Accent (sociolinguistics)

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In sociolinguistics, an accent is a manner of pronunciation peculiar to a particular individual, location, or nation. [1] An accent may be identified with the locality in which its speakers reside (a regional or geographical accent), the socioeconomic status of its speakers, their ethnicity, their caste or social class (a social accent), or influence from their first language (a foreign accent). [2]

Sociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context, on the way language is used, and society's effect on language. It differs from sociology of language, which focuses on the effect of language on society. Sociolinguistics overlaps considerably with pragmatics. It is historically closely related to linguistic anthropology, and the distinction between the two fields has been questioned.

Pronunciation way a word or a language is spoken, or the manner in which someone utters a word

Pronunciation is the way in which a word or a language is spoken. This may refer to generally agreed-upon sequences of sounds used in speaking a given word or language in a specific dialect, or simply the way a particular individual speaks a word or language.

Socioeconomic status Economic and social measure of a persons affluence and/or influence

Socioeconomic status (SES) is an economic and sociological combined total measure of a person's work experience and of an individual's or family's economic and social position in relation to others, based on household income, earners' education, and occupation are examined, as well as combined income, whereas for an individual's SES only their own attributes are assessed. However, SES is more commonly used to depict an economic difference in society as a whole.


Accents typically differ in quality of the voice, pronunciation and distinction of vowels and consonants, stress, and prosody. [3] 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". [1]

In linguistics, prosody is concerned with those elements of speech that are not individual phonetic segments but are properties of syllables and larger units of speech. These are linguistic functions such as intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm. Prosody may reflect various features of the speaker or the utterance: the emotional state of the speaker; the form of the utterance ; the presence of irony or sarcasm; emphasis, contrast, and focus; or other elements of language that may not be encoded by grammar or by choice of vocabulary.

The term dialect is used in two distinct ways to refer to two different types of linguistic phenomena:

In mathematics, a set A is a subset of a set B, or equivalently B is a superset of A, if A is "contained" inside B, that is, all elements of A are also elements of B. A and B may coincide. The relationship of one set being a subset of another is called inclusion or sometimes containment. A is a subset of B may also be expressed as B includes A; or A is included in B.


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 form. Accents in the Canada, South Africa, Australia and US and, for example, developed from the combinations of different accents and languages in various societies and their effect on the various pronunciations of British settlers. [4]

North America Continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere

North America is a continent entirely within the Northern Hemisphere and almost all within the Western Hemisphere; it is also considered by some to be a northern subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea.

Canada Country in North America

Canada is a country in the northern part of North America. Its ten provinces and three territories extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, covering 9.98 million square kilometres, making it the world's second-largest country by total area. Canada's southern border with the United States is the world's longest bi-national land border. Its capital is Ottawa, and its three largest metropolitan areas are Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. As a whole, Canada is sparsely populated, the majority of its land area being dominated by forest and tundra. Consequently, its population is highly urbanized, with over 80 percent of its inhabitants concentrated in large and medium-sized cities, many near the southern border. Canada's climate varies widely across its vast area, ranging from arctic weather in the north, to hot summers in the southern regions, with four distinct seasons.

South Africa Republic in the southernmost part of Africa

South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa (RSA), is the southernmost country in Africa. It is bounded to the south by 2,798 kilometres (1,739 mi) of coastline of Southern Africa stretching along the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans; to the north by the neighbouring countries of Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe; and to the east and northeast by Mozambique and Eswatini (Swaziland); and it surrounds the enclaved country of Lesotho. South Africa is the largest country in Southern Africa and the 25th-largest country in the world by land area and, with over 57 million people, is the world's 24th-most populous nation. It is the southernmost country on the mainland of the Old World or the Eastern Hemisphere. About 80 percent of South Africans are of Sub-Saharan African ancestry, divided among a variety of ethnic groups speaking different African languages, nine of which have official status. The remaining population consists of Africa's largest communities of European (White), Asian (Indian), and multiracial (Coloured) ancestry.

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. [4]


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. [5] Accents seem to remain relatively malleable until a person's early twenties, after which a person's accent seems to become more entrenched. [4]

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. [6]

Elizabeth II Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms

Elizabeth II is Queen of the United Kingdom and the other Commonwealth realms.

