Everyone has an accent. Or more specifically, everyone has a dialect. In teaching accents to actors for several decades, I often hear people say they “don’t have an accent”. I think this means they believe they don’t have a dialect that makes them readily identifiable as being from a particular geographic region. But there’s more to a dialect than just geography.
Context is everything
Many years ago I was in Glasgow, Scotland for a conference and was chatting with a guy in a bar. I was having a hard time understanding him because his Glaswegian dialect was so heavy. At one point he said, “I’m having a hard time understanding you because your accent is so strong”. I admit now to being vaguely surprised by this at the time. In the US, I am known for clear and understandable speech, but all he heard was this dreadful American accent! It was a helpful and comical moment for me.
Where does an accent come from?
The way we speak is influenced by many factors, including how our parents/caregivers spoke, how our peers and role models spoke, the focus of speech in our education, what the prevailing family attitude was about the area and local dialects, and much more. Geography (down to the neighborhood in some cases) is part, but not all, of this knot of influences.
In fact, there is even a word for an individual’s own, personal way of speaking: idiolect. The prefix “idio-” refers to the self — think idiopathic (they don’t know what’s wrong with you because they haven’t seen your issue before) or idiosyncratic (quirky). Even the word “idiot” originally meant someone who was very self-centered. So an idiolect is someone’s own speech pattern.
When teaching or learning accents and dialects, the important thing to remember is that everyone has a dialect, and all dialects are valid. One isn’t better or worse than another.
Are peoples accents always the same?
There might be occasions in which one dialect will get you better results than another. We all speak differently in different situations (a job interview vs. hanging out with close friends, for instance). Changing your dialect according to the situation is called code-switching.
For some people the dialect of their upbringing or current neighborhood may be quite different than one they would use with folks from a different area. This is unfortunately more common in people of underrepresented groups, who are sometimes pressured to assimilate to a more dominant culture at work. This article from BetterUp is a nice overview of code-switching at work, and its potential downsides.
Accents and belonging
In his book “Born a Crime,” Trevor Noah wrote about growing up multilingual and mixed race in post-apartheid South Africa. While racism was a serious problem for him, he discovered that speaking the same language as his potential bullies/attackers was the surest way to get them to see him as “one of us”.
Our language and dialect is one of the ways that we identify “people like us”. While this has undeniable value, it’s also helpful to see that there are myriad others around us who talk differently than we do. And that is a beautiful thing.
Thinking we don’t have an accent means that we see those who talk similarly to us as the standard, instead of just one of many idiolects swimming around. The world is more interesting and inviting if we embrace our own way of speaking and also that of the people around us, without judgement. Vive la différence!
If you’d like to schedule a session to discuss accents or anything related to your speech, click here!