Accents – Do you have one?

Standard

I hear every so often someone saying (either to me or just in passing… and by “just in passing” I mean “eavesdropping”) that they do not have an accent. This got me thinking about whether it is correct to say that, or just a downright fallacy…

A lot of people associate the word “accent” a difference they can hear in relation to their speech versus another persons’ speech in the same tongue. For instance, Bristolian versus Liverpudlian in English, Canadian versus Parisian in French, even Ōsaka-ben versus Hiroshima-ben in Japanese. While the same language is being used to communicate, there are differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, structure/syntax, sometimes even meaning (the phrase “going outside to light up a fag” means COMPLETELY different things in British English and American English, as found by an ESL colleague at work…)

But you know I’m going mix this up a bit, seeing as linguistics is rarely that simple, and playing devil’s advocate is always a fun way to pass the time.

Most people use the word accent, but I’m sure a lot of people have heard of the word dialect too. How would these be differentiated? Are they the same? Is it possible to have one without the other or are they interchangeable? A response on this website to a similar question denotes accent as being part of a dialect, and throws in another linguistic term known as idiolect. Another website provides similar definitions for American English. In short, this is the distinction provided:

  • Accent = the way words are spoken in a certain language
  • Dialect = the variation of a language involving syntax, vocabulary, grammar and accent
  • Idiolect = an individuals’ dialect involving the same features as a regional dialect

So, in other words, when you are speaking or using language, you are operating with your idiolect within the confines of a regional dialect that in turn contains an accent. As the power of speech is conveyed by the words you use, the order you use them in, the way you conjugate the words and way that you articulate them, I would derive that it is impossible to say that you do not have an accent.

This t-shirt lies.

I have a feeling, though, that some of you won’t be convinced. This is mainly down to that fact that I’ve used the above argument before and have been met with “Yeah, but I still don’t have an accent,” to which I would reply “Muahha*! But then how did you just say that sentence?!”

To understand what the hell I mean by that, take a look at this chart (full-size version here):

Terrifying to most, but great fun in Linguistic lectures where everyone is trying to make all the noises and end up sounding like geese with laryngitis.

This is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) chart. Anyone who has studied linguistics will probably have seen this and might see where I’m going with this. For those of you who see this as a bunch of hieroglyphs and squiggles, let me explain. The IPA claims to be able to chart all the sounds that can be physically articulated in the human mouth, both consonants and vowels. To each of these base sounds, modifiers can be added to account for variations, stresses… the whole shebang. If you look at most dictionaries, there will be sets of these squiggles following the words indicating how they are pronounced in accordance with the standard dialect variety in that language (in English this is called Received Pronunciation, or RP). Of course, you don’t have to pronounce it like that, it’s just giving you a clue. It’s also really handy for learning how to pronounce things in a different language if you need a hand doing so.

See? Much better.
Kind of.

Anyway, my point is this. If this chart can show all the sounds that humans can articulate, it must be possible to transcribe anyone’s speech into phonetic script, no matter how much or little the accent may skip in tone, omit or merge sounds, etc. As this transcription shows how you pronounce things, by its very definition it will be transcribing your accent. Thus, the only way to have no accent is to not communicate at all.**

And as a closing comment, if you still think that you have no accent despite it being a part of your dialect and therefore your idiolect too, try this when you have the time: travel 100+ miles to another part of the country in which you reside. Chat to a local. Then you’ll see how much of an accent you have… and so will they!

——————

*I probably wouldn’t say the Muahha bit. Not consciously, anyway. I don’t see myself as much of a magician/evil villain so I don’t feel worthy enough to use such an exclamation at the start of a retort.

**Note that I’ve used the word “communicate” here. This is because dialects are not only found in spoken language but also sign language; see my previous post for more information on that!

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