Where Accents Come From and Why They Exist

Learn about the origin of accents, how they change over time as people migrate, and the effect on economic opportunities individuals might have.

By Ofer Ronen in Call Centers 05/09/24

When someone speaks, the first thing many people notice is their accent. Whether they’re a Bostonian who drives a “cah” or a Southerner who totes an “UHM-brulla,” everyone has an accent. So, where do accents come from—and why do they exist?

An Indian man and Filipino woman converse in a park on a sunny day.

What is an Accent?

When people talk about accents, they’re usually referring to the pronunciation patterns associated with a particular dialect. In other words, accents are a manner of pronunciation that’s specific to a person, location, or nation. 

What’s the Difference Between Accent and Dialect?

While an accent refers to how individuals pronounce words, a dialect is a language’s social or regional variety distinguished by grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary. Basically, dialects have more proximity to the concept of language than does accent.

Why Do People Have Accents?

Accents are an individual’s native pronunciation patterns. A “foreign accent” results when a person speaks a given language while employing patterns of speech associated with a different language. Meanwhile, native accents can be determined by a person’s ethnicity, region of residence, or social group. Either way, accents are derived—in part— from living and learning circumstances. Other accent influences include gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity and class.

How Else are Accents Acquired?

When people move to different regions, they interact with speakers of varying linguistic backgrounds. Such exposure can affect the way they use language, whether consciously or otherwise. For example, if a person from the Midwest moves to the South, they will pick up local features of how the language is use over time. In turn though, they will can add their own speech patterns to the mix.

How Did Accents Develop Over Time?

Historically, accents developed when groups of people dwelled in relative isolation from others who employ the same language. In other words, people tacitly and unwittingly agree on word pronunciations when they are isolated from others. While the advent of radio, television and mechanized transportation has mitigated this to a degree, it still happens. A recent example of this phenomenon emerged among researchers in Antarctica.  

Accents as Social Markers

Accents can signal affiliation with a certain group. So-called standard accents develop when a group achieves a loftier social status. In such instances, employing that group’s speech patterns becomes central to group membership. Failure to do so can result in restricted educational and career opportunities, as well as limited social and economic power.

Can People Control Their Accents?

This happens quite often in social interactions. Many people change the way they speak based upon the situation in which they find themselves. This is particularly true when people perceive the person with whom they are communicating to occupy greater status. Many ethnic groups also employ dual dialects—one for “business” and another for personal interactions with people they see as peers. 

Do Accents Become Permanent?

According to research, a person’s accent becomes permanent when they’re about 12 years of age. However, accents can still change over time, and adults can develop a mild accent following a long-term stint in a foreign country. Also accent software can help an individual change their accent as they speak. Such software uses AI specifically trained to convert from one accent type to another. For example, from Filipino or Indian accents to an American accent.

In Summary

Accents are fluid in that they develop and change over time, usually as exposure to speech pattern changes. They also reveal a lot about the speaker’s regional, social, and ethnic origins. Accents are also considered social markers indicative of group affiliation.

By Ofer Ronen in Call Centers 05/09/24