Dr. Universe,

Why do people have different accents? Why do we have them and need them?

— Florrie P., 9, U.K.

Dear Florrie,

Whether you say hello, ’ello, hey ya’ll, toe-may-toe or toe-ma-toe, we all have a kind of accent that often comes from where we live or who lives around us.

That’s what I found out from my friend Nancy Bell, a Washington State University professor who is really curious about the way language works. She told me more about why we have accents and why we need them.

There are a lot of different accents. You might have friends who speak English but have a Scottish, Irish, Australian or French accent.

Even in the U.S., there are many accents from the East to the West to the Midwest to the South. In those regions, people also speak many types of English, such as Chicano English, African American English or Indian English.

A lot of times when you see a difference in the way people talk, there is also some kind of physical barrier between them. This might be something like a mountain, a river or the Atlantic Ocean that separates you and me. When groups of people are isolated from each other, they develop unique ways of speaking, including accents and whole new languages.

We also have social barriers, Bell said. We sometimes see differences in the way people talk when groups are segregated from each other. These social barriers still persist today.

You might wonder why there are still accents if people can travel more easily over mountains and oceans and because there isn’t as much segregation as there has been in the past.

“Why don’t different accents disappear?” Nancy asked me. “It’s part of identity. The way we speak instructs and signals to other people who we are.”

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find myself being a bit of a copycat when I hear someone with an accent different than mine. I start speaking with their accent, too.

Bell said this is a phenomenon called speech accommodation. It usually happens when you like the other person and want to find common ground. The opposite can also happen. You can find yourself trying to steer far away from someone’s accent if you don’t really get along.

We can also learn new accents — just think about actors who have to use an accent different than their own. We can also lose our accents after we’ve lived in a different place for a long time, too.

While a lot of people have accents depending on where they live or the way people around them speak, they also have their own personal way of speaking. It’s called an idiolect — and our accents are just one part of it.

The different ways we pronounce things, the sentences we string together and the vocabulary we have can help us express ourselves, our identities and feel connected to our culture. All that diversity is a good thing, so don’t let the cat get your tongue.


Have a science question? Ask Dr. Wendy Sue Universe, WSU’s resident science cat and writer, by email at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu, on her website at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu, via Twitter at @AskDrUniverse or at facebook.com/AskDrUniverse.

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