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What is an Accent?

» What is an Accent?

January 5th, 2008 by admin

Answer provided by Anthea Fraser Gupta (With input from other panelists), School of English, University of Leeds

An accent is a way of pronouncing a language. It is therefore impossible to speak without an accent.

Some people may think they do not have an accent. Or you may think that there are other people who do not have an accent. Everyone has an accent. The term ‘accentless’ is sometimes used (by non-linguists) about people who speak one of the high prestige ‘reference’ accents (such as ‘General American’ or, less commonly, ‘RP’), which are associated with people from a fairly wide region and with people of high social class. But these are also accents. I will mention them again later in this FAQ.

Your accent results from how, where, and when you learned the language you are speaking and it gives impressions about you to other people. People do not have a single fixed accent which is determined by their experiences. We can control the way we speak, and do, both consciously and unconsciously. Most people vary their accent depending on who they are speaking with. We change our accents, often without noticing, as we have new life experiences.

How accurate people are in knowing about you from your accent depends not only on the features of your accent, but also on who the listener is, and what they know about the other people who speak with a similar accent to you.

Your accent might be one that is associated with people from a particular place (for example, with being from New York, London, or Delhi). Some people might just hear you as simply being from the US, England, or India. Your accent might give the impression that you spoke some other language before the one you are speaking at the moment (you might speak French with an English accent, or English with a Korean accent). It’s impossible to speak without conveying some information through your accent.

All languages are spoken with several different accents. There is nothing unusual about English. And not everyone who comes from the same place speaks the same: in any place there is a variety of accents.

Language changes over time. We get new words, there are grammatical changes, and accents change over time. If you listen to recordings made by people from your own language community 100 years ago, you will hear for yourself that even over that time accents have changed. Try out some of the links from the Spoken Word Archive Group, for example.


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