Does accent matter? [short version]

Martha’s Vineyard

The question [does accent matter?] can be taken in a number of different ways:

  • Who does it matter to; the listener or the speaker?
  • Does it have an impact on the intelligibility of the message?
  • Does it have an impact on the perceived credence or status of the speaker?

This essay, citing an international study from New Zealand and inter-regional studies from America and Italy, will conclude that across the world, accent —or the sociolinguistic cues imbued in them—does matter.

First then, does accent matter to the listener only or also to the speaker? Labov [1963] and more recently Cavanaugh [2003] have clearly demonstrated that it matters a great deal to both.

Cavanaugh’s study enlarging on Goffman [1974], conceived of accents ‘as the phonological representations of sociogeographical characterological figures’ [p.127] According to Cavanaugh, for all Italians, accent is very important because they perceive it as representing not only geography, socio-economic status and education, but also such things as friendliness, trustworthiness and authoritativeness [Galli de’ Paratesi, 1997, 1985, cited in Cavanaugh, p.133].

Vornik, Sharman and Garry did an experiment in New Zealand to see if the accent of people supplying post event information [PEI] would have an impact on the misinformation effect. The results showed that while accent does not per se affect the misinformation effect, it operates as ‘a vehicle for information about the power and social attractiveness of the speaker’ and this information was strong enough to influence the misinformation effect. [Vornik, Sharman and Garry, 2003, p.106].

In conclusion, does accent matter?  It has been shown on numerous occasions in the local, national and international arenas that it has a bearing on how we perceive not only others around us but also how we perceive ourselves. It is and can be used as a reflection and a projection of who we are, where we come from and of our social status —and what, should we be linguistically adept to do so, we want others to think about us— and can even infer details about our geographical landscapes as well as our sociogeographical, socio-economic cultures. We can use accents to influence the way others see and remember events and the confidence with which they make judgments when supported by the social attractiveness, power and authoritativeness of certain accents.

In short, yes, accent does matter.

The full version of this essay can be found here.

EDIT May 6th 2013: For examples of how accent if used in the media to convey different characteristics, backgrounds and classes, see the following article on Game of Thrones.









  1. I like your approach to this Geo..I personally agree and think accent does matter, for me it just makes a little more interesting :)

    • Thanks Zara, appreciate the feedback :):-

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