Why do people have accents?

Since I’m teaching Language and Society this quarter, this is a question that I anticipate coming up early and often. Accents–or dialects, though the terms do differ slightly–are one of those things in linguistics that is effortlessly fascinating. We all have experience with people who speak our language differently than we do. You can probably even come up with descriptors for some of these differences. Maybe you feel that New Yorkers speak nasally, or that Southerners have a drawl, or that there’s a certain Western twang. But how did these differences come about and how are perpetuated?

Hyundai Accents
Clearly people have Accents because they’re looking for a nice little sub-compact commuter car.

First, two myths I’d like to dispel.

  1. Only some people have an accent or speak a dialect. This is completely false with a side of flat-out wrong. Every single person who speaks or signs a language does so with an accent. We sometimes think of newscasters, for example, as “accent-less”. They do have certain systematic variation in their speech, however, that they share with other speakers who share their social grouping… and that’s an accent. The difference is that it’s one that tends to be seen as “proper” or “correct”, which leads nicely into myth number two:
  2. Some accents are better than others. This one is a little more tricky. As someone who has a Southern-influenced accent, I’m well aware that linguistic prejudice exists. Some accents (such as the British “received pronunciation”) are certainly more prestigious than others (oh, say, the American South). However, this has absolutely no basis in the language variation itself. No dialect is more or less “logical” than any other, and geographical variation of factors such as speech rate has no correlation with intelligence. Bottom line: the differing perception of various accents is due to social, and not linguistic, factors.

Now that that’s done with, let’s turn to how we get accents in the first place. To begin with, we can think of an accent as a collection of linguistic features that a group of people share. By themselves, these features aren’t necessarily immediately noticeable, but when you treat them as a group of factors that co-varies it suddenly becomes clearer that you’re dealing with separate varieties. Which is great and all, but let’s pull out an example to make it a little clearer what I mean.

Imagine that you have two villages. They’re relatively close and share a lot of commerce and have a high degree of intermarriage. This means that they talk to each other a lot. As a new linguistic change begins to surface (which, as languages are constantly in flux, is inevitable) it spreads through both villages. Let’s say that they slowly lose the ‘r’ sound. If you asked a person from the first village whether a person from the second village had an accent, they’d probably say no at that point, since they have all of the same linguistic features.

But what if, just before they lost the ‘r’ sound, an unpassable chasm split the two villages? Now, the change that starts in the first village has no way to spread to the second village since they no longer speak to each other. And, since new linguistic forms pretty much come into being randomly (which is why it’s really hard to predict what a language  will sound like in three hundred years) it’s very unlikely that the same variant will come into being in the second village. Repeat that with a whole bunch of new linguistic forms and if, after a bridge is finally built across the chasm, you ask a person from the first village whether a person from the second village has an accent, they’ll probably say yes. They might even come up with a list of things they say differently: we say this and they say that. If they were very perceptive, they might even give you a list with two columns: one column the way something’s said in their village and the other the way it’s said in the second village.

But now that they’ve been reunited, why won’t the accents just disappear as they talk to each other again? Well, it depends, but probably not. Since they were separated, the villages would have started to develop their own independent identities. Maybe the first village begins to breed exceptionally good pigs while squash farming is all the rage in the second village. And language becomes tied that that identity. “Oh, I wouldn’t say it that way,” people from the first village might say, “people will think I raise squash.” And since the differences in language are tied to social identity, they’ll probably persist.

Obviously this is a pretty simplified example, but the same processes are constantly at work around us, at both a large and small scale. If you keep an eye out for them, you might even notice them in action.

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Of cups, mugs, glasses and semantic drift

One of the more interesting little sub-fields in linguistics is diachronic semantics. That’s the study of how word meanings change over time. Some of these changes are relatively easy to track. A “mouse” to a farmer in 1900 was a small rodent with unfortunate grain-pilfering proclivities. To a farmer today, it’s also one of the tools she uses to interact with her computer. The word has gained a new semantic sense without losing it’s original meaning. Sometimes, however,  you have a weird little dance where a couple of words are negotiating over the same semantic space–that’s another way of saying a related group of concepts that a language groups together–and that’s where things get interesting. “Cup”, “mug” and “glass” are engaged in that little dance-off right now (at least in American English). Let’s see how they’re doing, shall we?

Glasses 800 edit
Cup? Glass? Jug? Mug? Why don’t we just call them all “drinking vessels” and be done with it?
Cup: Ok, quick question for you: does a cup have to have a handle? The Oxford dictionaries say “yes“, but I really think that’s out of date at this point. Dr. Reed pointed out that this was part of her criteria for whether something could be called a “cup” or not, but that a lot of younger speakers no longer make that distinction. In fact, recently I noticed that someone of my acquaintance uses “cup” to refer only to disposable cups. Cup also has the distinct advantage of being part of a lot of phrases: World cup, Stanley cup, cup of coffee, teacup, cuppa, cup of sugar, in your cups, and others that I can’t think of right now.

So “cup” is doing really well, and gaining semantic ground.

Glass: Glass, on the other hand, isn’t doing as well. I haven’t yet talked to someone who can use “glass” to refer to drinking vessels that aren’t actually made of glass including, perhaps a little oddly, clear disposable cups. On the other hand, there are some types of drinking vessels that I can only refer to as glasses. Mainly those for specific types of alcohol: wine glass, shot glass, martini glass, highball glass (though I’ve heard people referring to the glass itself just as a highball, so this might be on the way out). There are alcohol-specific pieces of glassware that don’t count as glasses though–e.g. champagne flute, brandy snifter–so it’s not a categorical distinction by any means.

“Glass” seems to be pretty stable, but if “cup” continues to become broader and broader it might find itself on the outs.

Mug: I don’t have as much observational data on this one, but there seems to be another shift going on here. “Mug” originally referred only to drinking vessels that were larger than cups (see below), and still had handles.

Mugs2000ppx
Note that the smaller ones on top are “cups” and the larger ones on the bottom are labelled as “mugs”.
Most people call those insulated drinking vessels with the attached lids “travel mugs” rather than “travel cups” (640,000 Google hits vs. 22,400) but I find myself calling them “cups” instead. I think it’s because 1) I pattern it with disposable coffee cups and 2) I find handledness is a necessary quality for mugs. I can call all of the drinking vessels in the picture above “mugs” and prefer “mug” to “cup”.

So, at least for me, “mug” is beginning to take over the semantic space allotted to “cup” by older speakers.

Of course, this is a very cursory, impressionistic snapshot of the current state of the semantic space. Without more robust data I’m hesitant to make concrete predictions about the ways in which these terms are negotiating their semantic space, but there’s definitely some sort of drift going on.