary Poppins...
Actors are often called upon to speak varieties of language other than their own. For example, Missouri
Missouri is a US state located in the Midwestern United States, bordered by Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. With a 2010 population of 5,988,927, Missouri is the 18th most populous state in the nation and the fifth most populous in the Midwest. It...
-born actor Dick van Dyke
Richard Wayne "Dick" Van Dyke is an American actor, comedian, writer, and producer with a career spanning six decades. He is the older brother of Jerry Van Dyke, and father of Barry Van Dyke...
attempted to imitate a cockney
The term Cockney has both geographical and linguistic associations. Geographically and culturally, it often refers to working class Londoners, particularly those in the East End...
accent in the film Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins is a series of children's books written by P. L. Travers and originally illustrated by Mary Shepard. The books centre on a magical English nanny, Mary Poppins. She is blown by the East wind to Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane, London and into the Banks' household to care for their...
. Similarly, an actor may portray a character of some nationality other than his or her own by adopting into the native language the phonological profile typical of the nationality to be portrayed – what is commonly called "speaking with an accent". One example would be Viggo Mortensen
Viggo Peter Mortensen, Jr. is a Danish-American actor, poet, musician, photographer and painter. He made his film debut in Peter Weir's 1985 thriller Witness, and subsequently appeared in many notable films of the 1990s, including The Indian Runner , Carlito's Way , Crimson Tide , Daylight , The...
's use of a Russian accent in his portrayal of Nikolai in the movie Eastern Promises
Accents may have associations and implications for an audience. For example, in Disney
The Walt Disney Company is the largest media conglomerate in the world in terms of revenue. Founded on October 16, 1923, by Walt and Roy Disney as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, Walt Disney Productions established itself as a leader in the American animation industry before diversifying into...
films from the 1990s onward, English accents are generally employed to serve one of two purposes: slapstick comedy or evil genius. Examples include Aladdin
(the Sultan and Jafar, respectively), The Lion King
(Zazu and Scar, respectively), The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 1996 American animated drama film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation and released to theaters on June 21, 1996 by Walt Disney Pictures. The thirty-fourth animated feature in the Disney animated features canon, the film is inspired by Victor Hugo's novel of...
(Victor the Gargoyle and Frollo, respectively), and Pocahontas
Pocahontas is the 33rd animated feature in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series. It was produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation and was originally released to selected theaters on June 16, 1995 by Walt Disney Pictures...
(Wiggins and Ratcliffe, respectively - both of whom happen to be played by the same actor, American David Ogden Stiers
David Ogden Stiers is an American actor, director, vocal actor, and musician, noted for his roles in Disney movies, as well as his performances in the television series M*A*S*H as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III and the science fiction drama The Dead Zone as Reverend Gene Purdy...
- Accent reduction
Accent reduction, also known as elocution or accent modification, is a systematic approach used to learn or adopt a new accent. It is the process of learning the sound system of a language or dialect...
- Acting and accents
Actors are often called upon to speak in Accent other than their own. For example, Missouri-born actor Dick van Dyke imitated a Cockney accent in the film Mary Poppins...
- Foreign accent syndrome
Irregular repetitive speech syndrome is a rare medical condition involving speech repition that usually occurs as a side effect of severe brain injury, such as a stroke or head trauma. Those suffering from the condition pronounce their native language with an accent that to listeners may be...
- Human voice
The human voice consists of sound made by a human being using the vocal folds for talking, singing, laughing, crying, screaming, etc. Its frequency ranges from about 60 to 7000 Hz. The human voice is specifically that part of human sound production in which the vocal folds are the primary...
- Language change
Language change is the phenomenon whereby phonetic, morphological, semantic, syntactic, and other features of language vary over time. The effect on language over time is known as diachronic change. Two linguistic disciplines in particular concern themselves with studying language change:...
- Non-native pronunciations of English
Non-native pronunciations of English result from the common linguistic phenomenon in which non-native users of any language tend to carry the intonation, phonological processes and pronunciation rules from their mother tongue into their English speech...
- Regional accents of English
- Variety (linguistics)
In sociolinguistics a variety, also called a lect, is a specific form of a language or language cluster. This may include languages, dialects, accents, registers, styles or other sociolinguistic variation, as well as the standard variety itself...
- Giles, H., & Coupland, N. (1991). Language: Contexts and consequences. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
- Lindemann, S. (2003). Koreans, Chinese or Indians? Attitudes and ideologies about non-native English speakers in the United States. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7, 348–364.
- Lindemann, S. (2005). Who speaks “broken English”? US undergraduates’ perception of non-native English. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 15, 187–212.
- Moyer, A. (1999). Ultimate attainment in L2 phonology: The critical factors of age, motivation and instruction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 81–108.
- Scovel, T. (1988). A time to speak: A psycholinguistic inquiry into the critical period for human speech. Cambridge, England: Newbury House.
- Wated, G., & Sanchez, J. I. (2006). The role of accent as a work stressor on attitudinal and health-related work outcomes. International Journal of Stress Management, 13, 329–350.
- Wells, J C. 1982. Accents of English. (3 volumes). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Wells's home pages also have a lot of information about phonetics and accents.]