Saturday 16 April 2011

You speak with an accent. I don’t.

Accents are things that only other people have. They are, by extension, things that you don’t want to have. Accents are, in short, shortcomings.

This is why, if someone tells you that “you speak with no accent”, you can be sure of two things: that you have received words of praise indeed; and that you speak with the same accent as that person. So the person is actually not only praising her own accent, she is also giving evidence that she has no idea she’s got one.

We seldom hear people say “We speak with an accent” or “I speak with an accent” – unless we’re talking about our uses of foreign languages. I will come back to this in my next post. We also routinely attribute to other people other features of language: they use funny words, she mangles her grammar, he doesn’t know how to talk politely. This must mean we don’t, don’t, and do, respectively. Writing in a book edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, titled Language myths, John H. Esling deals precisely with the myth that “Everyone has an accent except me”.

So let’s check out your accent.
This is (choose the nearest answer – I was going to say “the best answer”, but I suddenly remembered that “best” has prescriptive connotations):

Photo: David Besa (Wikimedia Commons)

  1.  a tomahto
  2.  a potahto
  3.  a tomayto
  4.  a potayto

I could tweak this test a little, like this:

     1.1   a tomahto
     1.2   ay tomahto
     1.3   ay toemahto
     1.4   a tomahtoe

and so on, and I’ve barely started on the vowels. How do you say the two “t” letters, for example? Do you aspirate the sounds that they represent, which means that you release a little puff of air straight after them? (You can also look up “aspiration” here.) Both times?

And so on. Accents are made up of many, many interrelated features that we’ve got used to hearing or seeing, and saying or signing, as we grew up, and that, like everything else that becomes routine around us, we fail to notice. This is why we may say that we have a “neutral accent”: it blends in with the rest of our identity. In contrast, we instantly react to any mismatch to this “standard” that we learned to make ours, and often treat it as a deviation.

There have been fascinating studies on attitudes that people have towards (other people’s) accents, showing that our opinions about accents have nothing to do with the accents themselves and all to do with our opinions about those people. One sure way to make our (fellow-accented) friends laugh is to do impressions of accents that we, and they, learned to rate as funny. People from neighbouring countries love to do this – and not just for accents either. Malaysians poke fun at Singaporean Malay, Spaniards double up in stitches about Portuguese, and Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can’t decide among themselves which of their languages sounds more like a throat disease, a silly singsong, or just a ridiculous way of pronouncing the other two.

For accent ratings from native and non-native speakers of a language, other fascinating things happen. Take the British RP accent, one of many spoken on tape by trained actors for purposes of the experiments carried out in these studies. RP stands for Received Pronunciation, by the way, sometimes also called BBC English, although the BBC nowadays sports other accents too, or Queen’s English, although the Queen’s accent has evolved since it got named after her. British users of other accents found the RP speaker pompous and off-putting, whereas non-native users of English found him intelligent and genial. On tape, mind you. Without even meeting the man face to face. Small wonder some people can and do lose job opportunities as soon as they open their mouths, because their prospective employers dislike the way they got used to using their languages.

What goes on about different native accents of the same language goes on about foreign accents too. We all have accents, of course, in all of our languages, spoken or signed, and we all talk funny, in someone’s eyes or ears. Except native speakers of the languages we are learning, or have learned, in school. We find out about this next.

© MCF 2011

Next post: The natives and the speakers. Wednesday 27th April 2011.


  1. One of your finest columns so far. I've recognised and seen myself reflected in every single linguistic phenomenon you've mentioned. But you forgot to include the most important word when it comes to describing accents: 'funny'. :-)

    Have a brilliant week and Easter holiday.

    Greetings from London.

  2. This question about accent, I think it's interesting. In my oppinion, it's impossible for not to speak without accent. I think that there's no right or wrong accent. Every person talks in a way, according to his place and history.