Royal Christmas Message Christmas message by the UK monarch

The Queen's Christmas Message is a broadcast made by the sovereign of the Commonwealth realms to the Commonwealth of Nations each Christmas. The tradition began in 1932 with a radio broadcast by King George V on the British Broadcasting Corporation's Empire Service. Since 1952, the message has been read by Elizabeth II; today, it is broadcast on television, radio, and the Internet via various providers.

Non-native accents

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. [7] [8] 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. [7] This theory, however, is quite controversial among researchers. [9] 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. [8]

Nevertheless, children as young as 6 at the time of moving to another country often speak with a noticeable non-native accent as adults. [5] 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. [10] However, neurological constraints associated with brain development appear to limit most non-native speakers’ ability to sound native-like. [11] Most researchers agree that for adults, acquiring a native-like accent in a non-native language is near impossible. [7]

Social factors

When a group defines a standard pronunciation, speakers who deviate from it are often said to "speak with an accent". [9] However, everyone speaks with an accent. [2] [12] 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. [2]

Being understood

Many teachers of English as a second language neglect to teach speech/pronunciation. [13] Many adult and near-adult learners of second languages have unintelligible speech patterns that may interfere with their education, profession, and social interactions. [13] 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. [13]

Teaching of speech/pronunciation is neglected in part because of the following myths:

Inadequate instruction in speech/pronunciation can result in a complete breakdown in communication. [13] 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. [13]

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. [13]

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. [13]

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. [9]


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. [14] 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, [15] 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. [16] However, in linguistics, there is no differentiation among accents in regard to their prestige, aesthetics, or correctness. All languages and accents are linguistically equal. [17]

Accent stereotyping and prejudice

Stereotypes refer to specific characteristics, traits, and roles that a group and its members are believed to possess. [18] 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. [19] Individuals with non-standard accents often have to deal with both negative stereotypes and prejudice because of an accent. [20] 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. [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] 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.[ citation needed ]

Accent discrimination

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. [25] 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. [2]

Speakers with certain accents often experience discrimination in housing and employment. [26] [27] 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. [28] In business settings, individuals with non-standard accents are more likely to be evaluated negatively. [29] 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. [30] 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. [9] On average, however, students taught by non-native English speakers do not underperform when compared to those taught by native speakers of English. [31] 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. [9]

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. [27] [32]

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. [12] 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. [33]

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. [34]

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. [2] English accents in Disney animated films are frequently employed to serve one of two purposes, slapstick comedy or evil genius. [35] [ better source needed ] Examples include Aladdin (the Sultan and Jafar, respectively) and The Lion King (Zazu and Scar, respectively), among others.

See also

Related Research Articles

Spoken English shows great variation across regions where it is the predominant language. This article provides an overview of the numerous identifiable variations in pronunciation; such distinctions usually derive from the phonetic inventory of local dialects, as well as from broader differences in the Standard English of different primary-speaking populations.

Non-native pronunciations of English result from the common linguistic phenomenon in which non-native users of any language tend to carry the intonation, phonological processes and pronunciation rules from their first language or first languages into their English speech. They may also create innovative pronunciations for English sounds not found in the speaker's first language.

Phonetic transcription is the visual representation of speech sounds. The most common type of phonetic transcription uses a phonetic alphabet, such as the International Phonetic Alphabet.

In sociolinguistics, a variety, also called a lect, is a specific form of a language or language cluster. This may include languages, dialects, registers, styles, or other forms of language, as well as a standard variety. The use of the word "variety" to refer to the different forms avoids the use of the term language, which many people associate only with the standard language, and the term dialect, which is often associated with non-standard varieties thought of as less prestigious or "correct" than the standard. Linguists speak of both standard and non-standard (vernacular) varieties. "Lect" avoids the problem in ambiguous cases of deciding whether two varieties are distinct languages or dialects of a single language.

Foreign accent syndrome is a medical condition in which patients develop speech patterns that are perceived as a foreign accent that is different from their native accent, without having acquired it in the perceived accent's place of origin.

John C. Wells British phonetician and Esperanto teacher

John Christopher Wells is a British phonetician and Esperantist. Wells is a professor emeritus at University College London, where until his retirement in 2006 he held the departmental chair in phonetics.

