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Why accents exist

linguistics May 24, 2022
Why accents exist - a green background with the words glaswegian, geordie, bristolian, scouse, brummy and somerset in white

"Where's your accent from?" It's likely that you've been asked this at some point in your life... Especially as here in the UK we have significant accent shifts every 25 miles on average!

Just think how different people can sound from Somerset to Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle! But why is this? And is there a standard way of speaking English?

Accents are a way of expressing our identities - who we are, where we’re from, which group we belong to or don’t belong to. But how did accents come about? Well, when the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in England between the 4th & 5th centuries they had came from different parts of the continent - namely Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands. They already had different accents and dialects, so when they settled in different parts of the country they proliferated new families of accents. There was very little travel, and of course no media so these regional accents stayed local. 

So, is there a standard for how we should be speaking English?

'Received Pronunciation' (RP) was set as a standard around 200 years ago as the accent of the elite in the South of England. Before this there was no RP - you could get to the top of the kingdom with a regional accent - e.g. Sir Walter Raleigh & Francis Drake both had Devonshire accents.

Once set, RP quickly became the voice of the public schools where civil servants, upper classes, missionaries and cavalry officers were trained. In turn, it then became the “voice “of the British Empire and throughout the 19th Century the voice of the theatre and eventually the voice of the BBC!

Survival of the linguistically fittest - the accent hierarchy.
Sadly it can be part of human nature to mock people who are not the same as us - especially when survival is involved. Evidence of mocking accents goes back to the Middle Ages - “they sound awful” - it’s a way to distance yourself from your enemies in some way.

However it works the other way too. As we became more mobile over the centuries we started to adapt parts of our accents to accommodate people we like or who we want to fit in with from other societies. We still do this today, and pick out certain features and then end up developing an inconsistent accent. This is the main trend that’s happening to accents around the English-speaking world today, and everybody does it but some more than others.

In episode 7 of Cate’s podcast she talks to Professor David Crystal about English accents past and present. David gives an example of accent-accommodation by Prince William. In public he uses Received Pronunciation, however in private conversations he tries to distance himself from RP and aims to speak like everyone else - dropping his h’s’, putting in glottal stops etc. So, in a way our accents become our linguistic wardrobe. We adjust them to fit in to accommodate or to fit in with what who aspire to be like! 

For more on accents, listen to episode 6 & 7 of Cate’s podcast. 

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