Accents and the brain

A researcher at University College London who is looking into how we come by our accents, among other things, has found that more of the brain is involved in speech than previously thought.

An article in The Times explains how the brain of an impressionist was scanned while he was saying short phrases in a variety of accents, or as an impersonation of someone famous. The scan revealed that not only was he using the parts of the brain known to be involved with language, but also other parts involved with movement: one for visualising images and one for body movement. The conclusion was that he was “literally thinking himself into someone’s skin when he was adopting a different accent.”

It is suggested that this research could lead to new ways to help people with communication problems.

The question at the beginning of the article – “Why do some people hold on to their accents all their lives while others drop them overnight?” is no really discussed.

Do you still have the accent you had as a child? Or has it changed? Do you slip into other accents from time to time?

I used to have a bit of a Lancashire accent, but it now closer to RP and tends to vary depending on whom I’m talking to. I often slip into other accents, especially Scottish, Irish and Welsh ones.

This entry was posted in English, Language, Pronunciation.

0 Responses to Accents and the brain

  1. Junko says:

    I no doubt have a bit of Japanese accent but speak a lot like my husband (I think.) I notice a change in my accent to some digree when I speak with other people. I used to work with a Danish boss and my husband used to tell me I had an European accent.

  2. JRice says:

    Oh, accents are the main reason that I went into Linguistics.

    When I was a senior in High School, I mentioned to my girlfriend at the time that if money didn’t matter, I would definitely want to study accents, and eventually be able to produce all of them and teach other people how to get rid of them (“speech coach”). I remember well the berating that she gave me afterwards, saying that if I really wanted to that, I should be doing it, money be dammed.

    So I took up Speech Pathology.

    …And quickly realized that it was populated by unmotivated young women who wanted an alternative to early childhood education. (Hey, no offense to the profession: just to the women who were doing it at U-Mass.)

    Along the way, I fell in love with Linguistics, switched my major, and got completely sucked into it. …I was so deep into phonetics, phonology, and historical linguistics that I forgot all about accents. ; )

    But I admit I still switch accents any time I have the chance! : D

    I think the ability to convincingly switch accents within one’s native language is a direct indicator of how good your pronunciation is going to be in L2 (+).

  3. Rmss says:

    With Dutch is always had a pretty solid accent. With English I first had a more American/British accent, but my accent got more like an Australian one because of my relatives, when they visited us.

    With Spanish it depends on who I’m talking to. If it’s someone from LA I normally drop the ‘th’ sound, but when I’m holding a presentation or speaking to someone from Spain (or being in Spain myself) I have the ‘th’ sound.

  4. Alessandro Delgado says:

    As a self-thought speaker of English, I developed my own accent. I based it on existing English accents (e.g. I didn’t use any sound that isn’t commonly used in a native English accent). I knowingly took features of different accents that were easy for me to pronounce.

    I’m always adapting my English accent to what I think that feels more native and clear. Native is actually to me not as important as a. sounding clear and 2. be easy for me to pronounce.

    As to Brazilian Portuguese, my native tongue, I am generally considered a god “accents impersonator.” I am a speaker of the Carioca dialect, from the south-east of Brazil. But some (most) of my family lives in the north-east, in Ceará, and therefore speaks the Ceará subgroup of the north-east dialect.

    Whenever I go to spend my vacations there, I tend to after a few days or a couple weeks pick up some features of their dialect, specially the “singing” way of speaking they have (“singing” as in Italian people talking) and the slangs.

    I do not tend to get the grammatical features of their accent, such as a correct conjugation of the singular second person (We Cariocas — and most of Brazil — conjugate it quite wrong, e.g. we use the 2nd person pronoun and conjugate the verb in the 3rd person. It may sound weird to you, but the 2nd person is way harder than the third * ).


    “Comer” – To eat

    Eu como
    Tu comes
    Ele come
    Nós comemos
    Vós comeis
    Eles comem

    Cariocas (and most people who use “tu”) say “tu come” instead of “tu comes”.

    Some people use “você” instead of “tu”. Actually, in most places “você” is more used, in Rio de Janeiro (home of the Cariocas) tu and você are using interchangeably, depending on the level of intimacy.

    The “você” is also conjugated on the third person — but this is correct. “você” is an centuries-old contraction of “vossa mercê”, that means “your mercy” — so its “her” or “it” — therefore third person.

    Brazilian Portuguese is quite interesting lol…

  5. LandTortoise says:

    Interesting stuff. I can remember when I was about 10 deciding to lose the accent of the city I had grown up in and adopt a general, less strong accent of the REGION. I avoided the RP voice which I found rather lacking in human warmth. Since then my original accent has been overlaid by that of one of the UK regions I lived in for 10 years but I have always been careful to avoid the blandness of the RP route though.

  6. Alessandro–You probably already knew this, but in Argentine Spanish a similar thing happens, where “vos” is used in the place of “tú,” and the verb would be conjugated “comés.” And the Spanish “usted” is a contraction of “vuestra merced,” though by one heck of a convoluted route (“vuestra merced” –> “vuesa merced” –> “vusted” –> “usted”).

