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  • Writer's pictureKristie

Accent Changes: Natural, or Fakery?

As a linguist (MA, University of Florida, 2006), I live for accents and dialects. I have witnessed my own accents - in English, Chinese, and Spanish - travel the spectrum and back: from Jersey to Singapore English; from down-home Sichuan Province to snooty Beijing dialect; from to-the-point Madrid to wandering Montevideo banter.

Whenever I notice my accent begin to change, I automatically check myself: is my accent changing a sign of my evolution into the new culture, or is it me just trying to fit in?

From Madrid to Montevidean Spanish: No sé que...

One night, I was relaxing and drinking whiskey in a teacup on my couch with the tall drink of water I´ve been seeing from northern Spain (hint: pintxos, cider, Atletic). Knowing I lived two years in Madrid, my companion astutely pointed out that my speech patterns in Spanish actually sound more characteristic of rioplatense Spanish (from Uruguay and Argentina), versus the Madrid-style Spanish I learned and spoke years back. I could buy it; all of the people I speak Spanish with now are Uruguayan or from other parts of Latin America (with the exception of tall drink ;). No one here pronounces their zapatos (shoes) as thapatos, like in Spain. No one uses vosotros (you guys/ y'all) in Latin America, either. And while I still default to Spain-dialect Spanish (aka - Castellano) -- words like chulo (cool), majo (awesome), de puta madre (fucking epic) and capullo (asshole), among other Castellano-isms -- my speech path has become much more circular and roundabout. More tranki (relaxed) - more rioplatense.

When I arrived to Montevideo five months ago, I dutifully restricted myself from adopting Uruguayan words and expressions, like re-cheto (super posh), not because I didn´t want to speak like Uruguayans, but because I didn't want my new crowd to think I was faking changes to my Spanish accent. The no se ques (not sure, but...), tal y cuals (something like...), esteeeee (uhhh)...and capaz ques (perhaps...) sounded so wayward and appealing as a gozadora (enjoyer) of wandering towards my point (in any language). But I worried that Uruguayans might think I was trying to gain social capital and acceptance if I changed my way of speaking too soon. I had flashbacks to the giant cringe of Madonna's London-ish-not-really accent: NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME, Mags!

How and why does an accent change?

Short-to-medium term accent plasticity is characterized by linguistic researchers as an "automatic consequence" of interactions with people around us (Goldinger 1998). The changing accent of an individual person, and even that of an entire community or generation, is linked to sociolingustic factors in our environment and is something most of us are not even aware of even as it is happening.

When a person's accent changes, it is a subconscious attempt to close the gap on social distance. Key word, subconscious - because we don´t realize it is happening. Accomodating ourselves to a new environment, seeking validation through being heard and understood, is something we do naturally as humans, and it puts into motion the sliding-scale shifts in our accent over time. We subconsciously seek approval through the way we are heard and received, even though we are completely unaware that we are trying to do so. (I personally think Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow are, through some linguistic loophole, forcing their own weird accents which are neither here nor there!) Whether in small increments, or in complete overhauls, accent shifts are an automatic expression of survival-seeking in a new environment.

Can People Force Their Accents to Change?

Sure, but not entirely. This is where phonetics comes in: accents are defined by where and how phonetic prominence is assigned in a word. In American English, the /t/ and /d/ softening/ flapping at the end of a word is an example of where phonetics creates an accent singular to a place in the world. With American English, non-native speakers struggle to assimilate the flapped /t/ and /d/ endings of words, at first, and eventually most arrive at an approximation of it. But it goes without saying that a full assimilation of the /t/ and /d/ flapped ending will not happen every single time - it will fall away on occasion, as it takes effort for the brain to approximate a non-native sound.

So, in a given sentence, I may match intonation, syntax (sentence order), and phonetic utterances to a native speaker of Uruguay, but this will never, ever happen across the board, no matter how long I live here. Just like Madonna can speak half a sentence in a somewhat approximating London accent but a word or two later, it falls away. It is not possible to totally assimilate an accent that is not native to you - naturally, or by force.

Should I let my accent change?

If, like me, you are living somewhere that is not your hometown, you may find yourself with a hodgepodge of accents coming from all over the place. Most people tend to celebrate this, commenting that they say one stray word in the accent of X place, and isn´t that adorable...? (Nope.) For me, I am constantly keeping myself in check when it comes to adopting new accents. Is what I said actually what my brain has manufactured, through environmental changes, or am I trying to take on a reality that is not yet mine? Usually it is the former, but I think it is 100% ok to make sure your motivations and how you present yourself are in the right place - to not force an accent change. It is 100% ok to be who you are in this moment, even if how you say things does not always make sense to the people around you. It is better to be authentic than a halfway interesting character of manufactured qualities :)

So yes, let it in, let it wash over you... and take note of what you learn about yourself through the process of your own accent changes.

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