Does accent matter? [full version]


This essay will consider whether accent matters using the studies of Cavanaugh, [2005], Vornik, Sharman and Garry, [2003] and Labov, [1963] as reference points. First, it is important to define what will be meant by ‘matter’ and to distinguish between the commonly confused accent and dialect. The latter is a regional variant in the use of a language that can be differentiated by vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. In particular, dialectal speech differs from the standard speech patterns and literary grammar of the umbrella culture e.g. the Cornish or Newcastle dialects in England. Whereas accent is the sound of the words spoken; the perceivable differences in the pronunciation of words that can allude to the speaker’s regional and/or social background and even ­­¾through characteristic phonetic habits¾ to the native tongue of someone speaking in their second language. For the purposes of this essay, ‘matter’ will be taken to mean having some [significant] effect on the thoughts/attitudes/behaviours of those who come into contact with them.

The question [does accent matter?] can be taken in a number of ways. Who does it matter to; the listener or the speaker? Does it have an impact on intelligibility of the message or on the perceived credence or status of the speaker? This essay, citing an inter-national study from New Zealand and inter-regional studies from America and Italy, will conclude that across the world, accent¾ or the sociolinguistic cues imbued in them¾ has been shown to matter in all of these instances.

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. Labov’s classic study of Martha’s Vineyard focussed on a tendency towards centralization of diphthong sounds, employed by the people of Martha’s Vineyard to create a divide between themselves and the mass influx of tourists each summer. This emphasis of their own accent, originating with the Chilmark fishermen in one area of the island and eventually spreading to the rest of the native inhabitants, is used to mark the difference between themselves and the significantly disliked ‘summer people’ and to reinforce their identity as separate and holding its own heritage. This phenomenon of deliberately maintaining or enhancing differences in language and speech patterns from others’ is known as divergence.

Cavanaugh’s study was based in Northern Italy, where she interviewed people of the town of Bergamo about their perceptions of their accents locally and nationally and also studied the perception of the Bergamasco accent and people by the rest of Italy and their representation in the national mass media. Cavanaugh, enlarging on Goffman [1974], conceived of accents ‘as the phonological representations of sociogeographical characterological figures’ [p.127] To put it simply, accents act as ‘indexes of geographical places, with social histories and acoustic icons of the sociogeographical identities and stereotypes linked to these places’ [p.128]. This effect was, according to Cavanaugh, especially strong in Italy because ‘standard Italian’ was an accent in which only a minority of the population spoke.

In her study, Cavanaugh found that the Bergamo accent held several strong groups of meaning; cultural authenticity, the image of the Bergamasco as hardworking manual labourers and one of maleness. The second of these bore mixed feelings for the locals, that of pride for their values and their roots, but also of the urge to move away from the backwardness and close-mindedness that was bound up with the Bergamasco stereotype, which was also how they were characterised in the national media. One of the reasons for this was that although they has a town had moved away from the poverty line, indeed into some considerable wealth, their stereotype had not.

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]. In addition, Cavanaugh found that the sound of Italians’ speech was reflective of their local geography, for example, the brevity of Milanese consonants reflects the stereotypical business-like, coolness of those people and the inflections of Bergamasco are suggestive of the peaks and valleys the mountain surrounds.

Another implication of accent on the people of Cavanaugh’s study was that for the women there is a choice between sounding local ¾by exhibiting the appropriate dialectal features of the strict accent¾ or being feminine. This is because Bergamasco accent considered too rough and un-sexy for women. In the same way as some accental features are considered to be appropriate to certain types of people yet inappropriate to others, so they can also be perceived to indicate social cues about the speaker, such as credibility.

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 accents employed were New Zealand and North American and the experiment was done in the style of, for one cited example, Loftus [1991] and involved slides of a shoplifting incident and subsequent misinformation, provided by audio cassette in one of the two accents [for countermeasures by the same speaker]. 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].  Their study supported previous research that showed that different accents, North American and New Zealand in particular, are considered differently by native New Zealanders i.e. ¾that English Received Pronunciation and North American are seen as more powerful­¾ and that sociolinguistic factors, such as accent can affect memory distortions [p.103].

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 ¾ and what, should we be linguistically adept to do so, we want others to think about us¾ 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.

REFERENCES:

Cavanaugh, J. R., (2005). Accent Matters: Material consequences of sounding local in Northern Italy. Language & Communication 25, 127-148. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=MImg&_imagekey=B6VB6-4G0KVDJ-3-1&_cdi=5918&_user=1682380&_orig=search&_coverDate=04%2F30%2F2005&_sk=999749997&view=c&wchp=dGLbVzz-zSkzk&md5=fa03ff584ed04720d6ec8c71521a4769&ie=/sdarticle.pdf

Labov, W. (1963) Sociolinguistic Patterns: Social Motivation of a Sound Change. Chapter 1, p 1-42. Basil Blackwell Ltd.  Available from: https://mybu.bournemouth.ac.uk/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab=courses&url=/bin/common/course.pl%3Fcourse_id%3D_20283_1

Vornik, L., Sharman, S. & Garry, M., (2003). The power of the spoken word: Sociolinguistic cues influence the misinformation effect. Memory. Vol. 11 Issue: Number 1 p101-109, 9p. Available from: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eoah&AN=11412905&site=ehost-live.

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