People talking

How do linguists define accents?

Before we have a listen to some different accents, let’s clarify what we mean in this course by ‘accent.’

Across different areas of linguistic research, there is variation in what the term ‘accent’ means. For some researchers, the word ‘accent’ is rather broad in that it describes both the words used by speakers from a given community, as well as the sounds that these speakers make. For other researchers, the term ‘accent’ solely refers to the sounds which make one community sound distinct from another. For example, a Scottish English speaker will make sounds which other listeners might associate as being ‘Scottish’ (rather than English, Welsh or some other nationality). This creates a distinction between an accent (i.e. variation in pronunciation) and dialect (i.e. words and grammar).

In this course, we’ll focus on how users of spoken English pronounce words differently to one another, and what this means for how we perceive others. As we’ll see in the next few weeks, there are many different approaches to exploring accents - each with their upsides and downsides for us to consider. That said, we can make a few generalisations about the study of accents in modern-day linguistic research as a whole:

  • Every speaker has an accent. Sometimes we think of our speech as being ‘normal’, ‘standard’ or perhaps even as not particularly unusual. In truth, we all display different aspects of our identity through our speech. What’s more, different listeners may perceive the same voice differently, each based on their own life experiences. We’ll have the chance to test this point out shortly!

  • All accents vary. This is something you can hear, for example, in films or TV programmes. While we can still understand the content (or gist) of speech in older recordings - we can also hear that their speech sounds different from modern-day speakers today. Accents are therefore able to change - along with the people who speak them.

  • All accents (and languages!) are of equal value. In linguistic research, no accent is more ‘correct’ or treated as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another. In turn, linguists view all accents as being very much worthy of being studied. What is interesting about this perspective is how it can sometimes differ from the views of non-linguists. It is commonly found in sociolinguistic research that non-linguists might have highly positive or negative opinions about an accent. These opinions can even reach the point where non-linguists might see some accents as being ‘better’ than others. Researchers in linguistics will often try to avoid allowing these more personal opinions to affect their research.

To summarise everything so far, in this course, we’ll be thinking about ‘accents’ in terms of how speakers pronounce words differently to one another. We’ll also view accents as something which everyone has, which are however variable (and unique to individual speakers and groups). Finally, we’ll treat all accents as being equally important to linguistic research as a whole.

All of these points mean that describing your own experiences with accents in the discussion sections of this course is going to be both insightful and useful for other learners.

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Sociolinguistics: Accents, Attitudes and Identity

University of York

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