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How accents develop and change over time

When you really think about it, it’s interesting to imagine how the differing accents between individuals that speak the same language actually arose. Accents can be distinctly different not just between countries, but states and provinces and cities as well.

A new study published in the journal Language examines how accents change over differing periods of time, and how this shows the limited impact of intense social interactions in isolated environments. The study also reveals the significant differences among individuals in how susceptible their accents are to change.

The goal of the study was to analyze how people’s accents can change over time as a result of social interactions. Although the study of accent change has been well-documented by past research over the short term (just in the context of a single conversation) and the long-term (evolving based on exposure over a period of years), the middle period between the two has barely been documented.

One of the most interesting aspects of this study is that it derived all of its information from a reality TV show. Big Brother UK is a reality show where contestants live in an isolated house for three months while their interactions are continually recorded. Because of this set up, the house is a linguistically closed system, where the researchers could both determine the dynamics of contestants’ speech from day-to-day and analyze any sources of observed changes.

Through analysis of five variable accents of any individual speaker’s accent, the researchers found that accent change over the medium term is ubiquitous, meaning that large daily fluctuations in each sound variable are common, while longer-term change over weeks to months only occurs in a minority of cases.

When compared to similar research on both long and short-term accent change, this research shows that even within settings of intense social contact, accent change is highly unique and complex. Even with constant and isolated interaction over three months, people don’t just adopt each other’s way of speaking automatically. Ultimately, this study shows that – like most other characteristics – speech patterns and accents are highly individualistic.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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