Thursday, 10 January 2013

Explore the Complications of Accents

I’ve been too busy lately to produce any Words of Wisdom so it’s about time I remedied that.

This week it’s Explore the Complications of Accents. The basis of an accent is the tonal quality of the vowels and consonants in a person’s speech. This is largely determined by the way a speaker adjusts the geometry of their face and mouth, to make a different speech instrument to make sounds through, but is not the whole story..

Apart from the tone of a voice, nasal or open, for example, there is the tempo, that is the rate at which people speak – people from big cities tend to speak more quickly than those from the country (they also walk faster.) Similarly, big city speech tends to be more throaty, the throat being closed against the pollution and traffic fumes that fill the air.

Other considerations are: how much do the speakers use emphasis or do they deliver more smoothly? Are their consonants slurred or pricked out? To what extent do they tend to be dramatic or phlegmatic? These are individual characteristics but we do all tend to conform to cultural norms.

All individuals differ slightly (that’s how we recognise people from their voices,) but they do fall into broadly similar groups and we do tend to affiliate with people who sound the same as we do. In fact studies in the USA show that there are better race relations in cities where black and white people sound alike, compared with plsces where black and white have different accents..

Another interesting area of study is where accents have been influenced directly by other languages and cultures:: the various Scottsh accents, Welsh, Irish, Caribbean, African, Eastern European, South and East Asian, and last and by no means the many accents of the USA, to which we are all heavily exposed through the mass media. And as the planet has become a smaller and smaller place, through globalisation, accents are everywhere moderating and the young speak differently from the old.

It should always be remembered that the way we speak is a sensitive matter of class and identity and that not everyone is happy about the way they sound. And then there is the whole matter of RP English, but that must wait for another time.