Do You Have an Accent?
(Hint: The answer is always yes.)
The trouble starts, as it always does, with the way we use words.
For example: when we say someone “has an accent,” we typically mean that they speak English in a way that is different from ours. “She has a New York accent.” “He has an Italian accent.” “They have British accents.”
But what if I told you that everyone has an accent, no matter where they’re from — including you?
First, let’s introduce another word: dialect. In addition to being an actor and audiobook narrator, I’m what is often referred to as a dialect coach. What this ostensibly means is that I teach performers how to speak with accents other than their own. In the field of linguistics, the two terms are differentiated, but at the colloquial level, they’re often interchanged.
The basic difference is this: Accent is pronunciation — i.e., how you say words. Dialect includes pronunciation as well as vocabulary and grammar — i.e., how you choose words. Accent is the difference between “park” and “pahk.” Dialect is the difference between “soda” and “pop,” between “y’all” and “you guys,” between “I’m gonna go to the hospital” (as one might say in the Northeastern US) and “ahm gwan tuh hospital” (as one might say in the Northeastern UK). We all pronounce and choose words in specific ways, depending on where we were born, where we live, and with whom we grew up. Thus, every English-speaking person speaks in both an accent and a dialect.
There’s a further connotation to the word accent, and it’s to do with non-native English speakers. “He has an Italian accent” typically means that he’s from Italy, so he speaks English with certain Italian pronunciations. In the case of an ESL speaker, the person’s accent will be determined by her native language, while her dialect will be determined by the type of English she learned. Thus, if our Italian friend learned English in Britain, he’ll use words like “boot” and “bonnet”; if he learned English in America, he’ll say “trunk” and “hood.” Thus, it is possible for someone to have an accent from one region (Italy) while speaking the dialect of another (UK/US).
Historically, emphasis has often been placed on eliminating or “neutralizing” one’s native accent in order to improve social status or work prospects. It was once considered “proper” — and sometimes still is — to speak with a non-regional, “standard” accent in certain situations or environments. In Britain, this takes the form of Received Pronunciation (RP), while in the US it’s referred to as Standard American. Each accent is associated with a particular region of its respective country — RP with southeastern England, Standard American with the Mid-Atlantic coast — but each is ostensibly a construction. English is a language that developed over many centuries, in multiple nations; there is no such thing, and never has been, as an objectively “correct” way to pronounce it.
(Fun fact: English dictionaries were a 17th-century invention that evolved through the 18th century and were perfected in the 19th for the purpose of creating a unified spelling, not a standard pronunciation. Even those spelling rules were somewhat arbitrary: Noah Webster established what we now recognize as the spelling differences between British and American English, such as “colour/color,” because he decided that “English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex.” Newsflash, Noah: they still are. Consider though, bough, and rough.)
But I digress.
Standardized accents can assist communication, as their primary aim on a technical level is clarity. Most people the world over can understand RP or Standard American; however, Americans might struggle to understand the Scottish dialect, while Scots might have trouble comprehending the Texas dialect. Thus, when it comes to global communication, one can make a case for the use of standard forms of English…as long as, in doing so, one doesn’t denigrate regional or cultural dialects.
Accents still have a strong association with social status, especially in Britain; thus, RP can be seen alternately as a status symbol or a pretention. But the association of accents with social class is an article all its own — indeed, one could write a dissertation about it (and someone probably has). Suffice it to say: standard accents can be useful for actors, newscasters, and other public speakers who strive for clarity, but they should not be upheld as the be-all/end-all of English language correctness.
On a quotidian level, accents are often seen comparatively: if you’re from Boston, you might think someone from Texas “has an accent,” and vice verse. Most people will claim that they themselves don’t “have accents,” because we think of the way we learned to speak as the correct or authentic way. But in this context, what “she has an accent” means is simply that the other person pronounces English differently from you.
This comparison can be made on a regional level, such as London to Leeds, or on an international level, such as Britain to America. Spoken American English has general characteristics that contrast enough with British English for anyone to recognize which of the two countries a speaker is from. (Unless there’s a Canadian in the room, in which case nobody knows what’s going on.) On a more local level, London and Leeds share some general characteristics of English accents, but have enough contrasting elements to make them distinct. Someone from Leeds would say a Londoner “has an accent,” while someone from America would say that both of them “have an accent.” Thus, accents are both subjective and relative.
When I was in grad school, I did a miniature study of the Connecticut accent, having recognized that it involved a few distinctive sounds. It’s not as strong as that of Boston, nor as unique as that of Rhode Island, but it does exist. Yet, all three of my subjects insisted that they had no accent. (Take a listen to samples 2, 3, and 4 here and see what you think!) Having grown up in Connecticut myself, I spoke with certain aspects of the local accent, but not all. This is because one’s accent — and more broadly, one’s dialect — is not only determined by location, but also by heritage.
My father was from New York, but he had worked to reduce his regional accent over the years. After I’d studied dialects, I could identify his pronunciation and word choice as belonging to the New York area, but to the average ear, he’d have sounded fairly neutral. My mother moved around a lot as a child and worked to clarify her speech while teaching middle school English, so she has almost no regional accent at all. Since neither of them spoke with the Connecticut accent — and since my speech-conscious mother made sure I pronounced every word clearly from the time I began to talk — I never spoke quite the same way as my friends who grew up in the same area.
Unless, of course, I chose to. For instance: I originally learned to say my name with the long “aa” sound characteristic of New York and Boston — “Baa-ree” — but for a period of time in elementary school, I deliberately began pronouncing it the way my friends and teachers did — “Bear-ee” — in order to fit in. At home, however, I still used the long “aa” pronunciation. This is an example of a process called “code-switching,” in which a speaker changes the way he or she uses language when speaking to different groups of people. Code-switching can be unconscious (as when you travel to a different part of the country and find yourself inadvertently taking on aspects of the local accent) or conscious (as when you deliberately use certain words and phrases only at work, and others only at home). It can be cultural, social, even political. It’s a fascinating phenomenon in which we can employ both dialect and accent to adjust the ways in which we communicate.
I’m sure you can think of some personal examples of this — I certainly can. For years, I could turn the word “like” on and off like a switch: it peppered my speech while I was with my friends, but made only occasional appearances when I spoke to my parents. Nowadays, when I travel to the UK, I consciously use British English vocabulary in order to be better understood, and I also tend to unconsciously alter my inflection and pronunciation to reflect the speech of those around me. And when I return home to Connecticut, some traces of the accent that I grew up hearing return automatically…such as our charming tendency to substitute a glottal stop for a medial or final T.
“Baa-ree!” my mother calls to me across the house.
My shouted reply:
So…where does all this linguistic mumbo-jumbo leave us?
Dialect is what you say and how you say it.
Accent is just how you say it.
So wherever you’re from, if you speak English, you have an accent.