Definition

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), accent came from Latin “Ad to + cantus singing”, which came from Greek, which literally meant, “song added to”. This indicates that the Greeks saw accent “as a distinct difference of musical pitch in pronouncing the syllables of a word” (Dion. Hal., n.d. as cited in Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). This term's meaning has split two ways since then: One can understand it in terms of (1) “stress” or (2) a “mode of utterance” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989, 2nd and 3rd definitions). Accent gained its “stress” meaning due to language change. As Greek evolved it lost its "musical accent" and the “stress accent has remained as a substitute for [it]” (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). The same language change took place in Italian, Spanish, German, and English (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). Swedish and Norwegian however have maintained musical accent in their languages (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989).

The “mode of utterance” definition came because as the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) explains, a varied utterance might “consis[t] mainly in a prevailing quality of tone, [a] peculiar alteration of pitch, but may [also] include mispronunciation of vowels or consonants, misplacing the stress, and misinflection [sic] of a sentence.” Such systematic variances can identify where a person is from (e.g. a German “accent”) (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989).


Current Research: Identity, Group Membership, and Educational Indicators

Accent has been studied in numerous fields including psychology, linguistics, and Communication (Isaacs, 2006, p. i; Trudgill, 1975, p. 9; Chapman, 1998, p. 9-12; Thompson, 2003, p. 48-49). Unfortunately, there is a dearth of historical research within Communication on this concept. For this reason, you will find a brief account concerning how Communication views accent and how this topic has been integrated into more recent research.


Accent, Identity and Group

Accent can be seen as part of identity and researchers who study it have seen how it can index group membership (Mondoza-Denton, 2008, p. 113; Rampton, 2005, p. 20) as well as educational and social status (Mendoza-Denton, 2008, p. 102; Thompson, 2003, p. 48-49). For example, according to Rampton (2005), “adolescents (and indeed adults) often express their group identifications in inexplicit, non-propositional ways” of which he includes “style, activity and accent” (p. 20).

Rampton (2005) gives examples of South Asian youths greeting “white” adults (himself included) in British English with a Panjabi accent, and then loosing that accent in subsequent speech (p. 90). Rampton (2005), using Goffman (1971 & 1974) and Laver (1975) states that such accented speech (in opening encounters toward adults) may have been done intentionally to unnearve the other participant by acting differently than expected. “It foregrounded a social category membership...And in doing so, it promised to destabilize the transition to comfortable interaction and the working consensus that phatic activity normally facilitates” (p. 91). However, according to Rampton (2005), this did not cause “conflict or communicative breakdown‍‍” (p. 91).

Similar to Rampton (2005), Mendoza-Denton’s (2008) book Homegirls discusses Latina/o high school gangs and their use of accent to distinguish between members of different gangs (p. 102). The seriousness of this distinction is shown in a story Mendoza-Denton tells about meeting with a former Norteño gang member named Manuel (p. 113). She pronounced her name –Norma—with a Spanish accented pronunciation, which elicited a hostile response from Manuel and he “emphasized the Englishness of his pronunciation” (p. 113 emphasis added). Mendoza-Denton states that through her “nervous diction” she had unwittingly indexed a “Mexico-based identity, and symbolically linked [herself] to Sur—a rival gang, that was known to identify themselves with an English speaking Hispanic identity (p. 113; p. 108). This was just one example of how one’s accent as a mode of utterance could indicate group membership.


Accent and Education

In addition to indexing group membership, one’s accent can function as an “indicator” of social status or education (Mendoza-Denton, 2008, p. 102; Thompson, 2003, p. 48) (See Linguistic Capital). Mendoza-Denton explains that Mexicans with a Mexico City (Distrito Federal) accent, were often made fun of or called “snobs” by fellow citizens or others with Mexican heritage because Mexico City was “a symbol for the unequal relations between the core and the periphery of the Mexican state” (p. 102). Furthermore, Thompson (2003) indicates that many individuals associate accent with intelligence (p. 48), and although he states there might be a link between one’s education and the way one speaks, accents by no means “equate[s]” to one’s intelligence (p.48). One example Thompson (2003) gives is a “Birmingham accent” which apparently many associate with lesser intelligence or with someone who is “slow on the uptake” (p. 48).

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References

Accent. (1989). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from http://dictionary.oed.com

Chapman, S. (1998). Accent in Context: The ontological status and communicative effects of utterance accent in English. Bern, Germany: Peter Lang AG.

Isaacs, A.M. (2009). Accent detection is a slippery slope: Direction and rate of F0 change drives listeners’ comprehension. Masters Thesis. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Mendoza-Denton, N. (2008). Homegirls: Language and cultural practice among Latina youth gangs. Available from: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com. DOI: 10.1002/9780470693728

Rampton, B. (2005). Crossing: Language & Ethnicity among Adolescents (2nd ed.). Manchester, United Kingdom: St. Jerome Publishing.

Thompson, N. (2003). Communication and language: A handbook of theory and practice. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillian.

Trudgill, P. (1975). Accent, dialect and the school. London, United Kingdom: Edward Arnold (publishers) Ltd.