Gay male speech, particularly within North American English, has been the focus of numerous modern stereotypes, as well as sociolinguistic studies. Scientific research has uncovered phonetically significant features produced by many gay men and demonstrated that listeners accurately guess speakers' sexual orientation at rates greater than chance. One feature of the speech is sometimes known as the "gay lisp", though researchers acknowledge that it is not technically a lisp. Research does not support the notion that gay speech entirely adopts feminine speech characteristics, but, rather, that it selectively adopts some of those features. Gay speech characteristics appear to be learned ways of speaking, though their origins and process of adoption by men remain unclear.

Mockney is an affected accent and form of speech in imitation of cockney or working-class London speech, or a person with such an accent. A stereotypical mockney speaker comes from an upper-middle-class background.

Accent reduction, also known as accent modification or accent neutralization, is a systematic approach for learning or adopting a new speech accent. It is the process of learning the sound system (or phonology) and melodic intonation of a language so the non-native speaker can communicate with clarity to be understood by the general public of this second language. 

The matched-guise test is a sociolinguistic experimental technique used to determine the true feelings of an individual or community towards a specific language, dialect, or accent. This experiment was first introduced by Wallace Lambert and his colleagues at McGill University in 1960s to determine attitudes held by bilingual French Canadians towards English and French.

Communication accommodation theory (CAT) is a theory of communication developed by Howard Giles. This theory concerns "(1) the behavioral changes that people make to attune their communication to their partner, and (2) the extent to which people perceive their partner as appropriately attuning to them." This theory is concerned with the links between language, context, and identity. It focuses on both the intergroup and interpersonal factors that lead to accommodation, as well as the ways that power, macro and micro-context concerns affect communication behaviors.

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Linguistic discrimination is the unfair treatment of an individual based solely on his or her use of language. This use of language may include the individual's native language or other characteristics of the person's speech, such as an accent, the size of vocabulary, modality, and syntax. It may also involve a person's ability or inability to use one language instead of another; for example, one who speaks Occitan in France will probably be treated differently from one who speaks French. Based on a difference in use of language, a person may automatically form judgments about another person's wealth, education, social status, character or other traits. These perceived judgments may then lead to the unjustifiable treatment of the individual.

Aviation communication

Aviation communication refers to the conversing of two or more aircraft. Aircraft are constructed in such a way that make it very difficult to see beyond what is directly in front of them. As safety is a primary focus in aviation, communication methods such as wireless radio are an effective way for aircraft to communicate with the necessary personnel. Aviation is an international industry and as a result involves multiple languages. However, as deemed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), English is the official language of aviation. The industry considers that some pilots may not be fluent English speakers and as a result pilots are obligated to participate in an English proficiency test.

Linguistic profiling is the practice of identifying the social characteristics of an individual based on auditory cues, in particular dialect and accent. The theory was first developed by Professor John Baugh to explain discriminatory practices in the housing market based on the auditory redlining of prospective clientele by housing administrators. Linguistic profiling extends to issues of legal proceedings, employment opportunities, and education. The theory is frequently described as the auditory equivalent of racial profiling. The bulk of the research and evidence in support of the theory pertain to racial and ethnic distinctions, though its applicability holds within racial or ethnic groups, perceived gender and sexual orientation, and in distinguishing location of geographic origin.

Accents are the distinctive variations in the pronunciation of a language. They can be native or foreign, local or national and can provide information about a person’s geographical locality, socio-economic status and ethnicity. The perception of accents is normal within any given group of language users and involves the categorisation of speakers into social groups and entails judgments about the accented speaker, including their status and personality. Accents can significantly alter the perception of an individual or an entire group, which is an important fact considering that the frequency that people with different accents are encountering one another is increasing, partially due to inexpensive international travel and social media. As well as affecting judgments, accents also affect key cognitive processes that are involved in a myriad of daily activities. The development of accent perception occurs in early childhood. Consequently, from a young age accents influence our perception of other people, decisions we make about when and how to interact with others, and, in reciprocal fashion, how other people perceive us. A better understanding of the role accents play in our appraisal of individuals and groups, may facilitate greater acceptance of people different from ourselves and lessen discriminatory attitudes and behavior.[subjective / citations?[

Language power (LP) is a measure of one's ability to communicate effectively in a given language, specifically one that is not native to the speaker.

Jane Setter

Jane Setter is a British phonetician. She teaches at the University of Reading, where she is Professor of Phonetics. She is best known for work on the pronunciation of British and Hong Kong English, and on speech prosody in atypical populations.


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Further reading