Accent change

A recent UCSD linguistics graduate wrote to me the other day with this request.

I wondered if you, or an appropriate colleague, might be able to provide a few brief comments about accent changes with short-term versus long-term exposure. I am specifically interested in the “how” and “why” elements. How do you expect accents to change with varying exposure and why do these changes occur? How do you expect speakers to react to changes in their own speech? Do they make changes to adjust back to original accent? Are they unaware of the changes until someone points them out?

(More specifically, this person’s interest is in “accent changes that Australians experience when visiting or living in the United States.”)

I have some semi-educated guesses about this based on personal experience and my general knowledge of linguistics, but that’s about it. Anyone else know more on this topic? Please comment!

6 thoughts on “Accent change

  1. Bob Kennedy

    I know this is sometimes studied as accommodation, so I did a search on “accent” and “accommodation” and got 15 hits on LLBA, many dealing with accommodation of foreign accents. But there’s a line of research from the 70s and 80s relating to the Speech Accommodation Theory of Howard Giles. The papers mainly deal with intranational accent contact, but this looked interesting:

    Bourhis, R. Y., Giles, H., & Lambert, W. E. (1975). Social consequences of accommodating one’s style of speech: A cross-national investigation. Linguistics, 166(Dec 15), 55-71.

    Surely there is more recent research on the topic, but it might not be called “accommodation”, or it might only appear in unindexed conference proceedings. I don’t think Giles still works on this topic (turns out he’s a Comm professor and dean here at UCSB, and he’s exceedingly busy).

    Some of the findings of the SAT era are that accommodation is linguistically and socially constrained. Lexical accommodation is easier than phonological, and power relationships play a role, such that a subordinate is more likely to accommodate to a superordinate than vice versa. The extent of accommodation by a migrant probably has a lot to do with age of migration.

    Anecdotally, at the age of 9 when I moved to Virginia, I sounded Canadian to the other kids there, but by the time I was 13 and moved back to Canada, I sounded Virginian. It took no more than a few months to revert – then when I was 24 and moved to Arizona, I experienced far less accommodation.

  2. Jarek Weckwerth

    This is an extremely interesting area. If you Google “accent accommodation”, the first couple of results pages will give you some idea of what people have been doing. Not too much, in fact. One interesting place to start (not really a linguistic study, but still worth a look) is this:

    Jones, Katharine W. 2001. I’ve called ’em tom-ah-toes all my life and I’m not going to change!: Maintaining linguistic control over English identity in the US. Social Forces 79,3. 1061-1094.

    You may also want to look at:

    Willemyns, M., et al. 1997. Accent accommodation in the job interview: Impact of interviewer, accent and gender. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 16,3. 3-22. (This one doesn’t seem to be available online…)

    And of course Trudgill wrote about accent accommodation in British pop singers – I’ll check the exact reference on Friday CET but I think it was “On dialect”.

    But nothing specific on Aussies in the US…

  3. Andrew Wallace

    If you’re still interested, Carol Fowler has 2nd and 3rd-authored a number of studies on this kind of effect. Most involve short-term changes in the lab, but one followed a speaker as she moved back and forth between Brazil and the US, spending a few months in each place:

    Sancier and Fowler (1997). “Gestural drift in a bilingual speaker of Brazilian Portuguese and English.” Journal of Phonetics 25, 421-436.

    The rub is that they found changes in Voice Onset Times in her English and her Portuguese. Thankfully, the term “gestural drift” hasn’t caught on–most of the references I’ve seen have called the effect accommodation or convergence.

  4. Toni Borowsky

    Many of us who have moved from one English speaking place to another can vouch for this kind of thing happening in their own speech. My own speech is a complete mishmash of three dialects of English- i never can tell whether i am pronouncing my rs or not. I think tho that i was very aware of many of the changes when I first moved to America from South Africa- but there were probably many changes that i was unaware of too.

    Trudgill has said a lot more than just the stuff about pop singers. He has a recent book:New dialect formation and another study that looks a bit at this is the NewZealand one recently published- also forgotten what that is called.
    The idea is I think that we gravitate to the sound we hear most frequently around us

    Janet Pierrehumbert has said something about this too I think.

    There are a couple of interesting phonetic studies from Applied Linguistics showing the sort of changes that can happen when a person moves between one place and another. I have forgotten the name of the author but I think they are referred to in the JPhon article by Sancier and Fowler mentioned above.

    That said, I am just about to embark upon a study of the English pronunciation of kids in a school in Sydney who have as their input two dialects of English. The school has a student body of about 80% kids whose parents came from South Africa though in the majority of cases the children were born in Australia. Many people observe that the kids at this school have a very particular accent that is not the same as that of kids in similar local schools. Many of the questions your student is asking are the same as the ones I am asking.

  5. MV

    My 2 kids, both born in Texas – one 7 yrs old daughter and other 5 yrs old son went to India for 2 months. They went to see their grand-partents and extended families. When they returned, just yesterday, my wife and I found to our surprise that our daughter now communicates with us in a FULL Indian accent english but our son is still the same. We are profoundly confused about the reason behind this change. Not because of the way she communicates, but the reason behind this change in her but not in our son. Any comments would be appreciated.


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