Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Do People Have Accents?

On the evolutionary and neurophysiological origins of accents.

By Frederick L. Coolidge and Thomas J. Coolidge

My younger brother Tom (now retired) made his living as a master carpenter and musician. This past semester he decided to audit my course at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Evolutionary Neuropsychology: An Introduction to the Evolution of the Structures and Functions of the Human Brain. Despite just auditing the course, he decided he wanted to do a Pecha Kucha presentation (20 PowerPoint slides, each presented for 20 seconds) just like the students taking the course for credit. As he has lived in the northern hills of Georgia most of his adult life, he said he was interested in doing his Pecha Kucha on people’s accents. We actually grew up in Miami, where back in the 1950s and early 1960s, many of its citizens were former northerners, like our parents from New York City and Boston. Thus, our accents were a strange mixture of ‘New Yawk,’ ‘Bawstan,’ and the Deep South, with a sprinkling of Yiddish words from our Dad.

So, what is an accent? An accent is the sound of the way people speak. Generally, a group of people (who interact with each other) will all adopt a similar accent. The more geographically restricted a group is, the more they will tend to adopt similar accents from more distant groups. However, subgroups even within a similar geographical location may adopt similar accents even if different from other subgroups. These subgroups may be formed by their similar socioeconomic status, their ethnicity, their social class or caste, and/or other factors.

Accents are formed based on the way people pronounce their vowels and consonants for particular words, which is also called the prosody of speech. Prosody refers to the tone of one’s speech or its musicality. For example, we’ve noticed that the word ‘five’ is usually pronounced as a single syllable. Although in some southern US states, people tend to drag out its pronunciation to where it might sound like two syllables, like ‘fi-ve.’ There is also the opposite effect, where they might compress or leave out syllables, as in “Jeet yet? [Did you eat yet?]. “No, jont to? [No, did you want to?].

There are also some languages where a single word might have multiple meanings depending on its prosody. There is a classic example of prosodic differences in the Mandarin dialect of Chinese (a dialect is a broader term for language differences other than just pronunciation). In Mandarin, the syllable ma may mean ‘mother’ when pronounced in a high tone, ‘hemp’ when pronounced in a low-rising tone, and ‘scold’ when pronounced in a high-falling tone. Prosody is also thought to be a right hemisphere function (primarily the right supramarginal gyrus) whereas the left hemisphere tends to be more involved in the literal comprehension and production of speech.

Why do people adopt similar accents? There is no single reason people so readily and easily adopt similar accents. An interpersonal theory of accent adoption proposes that people are inherently social beings, and they wish to be like others in a clan, and so they adopt similar ways of acting, movement, facial expressions, and speaking. Further, they largely adopt these ways unconsciously, just like the way if one person yawns, it becomes contagious, and others will yawn. Actually, yawning is more contagious if the yawner and yawnee are empathically closer to each other like relatives and friends, rather than strangers, although it can still be contagious with the latter. Again, accents, just like contagious yawning, are adopted because Homo sapiens evolved in groups, and thus, are inherently social beings with social brains (see Dunbar, 1998, for a classic article about the social brain hypothesis).

A neurophysiological explanation for accent adoption may come from research on ‘mirror neurons.’ Mirror neurons were first observed in the 1980s by an Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues who observed that brain neurons in the frontal and parietal lobes of macaque monkeys would fire when a monkey would grasp an object and the same neurons would fire when other monkeys observed another monkey (or human) grasped an object. They also found that mirror neurons would fire when mouth and facial gestures were observed or mimicked. Subsequently, mirror neurons and the mirror neuron system were hypothesized to be responsible for a wide array of cognitive and social behaviors, although mirror neuron research is not without its critics (see Hickok, 2014). Nevertheless, it seems that mirror neurons may help to explain why humans can so readily adopt and mimic other humans’ behaviors, including their accents.

It is also interesting that people who learn a second language, especially after puberty, have a very difficult time adopting the accent that goes with their second language. It appears that children have a much easier time adopting a second language’s accent. This phenomenon may be due to the brain’s greater neuroplasticity before puberty than after. It appears that the left and right hemispheres begin a lateralizing process during puberty (and thus exhibit less neuroplasticity after puberty). Thus, it may be that languages and their appropriate accents are more amenable to acquisition earlier rather than later.

Finally, it is important to note that everyone has an accent. But y’all probably know that by now.

References

Dunbar, R. I. M. (1998). The social brain hypothesis. Evolutionary anthropology: Issues, news, and reviews, 6(5), 178-190.

Hickok, G. (2014). The myth of mirror neurons: The real neuroscience of communication and cognition. WW Norton & Company.

advertisement