• Question: How do people have accents?

    Asked by to Suzanne, Nadine, Ioannis, Carolyn on 8 Jan 2018. This question was also asked by .
    • Photo: Carolyn McGettigan

      Carolyn McGettigan answered on 8 Jan 2018:

      Accents are a really fascinating aspect of how we speak, and can be a strong aspect of our identity. Everyone has an accent, no matter where they come from or what language they speak.
      Your accent is basically your style of speaking, and can be affected strongly by the people around you.

      There are lots of factors that can influence the accent you develop as a child, and these can include the language history of the place where you learn to speak (e.g. I grew up in Ireland, so the way I sound is probably influenced by the fact that people would have spoken Gaelic there before English became the main language). There are also geographical influences – people living in one village might have quite a different accent to another village only a few miles away, but separated by some obstacle like a river or mountain that might have kept those groups apart in the past.

      Your accent can also change during your lifetime. While you might spend your first years speaking with the accent(s) of your parents, school can be a very strong influence on your accent because friends and peers are so important to us, and so we tend to adapt to how they sound. Some people might even change their accent in later life, maybe because of moving to a new town, or another country.

      Given that rivers and mountains aren’t barriers to travel today, and that we can move all over the world, why might accents still exist? Well, there is some evidence that immigration and movement can shape accents in some ways – there are interesting changes within big cities in the UK for example, that reflect the effects of changing populations and even the influence of accents in television shows! But nonetheless, someone from N Ireland like me will still tend to sound quite different from someone who grew up in Manchester or Plymouth. In many ways, accents are an important part of our identity – I like people to hear where I come from, because it tells them something more about who I am, and what my experiences might have been. So, expressing our identity and place in the world may contribute to accents being preserved.