Brave is coming out this weekend, so we can all spend our weekend with melifluous Scottish accents ringing in our ears. But where exactly do accents come from in the first place? How do we get them? What’s the mechanism by which they evolve?
Here’s our complete guide to the science of accented speech.
It’s amazing how quickly and completely we can spot someone doesn’t speak the same way we do. Accents have been used to distinguish one type of person from another since Biblical times. In the Bible, a victorious tribe used the fact that their enemies could not correctly pronounce the word “shibboleth” to identify and kill them. The consequences for mushmouthery have gotten less lethal since then, but accents still mark people out. Different groups of people talk, grunt, exclaim, and even laugh in different ways.
And it’s not just people. Goats say bahhhh with different accents, depending on where they live. Gibbons sing different songs, depending on which groups they’re raised in. There are even researchers who specialize in pigeon accents. Language pronunciation simply drifts apart, when groups are isolated from each other, even for just a few years, or by just a few miles. But when does it begin?
I’m most interested by this claim:
Studies have shown that imitating an accent makes it easier to hear what the person is saying to you. Establishing a common ground between two people, even if one person is “putting an accent on” helps people from mixing up similar-sounding words and identify words that might otherwise be pronounced unrecognizably. If one person has gotten a feel for the differences in pronunciation, it takes less processing power in their brain to understand what’s being said to them, and the verbal exchange is more fluid.
Does anyone know what the source for this might be? It sounds like a great excuse for all the times I can’t help imitating someone’s accent when talking to them.