• Question: Why do we have accents?

    Asked by on 3 Jan 2018. This question was also asked by leilapops06.
    • Photo: Damien Hall

      Damien Hall answered on 3 Jan 2018:

      First of all, Happy New Year! I hope you had as good a holiday as I did.

      That’s a really good question. There are probably two kinds of answer to it–history, and communication. (Whenever you ask a lecturer a question, you’ll probably find they try and re-ask it, or split it up somehow. Sorry! That’s just how our minds work. But I’ll try and be quick.

      History: because the dialects of our languages that we speak, were actually more different in the past. In some cases, you could say they used to be two different languages, but now they’re part of the same language. So (several hundred years ago) it was probably really hard for people from Northern England and Southern England to understand each other at all, because they way they spoke was so different. Now, they can understand each other, but you can often still tell where people are from. That’s because, as history has gone on, people from different places have spoken to each other more and more–we don’t just speak to people in our local area any more–so they had to make sure that the people from different areas understood them, which meant making their way of speaking less different. Linguists call that ‘accommodation’.

      In other places, accents are created because of another language that’s spoken in the same place. You can see that in Scotland. In some parts of Scotland, the only language used to be Scots, which some people think is a different language to English. At the very least, it’s a different dialect to Standard English. Later, when Scotland and England were under the same government, people speaking the English from England came up, and their English was influenced by the Scots being spoken around them. In that way, we got what we now call Scottish Standard English.

      The other reason we have accents is to communicate something about ourselves. So you might be proud of your Northern accent and show it off (maybe especially when you’re not in Northern England) because you’re proud of being from Northern England. And accents can be social too: even within one area, people at one school might talk differently from people at another. Maybe you might think that the people at the school down the road are posher than you… And that will be because of different typical family backgrounds at the two schools.

      Finally, to complicate it further, you might change your accent depending on who you’re talking to! Most people probably do that to some extent. Linguists call it ‘audience design’. You do it because you have different things that you want to communicate to different audiences. If I’m talking to my family at home over Christmas, I don’t have to prove anything to them about myself, so I might have more of a London accent (that’s where I’m from) than if I’m in a job interview. Some people don’t like London accents, sadly, so, if I’m in a situation where I need to impress people, I might try and tone it down. That’s my choice. You don’t have to (and I’m proud of being a Londoner!). But I also know what some people think of the London accent.

      So that’s a long answer to a short question! But it was a great one. Thanks for asking!

    • Photo: Phillip Burnett

      Phillip Burnett answered on 17 Jan 2018:

      I think so much of what shapes us to have any characteristics is our upbringing and thus accents are often engrained onto you when youre young and your family, friends and everyone in your area all speak in a certain way and thus you start to also. Accents can change also too though and often if you remove yourself from the locality of the accent, you’ll lost the twang. Why there were ever accents in the first place will be due to history of who influenced the original language in specific areas.