    In Brazil, there's an annoying mania of correcting the accents of each other. Depending the accent, you suffer prejudice or discrimination.
    I think it's bad. Most of the people DON'T respect the linguistic variations :(

  3. I think you've pointed out a really interesting question. I suppose the whole accent thing is a global phenomenon. In Catalonia it happens twice: standart spanish has no accent, but andalusian does and standart catalan has no accent but balearic does etc. When I go to Madrid people notices my catalan accent although if I spoke spanish in Barcelona (I almost never do that) nobody would see it. You are totally right. I don't speak with an accent; the others do :)

  4. Accents are interesting because they can be misleading, especially, when they don't match your interlocutor's expectations of your identity. And by that I mean.... I am South African, with Portuguese background and I live in France. My French neighbour was confused when I introduced myself as Portuguese, speaking my foreign language French with an English accent. I liked the way he put it: 'This is the first time I have met a Portuguese who speaks French with an English accent.' I realised that day that my foreign accent in French was English. I also realised why the French/Portuguese didn't quite treat me as one of their own when I spoke to them in French - wrong accent again!


  5. Your comments are spot-on. Accents and our attitudes towards them/theirs certainly have a way of making tempers boil, Kiara!

    Nayr, what you report rang a bell here. When I started speaking Swedish, I was told that I was also developing a Swedish accent in my English..... Aren’t we Portuguese versatile!

    I share your experience in the places I’ve lived, Linguodiversitat. "The others" speak funny, in the Cuban's words, *we* never do :)

    My feeling is that there's more intolerance and prejudice (and a lot more nonsense, too) towards accents than towards, say, grammar or vocabulary variation. For all of you, does this match your own observations?


  6. Several commentators mention the way accent may influence the quality of interpersonal responses from others. I have long enjoyed conversing with L1 English speakers from diverse parts of the world in a way that is perhaps comparable with enjoying diverse interpretations of a song or piece of music. Unfortunately, some people only seem to consider the `original` version of a song, or the one with which they are familiar, to be acceptable or legitimate. The reasons for this are, no doubt, complex and perhaps may be (or have already been) the subject of fruitful psycho-social research.
    As a teacher for several years in a non-English speaking country I deliberately modified my own pronunciation in order to render it more accessible to L2 English learners and the modifications became habitual.
    Several years later, while working in a public high school in my country of origin, I discovered that some students were openly hostile to me as a person due to what one of them described as my "private school ways". Put simply, I no longer spoke with what those students recognised as an acceptable (common) accent and an assumption was made that I was the product of a social class of which they were not members and their response was to reject me as a legitimate occupant of their social environment.
    It was a very interesting example of the way assumptions made be made about a person`s character or social orientation based upon accent. Of course, those students knew nothing about my personal history or the factors that shaped my accent, but they recognised it as different to theirs and deemed it unacceptable.
    I have also heard L2 learners of English say that they were advised not to study English in a country like Australia because of its `peculiar` accent. The notion that there is a standard American or British accent is still widely accepted to be a fact despite the profusion of examples in popular cinema of the diversity of accents in the USA and the British Isles with at least as much difference between each other as between them and that of Australia. It seems to be true that some consider their English to be somehow more legitimate than other versions.
    It is certainly an interesting time to work in the field of English language education and research.

  7. Mythtickle: I really like your description of accents as diverse interpretations of songs which are enjoyable for their own sake, none of them more legitimate than another. Your other observations are as thought-provoking. Like you, I find it quite unsettling that people should be ostracised or catalogued on the strength of the ways they’ve been brought up to sound like, or chose to adopt.


  8. I would love to read further on the social implications of accents. It is funny that you say people do not think they have an accent, I think in some areas, for historical and cultural reasons, it is all the way round, and people are just too aware (and, if lucky, proud) to have an accent. I am Andalousian, and I may say that is my case. I live in Brussels, where I used to work in Spanish with non-andalousian people, and now I work exclusively in French and English.
    When working with Spaniards, I had to fight strong to be taken seriously and to defend my choice not to adapt my accent to "standard" Spanish. People re not even aware that saying Andalousian is "funny" is insulting. They just assume Andalousian accent IS funny, and we Andalousians are as aware as they are. In any case, I was fully aware that I DO have an accent (which I do not find funny, by the way, and with which I can discuss very serious subjects).
    When working with foreigners, I have to explain almost everyday that I do have an accent when Speaking Spanish, because they have problems understanding that my accent, either in French or in English, is not really "Spanish" or very slightly so: I have to come back to my linguistic roots to explain why, for example, I am fully capable of pronouncing the English "h" or the French "e".
    All that, just to say that the Andalousian example can be a good one to wonder whether it is possible that social pressure can be so strong to make some linguistic groups aware of their accent, contrary to the idea that only others have one.
    And by the way, thanks for your blog!

