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In sociolinguistics, an accent is a manner of pronunciation peculiar to a particular individual, location, or nation. An accent may be identified with the locality in which its speakers reside (a regional or geographical accent), the socio-economic status of its speakers, their ethnicity, their caste or social class (a social accent), or influence from their first language (a foreign accent).
Accents typically differ in quality of the voice, pronunciation and distinction of vowels and consonants, stress, and prosody. Although grammar, semantics, vocabulary, and other language characteristics often vary concurrently with accent, the word "accent" may refer specifically to the differences in pronunciation, whereas the word "dialect" encompasses the broader set of linguistic differences. Often "accent" is a subset of "dialect".
As human beings spread out into isolated communities, stresses and peculiarities develop. Over time, they can develop into identifiable accents. In North America, the interaction of people from many ethnic backgrounds contributed to the formation of the different varieties of North American accents. It is difficult to measure or predict how long it takes an accent to formulate. Accents in the US, Canada, South Africa and Australia, for example, developed from the combinations of different accents and languages in various societies and their effect on the various pronunciations of British settlers.
In many cases, the accents of non-English settlers from the British Isles affected the accents of the different colonies quite differently. Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants had accents which greatly affected the vowel pronunciation of certain areas of Australia and Canada.
Children are able to take on accents relatively quickly. Children of immigrant families, for example, generally have a more native-like pronunciation than their parents, but both children and parents may have a noticeable non-native accent.. Accents seem to remain relatively malleable until a person's early twenties, after which a person's accent seems to become more entrenched.
All the same, accents are not fixed even in adulthood. An acoustic analysis by Jonathan Harrington of Elizabeth II's Royal Christmas Messages revealed that the speech patterns of even so conservative a figure as a monarch can continue to change over her lifetime.
An important factor in predicting the degree to which the accent will be noticeable (or strong) is the age at which the non-native language was learned. The critical period theory states that if learning takes place after the critical period (usually considered around puberty) for acquiring native-like pronunciation, an individual is unlikely to acquire a native-like accent. This theory, however, is quite controversial among researchers. Although many subscribe to some form of the critical period, they either place it earlier than puberty or consider it more of a critical “window,” which may vary from one individual to another and depend on factors other than age, such as length of residence, similarity of the non-native language to the native language, and the frequency with which both languages are used.
Nevertheless, children as young as 6 at the time of moving to another country often speak with a noticeable non-native accent as adults. There are also rare instances of individuals who are able to pass for native speakers even if they learned their non-native language in early adulthood. However, neurological constraints associated with brain development appear to limit most non-native speakers’ ability to sound native-like. Most researchers agree that for adults, acquiring a native-like accent in a non-native language is near impossible.
When a group defines a standard pronunciation, speakers who deviate from it are often said to "speak with an accent". However, everyone speaks with an accent. People from the United States would "speak with an accent" from the point of view of an Australian, and vice versa. Accents such as BBC English or General American may sometimes be erroneously designated in their countries of origin as "accentless" to indicate that they offer no obvious clue to the speaker's regional or social background.
Many teachers of English as a second language neglect to teach speech/pronunciation. Many adult and near-adult learners of second languages have unintelligible speech patterns that may interfere with their education, profession, and social interactions. Pronunciation in a second or foreign language involves more than the correct articulation of individual sounds. It involves producing a wide range of complex and subtle distinctions which relate sound to meaning at several levels.
Teaching of speech/pronunciation is neglected in part because of the following myths:
- Pronunciation isn't important: "This is patently false from any perspective." Speech/Pronunciation forms the vehicle for transmitting the speaker's meaning. If the listener does not understand the message, no communication takes place, and although there are other factors involved, one of the most important is the intelligibility of the speaker's pronunciation.
- Students will pick it up on their own: "Some will learn to pronounce the second language intelligibly; many will not."
Inadequate instruction in speech/pronunciation can result in a complete breakdown in communication. The proliferation of commercial "accent reduction" services is seen as a sign that many ESL teachers are not meeting their students' needs for speech/pronunciation instruction.
The goals of speech/pronunciation instruction should include: to help the learner speak in a way that is easy to understand and does not distract the listener, to increase the self-confidence of the learner, and to develop the skills to self-monitor and adapt one's own speech.
Even when the listener does understand the speaker, the presence of an accent that is difficult to understand can produce anxiety in the listener that he will not understand what comes next, and cause him to end the conversation earlier or avoid difficult topics.
Intelligibility of speech, in comparison to native-like accent, has been experimentally reported to be of greater importance for the second language speakers. As such ways of increasing intelligibility of speech has been recommended by some researchers within the field.