  7. Paula says:

    Intriguing article. It would be wonderful to see the research pan out to practical use.

    I grew up around the greater Boston area in Massachusetts. But somehow, I acquired a Canadian accent, which has remained with me for most of my life. I suspect it crept in when I spent half a year traveling around Europe when I was 18. (No, I don’t get the connection either, but there it is.)

    Which is not to say my New England accent has disappeared completely. Every time I am surrounded by family during the holidays, it comes back. I can feel the difference in how I speak. My husband thinks it quite funny.

    My little 3 year old sounds very Bostonian at the moment, but I suspect her dropping her R’s has more to do with the difficulty of training her little tongue to make the sound than any societal or parental influence. We shall see.

  8. Have you ever got in touch with sociolinguistics?

    It’s the field of science that try to explain this language variation issue.

    The question “Why do some people hold on to their accents all their lives while others drop them overnight?” is explainded under sociolinguistics (Labov’s) theory in terms of social groups, self-esteem and belonging.

    If someone is proud of belonging to a certain group, he will keep that accent. If he’s not, he’ll try to eliminate most possible features of his own accent.

    For instance, imagine two brothers from a somewhere in the country who move to another part of the country. In their new home, they are stigmatized due to their accent. Depending on the circumstances, a curious thing may happen. Suppose that one of the brothers struggles to be accepted among the local people: he’ll most probably erase his native accent and adopt features from the local accent. The other brother may have another attitude: he doesn’t like the locals. So, not only he will keep his native accent, but also reinforce it.

    A wonderful and easy reading on this subject is the classic book by Peter Trudgill, Sociolinguistics, an Introduction.

  9. Rick says:

    In high school in rural central New York, our drama coach used to complain about our “flat, nasal ‘a'” in words like “fast”. I couldn’t hear any difference between mine and his at the time, though I now know it was higher and less rounded.

    When I was 16, my family moved to central Virginia. Six months later I went back to NY for the summer, and already I could hear a difference, not just in my “a” but in “au” diphthongs (“downtown”). I had definitely picked up a partial southern accent, and it has by now (almost 40 years later) completely replaced my original one.

  10. Roselyn says:

    I was in Trinidad for about a week but when I left the hotel, the doorman and I booth noticed I had picked up a slight accent when I spoke. By the time my plane landed, I could not remember how I had made those sounds. How Language links with culture is an amazing thing.

  11. Dreaminjosh says:

    I was born in Terrebonne, Quebec to a French mother and an American father. We only lived there for about 5 years after I was born, so I had only been in school for one year there. We moved to the states (North Carolina) and since that’s where I spent most of the “developmental” years, that’s the accent I picked up. Over time though, so many people from different parts of the USA started moving to Charlotte, and it became this big melting pot of accents. Kids coming to our schools were from everywhere so over time, my southern accent became greatly neutralized. Today, I speak English with a fairly neutral Standard American accent (Though I do use the word “y’all” and when I’m playing around I’ll say “ain’t” sometimes.). Whenever I go up north, people say I have a slight southern accent still. People here in the south, though, say I don’t have one at all.

    My French accent is still just as Parisian as it always was. I never got a Canadian one.

  12. James says:

    Do excuse the tangent that I am bound to take in this: accents have always been a major interest and in the last 18 months have become an obsession. I am a native speaker of the “RP voice which [is] rather lacking in human warmth” 🙂

    “I think the ability to convincingly switch accents within one’s native language is a direct indicator of how good your pronunciation is going to be in L2 (+).”

    This has to be spot on. Most people aren´t prepared to take the risk of speaking funny. It just feels artificial. But every word I utter in Spanish is artificial, and 5 years ago I couldn´t even ask for a water in a restaurant (I was in Majorca exactly 5 years ago). Now I teach in Spanish and speak it more than I speak English.

    Some observations on accents:

    (1) When people say that you have a particular accent in a learnt L2 they probably mean that you have picked up a few of the more obvious features, not that anyone from the area would mistake you as local.

    It´s a hard truth, as we´d all love to think that we had “got it”, but I know from imitating accents in English that “getting it” is very, very difficult and takes a long time. People are often very generous, and we say that someone has an American accent because they say “Gawd” and not “God”, even though they are clearly not American. I was talking to someone the other night on the phone who didn´t know me and the part of the conversation went:

    “You´re not chilean are you?”
    Where are you from?
    Guess [NB, I am just plain difficult like that and don´t like telling people]
    Don´t know. Peru? Central America? I don´t know.

    When I was in Central America no-one thought I sounded Central American. But people say that to me quite a bit down here. Chileans have no idea what the Central American accent is really like, but can tell (a) I´m not Chilean or Argentinean (b) I speak with an educated accent. If I´m visible they can also tell (c) I´m white.

    (2) If you have a mixed or neutral accent, what people hear often reflects more about them than it does about your accent.

