Accent fusion… it’s all relative, really.

The topic of accents fascinates me, as does the fact that so many language learners don’t really seem to “get” them. That, and the fact that people of all walks of life are obsessed with the idea of a “pure” or “original” accent. “Where do people speak the ‘purest’ Spanish?” “Where in the world do English speakers have no traceable accent?” All of these questions just make me smirk.

Accents are relative, really. One man’s (or woman’s) accent is another man’s native dialect. Imagine for a second there were impenetrable barriers around the various regions of the United States. In that world, if you grow up in Texas, spend all your life in Texas, never leave Texas and only know other Texans – admittedly a total impossibility in this modern age – then you would never know that anyone else in the world spoke any differently than you. Of course, if by fluke one day you happened across some traveler who’d somehow found away through the linguistic barrier, and he was from New York, then you’d probably find it difficult to decipher what he was saying. And of course, he would be the one who “talked all funny.”

The problem is, people often think it’s the other person who has the accent, never bothering to imagine things from the other’s perspective, and the inevitable truth – we all have accents – is lost to them. This brings us to ideas of linguistic purity or correctness, which takes us down even more slippery slopes. Most people assume, for example, that British English is the closer variant to the original, or Italian is the romance language that most closely resembles the language spoken in Rome 1500-2000 years ago before Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian were born. Italians, for certain, would like to think so.

The reality is interestingly enough most likely quite the opposite. It’s well known to linguists who study the evolution of language that change generally happens more rapidly in central, cosmopolitan areas than in the periphery. New words, pronunciations and expressions arise and spread more rapidly through the urban centers of culture, than through isolated out-ports and distant villages.

There are plenty of examples. The modern Spanish pronunciation of “c” and “z” as a sound similar to the English “th” came about in Spain around the time of the colonization of the Americas, and the new pronunciation never did catch on on the other side of the Atlantic. Jeju Island, in Korea, I’m told, has several archaic sounds that don’t exist anywhere in the rest of the country, though I can’t say I’ve ever heard what they are. Newfoundlanders are  perhaps the only people in the English speaking world who still pluralize you as ye, a snapshot of a brief period of history when the practice was more common. Americans hold on to the long forgotten past participle forms of “gotten” and “forgotten” whereas the British have let go of them entirely.

Of course, it’s not as simple as all that. It never is. There are certainly examples to the contrary, where the cultural center has retained the more old-fashioned form and the periphery was at the vanguard of change. Numerous neologisms were created from the borrowing and mixing of languages after Chris, John and Jacques sailed the Oceans in search of a trade route.

When it boils down to it, it’s almost impossible to figure out who speaks the “purer” form of the language and where. Nobody, anywhere, could possibly speak any language the exact same way people spoke it several hundred years ago. Forget hundreds, actually, put on a movie from the 60s and you can hear how much the lingo has changed.

Travel to any part of the world where large communities of expats, be they Kiwi, Yankee, Ozzie or Canuck. What accent do any of them have? Even within a few years, it seems like the average English speaker begins to bend their tongue to blend in with the locals, even if there are no locals to blend in with. Vocabulary, syntax and grammar are all susceptible to the same magnetic gravity of communication needs. It’s a fusion many of us living abroad have come to find normal.

Accents, I’m convinced are relative. They’re also evolving, dynamic and fascinating. Each one tells a story, it has a history in the life of it’s owner, even before he or she was born. Rather than criticism and judgment, the many accents of this world and its speakers, deserve dignity and respect.



5 thoughts on “Accent fusion… it’s all relative, really.

  1. Very well said. We all have accent I always say to people who tend to belittle me because of my accent. Some people don’t speak more than one language but they still judge or criticise. Great post

  2. NIce post, Mark. I was young when I realized that I too had an accent, and it happened much in the way you described in your thought experiment. It was a tough pill to swallow. To me, everybody else spoke funny, whereas I, coming from the same place as all of the movies and TV shows, spoke regular-like–and only I was able to comment on the level of hilarity of others’ accents.

    I am not so naive now and I also love hearing different accents in English in Spanish. Accents are ear candy, and I, a sucker for hearing things uttered in ways I would never imagine to pronounce them.

    I had not heard of timing being a part of why in Latin America the Spanish is seseo. I understood it to be attributed to who was actually on the boats to the New World. I learned that the sailors were predominantly from Extremadura in the south-west of Spain and there and then they had a regional tendency to sesear (i.e. did not have the /th/ phoneme) thus the Spanish that was imposed upon the natives was of this flavor thereby sowing what would eventually become the basis of the pronunciation of Cs and Zs in Latin American Spanish. I understand that the two arguments are not mutually exclusive in that Extremadura is relatively “out there” geographically and the use of /th/ probably originated in the trade hubs of Catalonia and the political center in Madrid, per your explanation that “change generally happens more rapidly in central, cosmopolitan areas than in the periphery”, and would have taken some time to arrive.

    1. You’re right that it’s not merely a time issue. Originally – if such a word applies – all Spanish speakers would have been “seseadors” (neologism?) as far as I understand it. I’m not sure how much is known about it, but it would either have been that the phoneme arose in one region of Spain, likely the northeast, or otherwise it happened to be an “accent” of the people in that region after vernacular Latin was imposed upon them. It’s more likely the former, as the pronunciation only applies to certain instances of the “c” sound – the same sound that became “ch” in Italian. In any case, circa 1492, it’s quite likely that it was already widespread in the north, but hadn’t made it to the south. It certainly couldn’t have been dominant at the time, in any case.
      Anyway, I’m only vaguely recollecting what I learned about this over five years ago. I’m eager to go back and delve into the research. As I recall, there is no single theory which provide a conclusive explanation as to why all “new world” hispanophones “sesean.” (Code-switching is fun)

  3. Thanks for the follow-up, Code-switching is indeed fun but I try very hard not to get into the habit of doing it. Partly for me but more for my wife who is an interpreter and wants to keep her languages straight in the booth.
    I would love for there to emerge evidence of a group of people somewhere in Spain who all had a lisp and consequently changed the face of Spanish forever. That would be a funny historical anecdote.
    By the way, judging by your time stamp, are you currently in Korea?

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