Wednesday, September 13th, 2017...9:13 pm

Fact: Everyone who speaks English speaks it with an accent.

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Yin Liu

Myth: It is possible to speak English without an accent.

Image: (cc) bellbeefer on Flickr. Linguistic accents contain no MSG and are better for your health.

No, it isn’t. What we call an ‘accent’ is a way of pronouncing a language — in technical terms, the phonetics of a dialect. If you speak a language, you have an accent. And, unless your language is spoken by a very, very small number of people who have lived all their lives in the same place and are from the same social group and probably the same generation and never talk to anyone else, your language has varieties, called dialects, as well. Since none of those conditions applies to English, which is arguably the most widely spoken language in the world on a number of fronts, English has a huge range of dialects and, since pronunciation is a part of any dialect, English speakers have a huge range of accents as well.

But if you type ‘English without an accent’ into Google, which I did, you will discover a surprising number of hits from people on YouTube or opinionated-but-ill-informed personal websites or English-as-a-Foreign-Language educational sites that assume that it’s possible to speak accentless English. If you investigate further, you will probably discover that what these people mean by ‘English without an accent’ is ‘English that sounds like you come from a place where English is the only language’, ‘English that makes you sound conventional and uninteresting enough to get you a high-paying, high-status job in North America’, or simply ‘English that sounds like us’. In other words, if you’re an English speaker and you hear someone else speaking English ‘with an accent’, you’re simply hearing someone whose accent is different from yours. That person will hear you speaking with an accent too.

Image: Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes, accessed 2017 September 13.

English dialectology, the study of dialects (including accents), is endlessly fascinating. The map above (click on it to see the full thing) is from an online interactive dialect mapping project and shows the distribution of speakers who pronounce the vowel in aunt in different ways. You can even do the survey yourself to contribute your little bit of English to the data; the survey also covers other aspects of dialect, especially vocabulary.

There are limits to what maps like this can tell us, though. Dialects are often associated with geographical regions (and when they do, they’re regional dialects). Notice, for example, the big green blob on the map in England, showing that many people in the southern UK say ‘aunt’ differently from most other people (and especially differently from Canadians). But people move around, and if an English speaker from Warwick in the UK who pronounces aunt differently from ant moves to, say, Saskatoon in Canada and then does the online survey, then a little green dot would appear in the middle of Canada, and all those Canadians who pronounce aunt and ant the same will notice that person’s accent.

So, finally, should you try to lose your accent? That’s a really loaded question, because it often raises a lot of social issues and attitudes that have nothing to do with language itself and more to do with people’s perceptions of ‘foreignness’ and sameness and difference and the value judgements that people attach to those perceptions. Some accents have historically been, sadly, denigrated by people in powerful social groups who have other accents; and some accents have, conversely, been celebrated as attractive or charming. From a strictly linguistic point of view, however, the only way to lose your accent is to lose your language, or to stop speaking altogether. So don’t do it.

Bonus: One of the classic diagnostic features of a Canadian accent is ‘Canadian raising’. Yes, Canadians, you do it, and everyone else in the world notices even if you don’t. Check it out on this webpage by Taylor Roberts from York U. Non-Canadians will hear the Canadian raising in the sound files; Canadians will probably just think they sound normal.

Work Cited

Vaux, Bert, and Marius Jøhndal. The Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes. Text Laboratory, University of Oslo, Accessed 13 September 2017.

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