How do different accents get started among people speaking the same language? We learn our own language from various sources: parents, siblings, TV, radio, movies, friends, teachers and school assignments, to name just a few. Over time, our command of the English language grows and grows as we age. According to a couple of sources I’ve read, the average adult knows between 12,000 and 30,000 words.
But what factors affect our pronunciation of our own language? Some of it is our environment, I think. When your ears are constantly bombarded with a particular accent, you pick it up. My British friend has a young and adorable son who was already rocking his British accent at 3 years old, when I first met him. “Garden center” was pronounced as “gah-den cen-tah,” which he exclaimed every time he saw decorative ponds with fountains. I’m thinking the kid will grow up to be Alan Titchmarsh or Tommy Walsh.
Some of it is parenting. My best friend once mentioned that her brother and his wife refused to use baby talk with their kids, and those kids grew up speaking very precise English.
I’m curious to know — and probably somebody’s written a book about this topic somewhere — how a particular accent starts. I guess it’s influence. Maybe someone speaking in a slightly different way moves into a community and the accent grows and spreads through succeeding generations.
I don’t know if my particular American accent has a name. I slur my “d” and “t” sounds, I know. Here in the U.S., there are quite a few accents, I’d say: New England, the various boroughs of New York, the South, the twangs of the Shenandoah Valley and Tennessee and the Midwest, for example. I’m not sure if areas such as the Pacific Northwest have certain accents — I haven’t visited there yet so I don’t feel qualified to comment. (Hey, you guys in Oregon and Washington State, want to weigh in here?)
Some people I’ve met have confused me with their accents, even when we talk the same language. I had a music appreciation professor in college who kept talking about “tone collar,” which perplexed me until I realized she was talking about “tone color”. And there was a librarian I heard who referred to “Cat On A Hot Tin Ruff” (roof) while making a phone call to another library.
I get a kick sometimes out of imitating people with different accents, but it’s not easy. I can do a reasonable German or French accent. And since I live in an area where I hear Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Amharic and Arabic spoken every week as well as regional accents, I get a lot of practice material when I want to try another accent. *grins wryly*
I’m still working on my British and Aussie accents. I know that accents vary widely throughout the U.K., and every time I try to attempt my version of a British accent, my British friend snickers. She thinks my British accent sounds too upper class. (Jane Austen, see what you started??!!!) My best Aussie accent comes from a classic scene in the first “Crocodile Dundee” movie: “That’s not a knoife, mate! This is a knoife!”
You have to have a good ear for accents. Some professional actors such as Gabriel Byrne, Robin Williams or Bradley Cooper are gifted mimics, and it’s fun to listen to them. But maybe a good memory doesn’t hurt, either. Writing in a particular accent is hard, because some of your audience may not understand what you’re saying. I’ve seen some writers attempt it, while others leave it alone.
Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” once went on a rant about people with different accents and what it did (or didn’t) do for them. Although his version was done for comic reasons, he had some interesting points to make about speaking English. Enjoy.