The existence of accents

How do accents come about.

Is it purely to do with the geographic location, or is it a number of different factors like culture or neighboring languages.

Languages. Some languages just don’t have certain sounds, or combinations of sounds. Someone growing up, never having pronounced those sounds, will have trouble, later in life, trying to do so.

Henry Kissinger had trouble pronouncing specific sounds that are common in English but not common in German.

It’s certainly not geographical location if you mean something like “people who live in mountainous regions tend to have these sounds in their dialect while people who live on plains have these other sounds.” Languages are always changing. Always. When two groups of people who speak the same language live geographically separated from each other (with little contact between them), their ways of speaking will slowly diverge. This means that they will eventually speak different languages.

This. You stated what I already knew, but what I want to know is why the way they speak will diverge if they live geographically separated.

Basically, what happens is that one person starts to say something differently. Why? I don’t know if there is an answer to that. Why did Eisenhower say “nucular”? “Nuclear” certainly follows the rules of English phonology. Anyway, maybe the person making the innovation has high prestige. So others follow him. I think the final “r” in words like anchor, horror, Peter, etc. was once pronounced in all dialects of English. Then some people started dropping them and others followed.

It was once thought that small groups of people would have their dialects drift faster. But this turns out not to be true. Fewer people means fewer innovators means fewer innovations. A friend of mine from northern MN, told me once some Danish linguists came over there to study a small community that was speaking 19th century Danish. They had been isolated from the changes that had taken place in Denmark.

It surprises me that dialects are still so common, even though we’ve had the moderating influence of nightly national news for half a century.

On the other hand, some accents are very purposefully maintained. For instance, it’s very common to hear black people, even very educated people, say “aks” instead of “ask” or “fwee” instead of “three”. It’s not ignorance–it’s an informed choice. And I’ll confess that I prefer to say “crik” instead of “creek”, just because that’s the way I was taught, and I like it better.

Just random variations, that then spread locally, but not (or not nearly so quickly) over geographical divides.

Longshanks writes:

> You stated what I already knew, but what I want to know is why the way they
> speak will diverge if they live geographically separated.

I don’t know how many alternate ways I can explain this. Language is always changing. Even if you look at a small group of speakers completely isolated from any other group who speaks that language, they will slowly change how they speak. Within fifty years there will be slight differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar from how they spoke before. Within one hundred years there will be distinct differences from how they spoke before. Within five hundred years they and their ancestors from five hundred years before will have very large differences in how they speak, although not quite enough to be incomprehensible to each other. Within one thousand years they will speak so differently that they and their ancestors from one thousand years past will probably not be able to understand each other.

If you have two groups of speakers of the same language who are then geographically separated from each other so they no longer communicate with the other group, they will each start speaking differently from how they formerly spoke. They will change their language in different ways though. As time goes on, the two groups will change their language so much that it will be clear that they speak two different dialects and finally that they speak different languages.

People randomly deviate from their local accents all the time. They’re pulled back to the median by listening to others around them. The net result of all that is a kind of brownian motion of accents. It’s probably not possible to predict how an accent will vary over time, but that it will vary is certain.

My middle daughter had developed a unique “accent” of her own. Basically, she adds extra “schwa” sounds to the ends of words continually. More so if she’s annoyed or excited. No idea why, she just chose to speak that way randomly. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that was subtly influencing her friends. And of course, they do things that rub off on her too.

Accents are learned almost exclusively from family and peers. A person wouldn’t imitate a television accent unless they wanted to specifically associate themselves with a clique they consider that accent to represent.

Possible disagree! :wink:

One of my favorite podcasts recently did a piece on how, quote:

University of Miami linguist Caleb Everett plotted nearly 600 of the world’s languages on a map using Google Earth, he noticed something peculiar: Languages containing a consonant sound known as an “ejective” (found in about one-fifth of the world’s languages) were clustered at or near high-altitude regions.

It’s interesting and certainly not definitive yet, but there may be something there.

There was a project a couple of years ago to record different Swedish dialects. Many of the people interviewed claimed that they didn’t have a noticeable accent, but they were very mistaken. The regional differences were as clear as ever.

It’s ever so tempting to think there might be such influences - that people who predominantly farm on windy plains need to use longer, broader vowels to be heard and understood, or that coastal communities with a high proportion of fishermen develop clipped, guttural speech because that happens to travel better over water, or on board ship in a blustery ocean storm.

It’s not a completely outlandish hypothesis, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that this is the case. I expect if there is any genuine environmental influence on the development of accents, it will just be completely swamped by all the other variables.

GameHat, there was a post on Language Log about that study. Language Log is a blog with contributions from many linguistics professors. They were very dubious about that study. They think that often rather dubious linguistic research gets big play in newspapers and other media despite the weakness of the evidence and that the media don’t bother to ask other linguistics professors about the research.

Here’s the link for Language Log:

Direct link to post on Everett’s study

Actually, it’s neither. It’s the way they heard it growing up, and it’s the way they pronounce it by default. Probably for the same reason you say Wen[d]s-day and not Wed-nes-day.

I don’t know why you claim that’s not a choice.

But it’s curious that you cut out a part of my quote that would have supported your position.

No, it isn’t.

Cite one black person you consider very educated who says “aks”, or “fwee”, which I personally have never heard.

Oh come on! I didn’t expect anyone to challenge that.

The person that immediately comes to mind is a program manager I used to work for. He at least had a degree in engineering, and may have had some management or business degree. He was obviously intelligent and knowledgeable, but he always said “aks” and “fwee”.

If you’ve not encountered this, maybe you’ve not traveled around the States much.

Neighboring languages or other languages common in the same area do have a link, but it can be a “chicken or egg” link. For example: many words which in Spanish are stressed in the syllable before last have French sisters which are stressed in the last one; in areas near the border with France, it used to be common for people speaking Spanish to “shift the stress” to that last syllable. But, was this an influence of French, or a gradation in the evolution of Latin?