    Apparently my accent tends to be the “norma culta” of Andean Spanish, with overtones of Central America (I listen to Colombian Radio hours a day and simply love the accents on it). However, my Colombian friend says I sound Spanish (she is from the coast). No Spaniard would ever think I was Spanish. I just have a tendency towards an apico-alveolar /s/, which is typical of central and north Spain (and actually a few parts of Colombia and Peru). This is a typical overcompensation done by people who grew up in an /s/ dropping environment and then want to speak “properly” and I have heard the same thing in a Colombian and a Panamanian.

    (3) People´s perception of your accent depends on nonlinguistic factors.

    In Guatemala my teacher did an experiment in shop and asked the lady in it where she though I was from. She said American, not because I sound it, but because most Guatemalans in the area I was in are indigenous. She knew someone who was married to an American who looked a bit like me. I don´t look like I could be Latin to them. In Spain I was often told I looked Spanish, and Chileans and Argentinans wouldn´t think about it twice. At least not from my skin colour. But the way you move, what you wear, how you wear it and so on all funnel into people´s perception of your accent (which is why phone is quite fun as they loose all of that).

  13. SamD says:

    My accent is probably best described as Great Lakes. I’ve got family near Chicago and Cleveland, but I grew up in a city in Ohio where people are more likely to have what linguists often call a Midland accent. I grew up with more a Midland accent and it shifted when I started spending more time around people with a Great Lakes accent.

  14. Rita Rahman says:


    I came across your blog while surfing and was fascinated. I love accents and languages as well. I’m a Malaysian who studied English as a 2nd language, then went to study in the UK as a teenager, did 1 year of Japanese in Japan and went to university in the US. I speak (Malaysian) English mostly at home with what can be termed as an “international accent”. Going to Japan to study Japanese completely destroyed part of my typically British pronunciation, which is understandable since it was learnt anyway and not “natural”.

    Here in Malaysia people tend to think my accent is more British than anything else; in the US, the Americans think I sound mostly British as well while in the UK the Brits think I sound quite American with Asian and British influences. It’s fun!

    I also speak Japanese with a Malay accent and Malay with a “western” accent as well as a smattering of Cantonese with an unidentifiable accent! I read basic French and sometimes ventured to speak it in an accent and grammar that completely horrifies most French speakers! He!he!

    My next venture is German – starting in July. Wish me luck!

  15. Chris says:

    I am from Pittsburgh, as some who are accustomed to the region know that our accent is atrocious and most of the time does not even sound like English at all. I grew up in a household that never used Pittsburghese at all and so it was also frowned upon in my family. My friends from my town and I would talk and they would comment on how I say things, such as soda instead of pop, rubber band instead of gum band, wash instead of worsh, and clean up instead of red up. But as I went off to college in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, I started to pick up a Pittsburghese accent from all of the people that I talked to in the streets, or on some occasions when my friends from New England would talk to me, i would pick up a New England accent. That and also my friends from Tennessee and Kentucky would talk to me and some how during the rest of the day I would acquire an twang or a southern drawl; even sometimes saying y’all.

  16. Evans says:

    I spent the first twelve years of my life in Shreveport, Louisiana, which has it’s own distinct accent, apart from that most commonly associated with Louisiana, more akin to East Texas. The people around me, however, didn’t all necessarily talk that way. My dad’s mother is from Minnesota, so she’s always had a bit of that midwestern thing going on, and she also speaks German, so that sometimes creeps into her speech as well. My dad’s father is from South Louisiana, so he has a more classic Louisiana accent, although he isn’t Cajun. Mom’s dad was born in Coastal Virginia, and grew up both there and in South Carolina, so he has an unusual combination of the two, usually leaning towards a Piedmont sound. Mom’s mom is a born and raised Shreveporter, as her family practically built the town, so she exemplifies the typical accent.

    As for me, I lost my southern accent much faster than the rest of my family when we moved to California, and now speak, more or less, with a Standard American accent. However, it has been pointed out to me that if I am around other Southerners, drunk, or in an otherwise altered state, my accent comes back fast and strong, something I don’t really notice. Also, I’m a natural mimic, and I have the unusual talent of being able to speak other languages with (in most cases) no trace of an accent, leading many people to believe that whichever language I may be speaking in is my primary one. I also do it subconsciously: when I’ve been speaking Hindi, or simply talking to Indians, I tend to speak English with that oh-so-distinctive South Asian lilt, and the same goes for Farsi, or French, or Spanish.

    sometimes it doesn’t go over so well.

  17. N2s says:

    Hi there,

    I came across this blog while I was wondering: Why do accents disappear when a person starts to sing??


  18. Barry says:

    I grew up and still live in California about a 2 hour drive south of San Francisco. I’m pretty sure my accent has changed from when I was younger. However, my accent does change depending on what group I am around. Around college students or others in their 20’s, it’s something like that stereotyped Californian accent (but not extreme as people assume it is), which I often will exaggerate when being humorous. Around more “urban” friends, I tend to go into something similar to an African American Vernacular English accent, at work I keep it mostly general American, although the vowel o often gets heavily rounded and diphthongized.

    Speaking Spanish my accent isn’t specific, although I avoid the Mexican style accentuation despite most of the Spanish speakers here being Mexican. I also can pronounce it rather well, but what should be a proper intervocalic b or v ends up as the same v sound as in English.

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