The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an accent as “a way of pronouncing words that occurs among the people in a particular region or country” and the Oxford English Dictionary goes a little further and says that it isn’t just about coming from a particular region or country, but it can also be from a particular class in society.
Therefore, quite simply an accent is the way in which you pronounce a word and this style gives other people an idea about where you come from and your social class. As a result, everybody speaks with an accent.
Some people say that they don’t have an accent, but from a linguist’s point of view, this simply isn’t true. Where somebody speaks a standard language, or close to it, they might believe that they don’t have an accent, but as stated above, everybody speaks with an accent. For example, people in the UK would speak ‘standard British English’ whereas people from the United States would speak ‘standard American English’. In both cases, we can assume where the speaker comes from because of their ‘accent’.
Let’s take the English language as an example. There are many people around the world that speak English as a native language and even more that speak it as a second or foreign language. Think about when you listen to people speaking, can you tell if they are Indian, Australian, British or French just from listening to them? Quite probably you can, and it’s because they have an accent that gives you an idea about which country they come from.
Moreover, there are different accents within a country. In the UK, there are many accents from Cockney English (spoken in parts of London), Brummie (spoken in Birmingham), Scouse (spoken in Liverpool) and more. Again, if we have knowledge of British accents, we can get an idea where in the UK somebody comes from, from their style of speaking.
The same would apply in any language, not just English. If you took an international language such as French or Spanish, you would also be able to distinguish between a native Spanish speaker from Spain and one from Mexico. Furthermore, it would also apply to smaller languages too. In Cambodia where Khmer is spoken, people in Phnom Penh have a different accent than those from Siem Reap.
Finally, accents can change depending on social class. It’s quite possible to guess a person’s social class depending on their style of speaking. If you listen to the queen of England speaking English, you can hear that it is considerably different than somebody who is working class. Although this is extreme, it is also possible to differentiate between middle class and upper class, for instance.
Therefore, some people can know a quite a lot about us just from listening to our accent. They can guess what country we come from, the region where we come from and what our social class is. The emphasis on the previous sentence is on the world guess! Sometimes just like appearances, accents can be deceptive!
“Business People On The Phone” by Ambro courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net