Certain accents are perceived to carry more prestige in a society than other accents. This is often due to their association with the elite part of society. For example, in the United Kingdom, Received Pronunciation of the English language is associated with the traditional upper class. The same can be said about the predominance of Southeastern Brazilian accents in the case of the Brazilian variant of the Portuguese language, especially considering the disparity of prestige between most caipira-influenced speech, associated with rural environment and lack of formal education, together with the Portuguese spoken in some other communities of lower socioeconomic strata such as favela dwellers, and other sociocultural variants such as middle and upper class paulistano (dialect spoken from Greater São Paulo to the East) and fluminense (dialect spoken in the state of Rio de Janeiro) to the other side, inside Southeastern Brazil itself. However, in linguistics, there is no differentiation among accents in regard to their prestige, aesthetics, or correctness. All languages and accents are linguistically equal.
Accent stereotyping and prejudice
Stereotypes refer to specific characteristics, traits, and roles that a group and its members are believed to possess. Stereotypes can be both positive and negative, although negative are more common.
Stereotypes may result in prejudice, which is defined as having negative attitudes toward a group and its members. Individuals with non-standard accents often have to deal with both negative stereotypes and prejudice because of an accent. Researchers consistently show that people with non-native accents are judged as less intelligent, less competent, less educated, having poor English/language skills, and unpleasant to listen to. Not only people with standard accents subscribe to these beliefs and attitudes, but individuals with accents also often stereotype against their own or others' accents.
Discrimination refers to specific behaviors or actions directed at a group or its individual members based solely on the group membership. In accent discrimination, one's way of speaking is used as a basis for arbitrary evaluations and judgments. Unlike other forms of discrimination, there are no strong norms against accent discrimination in the general society. Rosina Lippi-Green writes,
Accent serves as the first point of gate keeping because we are forbidden, by law and social custom, and perhaps by a prevailing sense of what is morally and ethically right, from using race, ethnicity, homeland or economics more directly. We have no such compunctions about language, thus, accent becomes a litmus test for exclusion, and excuse to turn away, to recognize the other.
Speakers with certain accents often experience discrimination in housing and employment. For example, speakers who have foreign or ethnic-minority accents are less likely to be called back by landlords and are more likely to be assigned by employers to lower status positions than those with standard accents. In business settings, individuals with non-standard accents are more likely to be evaluated negatively. Accent discrimination is also present in educational institutions. For example, non-native speaking graduate students, lecturers, and professors, across college campuses in the US have been targeted for being unintelligible because of accent. Second language speakers have reported being discriminated against, or feeling marginalized for, when they attempted to find a job in higher ranking positions mainly because their accents. On average, however, students taught by non-native English speakers do not underperform when compared to those taught by native speakers of English. Some English native-speaker students in Canada reported a preference for non-native speaker instructors as long as the instructor's speech is intelligible. This was due to the psychological impacts such a circumstances has on the students requiring them to pay closer attention to the instructor to ensure they understand him/her.
Studies have shown the perception of the accent, not the accent by itself, often results in negative evaluations of speakers. In a study conducted by Rubin (1992), students listened to a taped lecture recorded by a native English speaker with a standard accent. They were then shown an image of the "lecturer", sometimes Asian-looking, sometimes white. Participants in the study who saw the Asian picture believed that they had heard an accented lecturer and performed worse on a task that measured lecture comprehension. Negative evaluations may reflect the prejudices rather than real issues with understanding accents.
In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on national origin, implying accents. However, employers may claim that a person's accent impairs his or her communication skills that are necessary to the effective business operation. The courts often rely on the employer's claims or use judges’ subjective opinions when deciding whether the (potential) employee’s accent would interfere with communication or performance, without any objective proof that accent was or might be a hindrance.
Kentucky's highest court in the case of Clifford vs. Commonwealth held that a white police officer, who had not seen the black defendant allegedly involved in a drug transaction, could, nevertheless, identify him as a participant by saying that a voice on an audiotape "sounded black". The police officer based this "identification" on the fact that the defendant was the only African American man in the room at the time of the transaction and that an audio-tape contained the voice of a man the officer said "sounded black" selling crack cocaine to a European American informant planted by the police.
Acting and accents
Actors are often called upon to speak varieties of language other than their own. Similarly, an actor may portray a character of some nationality other than his or her own by adopting into the native language the phonological profile typical of the nationality to be portrayed in what is commonly called "speaking with an accent".
Accents may have stereotypical associations. For example, in Disney animated films mothers and fathers typically speak with white middle class American or English accents. English accents in Disney animated films are frequently employed to serve one of two purposes, slapstick comedy or evil genius. Examples include Aladdin (the Sultan and Jafar, respectively) and The Lion King (Zazu and Scar, respectively), among others.
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- Wells, J C. 1982. Accents of English. (3 volumes). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Wells's home pages also have a lot of information about phonetics and accents.]
|Wikibooks has a book on the topic of: Accent|
- Sounds Familiar? – Listen to regional accents and dialects of the UK on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website
- 'Hover & Hear' accents of English from around the World, and compare them side by side.
- The Speech Accent Archive (Native and non-native accent recordings of English)
- Wells Accents and Spelling
- humanaccents.com – a summary of research on non-native accents and extensive accent bibliography