Changing accents

I heard an interesting discussion on Radio Cymru recently about accents. They talked about Welsh, and English, regional accents that have negative associations for people from other regions, or that people find difficult to follow, and whether they would change their accent to make it easier for others to understand them, and/or to avoid the negative associations.

My accent has changed a bit over time – it is currently more or less RP, but used to be more northern, and it depends to some extent though on who I’m talking to. I haven’t tried to change it deliberately. The only thing I consciously pay attention to in formal situations is the pronunciation of th [θ/ð], particularly the unvoiced version, [θ], which tends to default to [f].

Are the negative associations with accents from particular parts of your country, or with accents of particular social groups within your country?

Have you deliberately changed your accent in your native language(s)? If so, what led you to do so?

8 thoughts on “Changing accents

  1. My mother tongue is Hong Kong Cantonese. I speak Cantonese to some of my colleague from China (some of them are from Guangdong, China and understand Cantonese). When I speak to them, I speak slower and won’t use words that I am afraid which is only used in Hong Kong. Also, I tend to pronounce 你 (you) as “nei5” rather than “lei5” which is basically what most people pronounce in Hong Kong.

    In Hong Kong, people who speaks in Cantonese with a non-Hong Kong accent are being discriminated because of politics (the relationship between Hong Kong people and the communist government).

  2. I live in eastern New England, and there’s definitely a noticeable prejudice against the local accent. People who have it often try to suppress it, and I’ve heard at least one person who isn’t from the area lament that their children were picking it up at school.

  3. In Germany, many people find the stereotypical Saxon accent impossible to take seriously – unfortunately for Saxons trying to change it it’s also very distinctive, with all rounded vowels becoming unrounded, basically. The connotation is partly just because it identifies speakers as east German (and so they suffer from the “clueless Ossi” stereotypes), but also because the political elite of the DDR was dominated by Saxons.

    The stereotypical Bavarian accent also has negative connotations for some people (including myself, I’ll admit), presumably partly due to the old north-south Protestant-Catholic divide combined with the efforts of the CSU in giving their state a reputation for reactionary conservatism disguised as folksiness.

    I’d say it’s quite possible to become Chancellor and have a Hessian accent, but a Saxon would have a very hard time.

    Other dialects seem to be a matter of personal taste, as far as I can tell (though neighbouring towns in Germany have a tendency to traditionally hate each other’s guts and will use dialectal differences as a shibboleth).

    There is also a gradient in Germany as to the status of the local dialects. Very basically, the further South one goes the more acceptable the dialect becomes in formal contexts and for high-status individuals, to the point where in Bavaria it is pretty much required of politicians (to demonstrate that folksiness).

  4. I do try to tone down my own Hessian dialectal characteristics when I’m away from home, or when speaking in formal contexts or at university, and I tone them “up” when ordering drinks or speaking to family or old friends, but I suspect my vowels always sound a little Frankfurt-y.

  5. My dialect of German has some characteristic sounds that are not found in “Hochdeutsch”, so even when I speak proper German you can recognise that I’m not from Germany. But luckily, most people find this accent very cute and it often remindes them of their vacation in Austria, because I live in a touristy region. So there is a positive association about my accent. I never thought about changing it.

    But there are some accents of German which I don’t like very much, because they sound “poshy” to me, although these are, of course, only prejudices. A typical example is the accent from Vienna. But I assume in every coutry the accent of the capital sounds poshy to the rest of the country 🙂

  6. Dani: The dialect of Berlin has a reputation for being especially uncouth and “ungrammatical”, interestingly, going back at least as far as the 19th century!
    Associations of dialects are weird, though — I associate dialects that replace intervocalic [ʁ] with [x] with poshness, for example, while a friend of mine has relatives she can’t stand that speak that way and associates it with uneducated rude people.

  7. …not intervocalic, sorry. As the first element in consonant clusters, like in “Furcht” or “wirklich” or “Wort”.

  8. My native dialect is Californian, which is close to standard American English. When I moved to New Mexico, I slowly picked up the local accent and used it in some situations, while keeping my native accent in others. I think I used it as a way of saying “I’m a local.” For example, I would use it at the bank as a way of “fitting in” — to gain the clerks favor, in a way. I would also use it when talking to tourists (we were a touristy area). But when talking to my friends at school, I usually used my native dialect. I think part of that was that there was an ethnic divide between Hispanics and non-Hispanics, so my friends were all white and black. If I’d hung out with Hispanic kids, I think I would have used the accent with them. All of this was subconscious, of course.

    When I moved to Texas, my habits carried over. I remember getting my picture taken for my state ID and using my best New Mexican accent, despite the fact that the people I talked to had Texan accents! For the most part, though, my accent stayed dormant until I went to volunteer with the Central American refugees who are coming over the Texan border.

    I didn’t use it with the refugees themselves (they didn’t speak English, so I spoke Spanish), but I did use it with the Hispanic volunteers. Most of the volunteers were Mexican-American, descended from Mexican-Americans, or even straight-up Mexican (some people had driven from Mexico to volunteer), and it turns out a Mexican accent is very similar to a New Mexican accent. The biggest difference I noticed was vocabulary; in New Mexico, older people called younger people jito/jita (probably a shortening of “mi hijito” or just “hijito”, meaning “little son”) which I’ve never heard anywhere else.

    In no time I’d picked the accent right back up, but I immediately switched to my Californian accent when talking to white or black volunteers. Basically, I guess I use accents as a way of fitting in.

    As for the Texan accent, I have yet to pick up any sound changes. I have started saying “might could” and (sometimes) “y’all”, though. I wonder if part of it is that I came from New Mexico. Tourists were often (usually?) from Texas and the South, and there was local prejudice against them. They were the “other”. And since I was white and originally from somewhere else, I think I had extra motivation to distance myself from them. The last thing I wanted was to be mistaken for a tourist.

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