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Why Are the Accents a Particular Place Like They Are?

» Why Are the Accents a Particular Place Like They Are?

November 9th, 2007 by admin

Answer provided by Anthea Fraser Gupta (With input from other panelists), School of English, University of Leeds
Separate development accounts for some accent variation. But sometimes we need to talk about the first generation of speakers of a particular language brought up in a new place. The first children to grow up in a new place are very important. The children who grow up together are a ‘peer group’. They want to speak the same as each other to express their group identity. The accent they develop as they go through their childhood will become the basis for the accents of the new place. So where does their accent come from?

The first generation of children will draw on the accents of the adults around them, and will create something new. If people move to a new place in groups (as English speakers did to America, Australia and New Zealand) that group usually brings several different accents with them. The children will draw on the mixture of accents they hear and create their own accent out of what they hear. The modern accents of Australia are more similar to London accents of English than to any other accent from England — this is probably because the founder generation (in the eighteenth century) had a large component drawn from the poor of London, who were transported to Australia as convicts. The accents of New Zealand are similar to Australian accents because a large proportion of the early English-speaking settlers of New Zealand came from Australia.

The mix found in the speech of the settlers of a new place establishes the kind of accent that their children will develop. But the first generation born in the new place will not keep the diversity of their parents’ generation — they will speak with similar accents to the others of their age group. And if the population grows slowly enough, the children will be able to absorb subsequent children into their group, so that even quite large migrations of other groups (such as Irish people into Australia) will not make much difference to the accent of the new place. Most parents know this. If someone from New York (US) marries someone from Glasgow (Scotland, UK), and these two parents raise a child in Leeds (England, UK), that child will not speak like either of the parents, but will speak like the children he (I know of such a child!) is at school with.

To understand what happened in the past we need strong evidence from both language and history. We need to know about the places that migrants came from, and something about the kinds of accents they are likely to have had.


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