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January 2015

Why do people have different accents when they speak English?

Why do people have accents?

What is an accent? It’s how you sound when you speak. Everyone has one, whether you think you do or you don’t. Those who speak English as a second language have what many regard as “foreign” accents, but even native speakers have some sort of accent, however subtle. Today we’ll take a look at some of the reasons why people have different accents.

Nurture over nature

When we’re born, we’re blessed with the ability to create whatever sounds we choose. Unfortunately, the decision to pick up an accent really isn’t up to us, rather it’s on our parents to guide us. Each language around the world focuses on differing sounds. It’s nurture and not nature that determines the particular strengths we develop in speaking over the weaknesses we “inherit”.

In German, for example, schön (“beautiful”) is not a common sound for English speakers. Sure, we can find ways to describe it, to help others in pronunciation (perhaps, “shyoon”?), but it would be more of an approximation than exact. The German language also features long words that are difficult to pronounce for English speakers new to the language, as amusing as it is when they try.

Japanese speakers do not have the “l” sound, common in English, and must replace it with “r”. Additionally, Japanese characters are made up of two-letter sounds that end with vowels, making it difficult for Japanese speakers to pronounce words that end with consonants without adding a faint extra sound. For example, “McDonald’s” would be a hard word to say for Japanese speakers, sounding more like “Ma-ku-do-na-ru-do”.

Tagalog speakers in the Philippines emphasize “p”s over “ph”s, so that the “Philippines” sounds more like “Pilipines” when spoken there. A sub-variety of English actually exists in the island country known as “Philippine English” with some differences like, “I will be the one who will go”, rather than simply, “I will go”.

Melting pots of culture

Accents result in the mixing of various cultures in particular regions. Two good examples of this can be seen in Hawaii and New Orleans, where races from around the world came to settle on these historically strategic ports. What formed in both places is called a pidgin language, a new way of speaking that takes bits and pieces from each of the cultures to form a practical communications means for trade and interaction.

In Hawaii, the pidgin mixture comes from European, American, and Asian influences. Even today, slang words exist that aren’t found in the rest of the world. In New Orleans, the local dialect is known as a creole, which is a form of pidgin that has become the primary language for those in the area. Any visitor to New Orleans will quickly see the mixture between Caribbean, French, and American English blended together like their beloved gumbo. The Cajun people of Louisiana also hold customs and a rich history that is unique from the rest of the United States.

Carrying on the traditions

The most prominent of differences is the split between British and American accents. Ubiquitous in film, the distinction is so well known that you may not even give it a second thought anymore. For example, have you ever seen a period piece set in the ancient world? Note how they usually speak with British accents, even if they are in a land where English is not spoken. We identify the British accent with classicism and theater (thank you, Bill Shakespeare!), while the newer American accent is often associated with modernity.

In Boston, for example, the influence of Irish settlers has led to a very distinct Bostonian accent, though the modern accent sounds nothing like the Irish one. A common joke that “I lost my car keys” sounds more like “I lost my khakis” when spoken by a Boston native.

In Hong Kong, exposure to Chinese and British culture resulted in an accent that sounds much like British, though differing slightly. Similarly, Australians and New Zealanders have a distinct accent from other English lands, and even from one another. Trust us when we say you don’t want to accidentally call a New Zealander an Australian or vice versa!

Of course, we all have preferred accents. Those speaking English with Spanish accents are often portrayed as sexier. In America alone, the variations are many. The Midwestern English accent is often deemed highly comforting, while the “surfer” Southern Californian accent more youthful. Perhaps you know someone who speaks with the twang of the South, or a posh person who regales with the proper accent of Cape Cod.

So take a minute and think about your own accent when you speak in English. How do you sound? Do you have a favorite accent? Let us know on Facebook and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on languages and culture from around the world.