Accent assimilation


Grace Bannister (she/her) explores the phenomena in which our accents morph to fit in with those around us

Article Image

Image by Geralt via Pixabay

By Grace Bannister

I’ve always been told that I’m a good mimic; I’m normally able to copy an accent or way of speaking after having listened or spent time with people (I’m sure my addiction to Nickelodeon’s iCarly at age seven was instrumental to the development of my American accent!).

I had always thought of this as a sort of party trick, something conscious that I was able to turn on and off, but perhaps I am wrong. After having spent the day with some southern friends, my housemates commented on a change in my accent as I was catching up with them in the evening. Odder still, my hand gestures had also changed! Initially, I was shocked and in disbelief until I realised they were right.

After moving from the south to up north, then back down again this was not the first time my accent had undergone significant changes. In fact, when I visited my northern cousins after moving back down south, they renamed me ‘Del Boy’ – a cockney caricature of my now more southern accent. However I remain unconvinced by the accuracy of this comparison, particularly as I moved to Surrey not the East Ends of London!

I think my accent is a hybrid – but that makes me sound a little bit like a car, so let me explain.

My northern family and friends certainly don’t think I sound northern anymore – to them there’s little difference between my accent and the Queen’s in her last Christmas Day speech!

Down south, however, while my accent has definitely assimilated to those around me, there’s a twang that doesn’t fit into the Received Pronunciation mould.  My vowels remain stubbornly flatter than a pancake, unwilling to travel down the M6 and push inside the M25.

Having undergone these geographic and dialectic changes my accent is variable, often changing depending on who I am with. However, to have someone comment on a change in my accent after only a few hours was new, even for me. So, before spiralling completely into an identity crisis, I decided to consult my dear friend Google – to my relief (and surprise), I found that I was not alone!

This phenomena is called bidialectalism. It’s a subconscious shift in our accents aimed to help us fit into our surroundings. This made sense to me and my own accent changes having moved to places with dramatically different accents. This certainly explains why my accent has undergone so much change, and also how my northern accent dissolved so quickly upon moving down south.

I also spoke with one of my housemates who studies psychology, and she further expanded upon this explanation with socio-linguist Howard Giles’ ‘Communication Accommodation Theory’. Giles’ theory posits that accent changes are due to a subconscious attempt to reduce the dissimilarities between you and the person you’re mimicking  – presumably in an attempt to win approval or favour. While this theory certainly explains why this happens, it is still a blow to find that, on one level, my voice was shape-shifting to help me fit in.

After a little more research I found an explanation that was more successful in stroking my ego. Bidialectalism can be a sign of an empath; a socio-communicative attempt to make people feel more comfortable in your presence. So perhaps I’m less of a human parrot and more of a vocal therapist!

This quirk, and ability to mimic, does have its perks and my (conscious) repertoire of accents isn’t just limited to places I’ve lived. Although the only accents I subconsciously morph into are within my own range (at least as far as I’m aware – please do let me know if I start to speak with a southern drawl). Impressing people with an accent or impersonation is definitely a party trick I’m happy to have.

So for those new to Yorkshire, have you noticed any changes to your accent? Or perhaps it’s still too soon to tell!