  9. Thank *you* for this comment, Maria! Really interesting, what you report.
    It made me wonder whether our perception of our own accent(s) relates to whether those accents are officially sanctioned as “standard”, in the places where we live. One example: I speak the Lisbon dialect/accent of Portuguese, but I’ve always been aware that I do it, the reason being that there are two standards in Portugal – Lisbon and Coimbra.
    What I mean is that if Lisbon were the single standard, I might well have believed, before I knew better, that I spoke Portuguese with no accent.

    About social implications of accents, these posts and the references I quote in them may be relevant to you:

    Attitudes towards language uses

    “Good”, “standard”, and other intriguing language qualifiers

    Linguistic ghettos

    Shibboleths & Co.

    In case you’ve already gone through these posts, try looking at William Labov’s work. He’s dealt mostly with US accents and society, but his insights into variational sociolinguistics, the research field that his work founded, go well beyond the data he uses.

    Come back any time!

  10. The same thing doesn't quite happen here in Brazil, I'm carioca (born in Rio de Janeiro), so I have a carioca accent, I'v also live 8 years in Minas Gerais (by the time was 6 until 14, I'm 18 now), which is another state in Brazil which has a different accent, so I grew up speaking with two accents. In Brazil everyone has an accent, and the accent they use on tv isn't spoken anywhere in this country, it's mix of the accent from Rio and São Paulo.

    Thanks God there isn't a correct way of speaking brazilian portuguese, though people mock the accent from northeastern Brazil, I wouldn't consider their accent broken Portuguese.

    Diversity is everything, that is my personal opinion as a language lover and an accent lover.

  11. Interesting what you say, Ed, that there may be no standards of correctness concerning accents, but some accents appear to arouse more mixed feelings towards them than others. Obrigada por este comentário!

  12. I speak with an accent. Everyone thinks so. Incuding my mother.:(

  13. Thanks for this, Anonymous! I presume everyone else, including your mum, has a different accent from yours? :-))


  14. I'm from the southeast in the United States. I would say I have a neutral American accent, but when I speak Spanish the pitch of my voice is much higher. I guess I was just curious if this happens to other people.

    1. Yes! for about the first 6 years speaking Spanish, now I can control it.

  15. This is a spot-on observation, Eric, thank you so much for sharing it here.

    It is extra interesting to me, given my research focus on matters of prosody, and the fact that language-specific pitch height, as you notice in your own speech, has been less documented in the literature than pitch variation serving different purposes in the same language (e.g. politeness, assertiveness). Do let me know if you’d like to have a couple of references on this, by the way.

    My guess is that you’re likely to be a good listener, and quite willing to accommodate to the Spanish speech patterns you hear around you. You may also have noticed that different Spanishes, like different Englishes or Portugueses, also use pitch height in different ways? Which only reinforces my take that languages, and ‘accents’, are much more than just the sounds that we’re used to transcribe in print.

    Great comment, thanks again!


  16. Hi Madalena, thank you for you blog, really cleared up some things for me.
    I want to share my experience. I was raised in multi-lingual household so you could say I'm bilingual. Well, I work with languages so eventually I realized that if you introduce yourself as a native speaker of a language with no connections to other cultures/languages people just shrug it off and assume you are a variation - that is, if they previously had any questions about your non-standard accent. Interestingly enough, in situations when people assume you are a native speaker and then find out that your are "not quite" one, they start taking notice in your speech patterns, help out with word choice, correct slang usage. I personally find all of this hilarious. This is pure psychology above everything else.

  17. Anonymous: I’ve had similar experiences to yours and I react in the same way... It is as if multilinguals were handicapped, unaware of being so, and therefore in need of benevolent guidance to the normality fold?? Hilarious indeed!

    You may have come across these related posts:
    ‘Attitudes towards language uses’

    ‘(Non-)native common ground’

    Thank you for your engaging comment!


  18. I laughed a lot when I heard that the Swedish chef on The Muppet Show was known in Sweden as the Norwegian chef!

  19. Same here, Anonymous!! Off the accent topic, this reminded me of these ‘translation equivalents’: take French leave and filer à l'anglaise. It’s too hard to take a good look in the mirror.....

    Thanks for putting me in a good humour!



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