George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him” — a phrase that still rings true to this day. Whether you’re aware of it or not, everyone has an accent. The way you speak can tell others a lot about you: “It’s a telltale giveaway of where you’re from, where you live, where you were raised,” says podcast host Josh Clark on the ‘What’s the deal with accents?’ episode of Stuff You Should Know About.
An accent is formed based on the people you are around and how they speak. Just like you, your accent is a product of the environment around you, but it can tell you a lot about your family history, too, from socio-economic class to education and where your distant relatives are from. Accents can also give away non-locals or tourists, as the different pronunciation is easily noticeable.
Your accent can change over time, depending on your environment and where you live. For example, an Australian living in the United States for many years will likely pick up an American “twang”, usually subconsciously, not just because they are hearing it all the time but also for the convenience of being better understood. You may also learn to adjust your accent according to your situation. In an office setting, a polished, refined tone may be your go-to, but you may be a bit looser and slip back into your regional dialect when it comes to casual conversations with friends.
When it comes to the English language, accents are integral in telling not only what country you live in but what region you are from. There are 160 distinct dialects of the English language and hundreds more regional and foreign accents within these dialects. According to linguists, there are three main Australian English varieties — broad, general and cultivated — but this doesn’t take regional variations into account.
Broad Australian English is the stereotypical Australian accent you hear from the likes of Steve Irwin and Paul Hogan, and is often called “Strine” or “Strayan”. General Australian English (GAE) dialect is prominent in urban parts of the country and is the most common dialect, while cultivated Australian English is often indicative of higher social class and wealth, and generally sounds more refined (think Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush). Alongside these three main varietals, Australian Aboriginal English has its own structure and phonetic traits and varies on a continuum from being quite close to GAE to non-standard forms.
Our accents are formed well before we are even aware of them. A series of studies led by Professor Kathleen Wermke, founding director of the Centre for PreSpeech Development and Developmental Disorders at the University of Würzburg in Germany, analysed the acoustics of more than 6000 cries of around 144 newborns of different nationalities. The first study for the Journal of Voice studied babies born to German and Mandarin-speaking Chinese families. Mandarin is a tonal language, which means pitch and intonation change the meaning of words. Wermke’s study found that the Chinese babies had higher “intra-utterance frequency variation” — their pitch of crying fluctuated to greater highs and lows than the German babies. These findings were backed up by Wermke’s second study for Speech, Language and Hearing, which compared the cries from German and Nso babies from Cameroon, who also had a more “melodic” cry.
These studies suggest that while humans aren’t born with the immediate ability to speak, linguistic development is well underway by the time babies are born.
… while humans aren’t born with the immediate ability to speak, linguistic development is well underway by the time babies are born.
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