How “having an accent” works

Kathryn Campbell-Kibler

My last post talked about accent discrimination and how it impacts people’s lives. In the US, “having an accent” vs. “not having an accent” is a strange but powerful set of ideas that are based on beliefs about people, not about anything measurable or objective in speech. A lot of my research is about how “having an accent” works.

In a recent study, I played voices to listeners and asked how accented they sounded. The same listeners also reported how accented they thought different places in Ohio were, generally speaking.

We wanted to know whether people who thought a place was accented (they “believe” more in that accent) gave ratings that were more dependent on specific acoustic features found there (they “hear” the accent). We found that accent “believers” also gave actual voices high accent ratings, regardless of pronunciation. Some people just think there are a lot of accents out there! But mostly if someone thought that, for example, rural Ohio has a strong accent, they weren’t more sensitive to the specific way that someone pronounces the vowel in “shoes”, which can be different for some speakers in rural Ohio vs. urban or suburban Ohio.

The two exceptions, where “accent believing” people were a little more sensitive, were the two features that people sometimes talk about and have names for: how northern Ohioans sometimes say the vowel in “cat” differently than central Ohioans (people might talk about “Cleveland a’s” or say “Akron” in a distinctive way to refer to it). People who thought northern Ohio has an accent seemed to be a little more sensitive to this pronunciation than others. The other exception was the pin-pen merger, found in many rural parts of Ohio and also throughout the US South and its diaspora areas. Someone with this feature pronounces words like pin and tin and words like pen and ten so that they sound the same. We found that people who thought rural and southern Ohio have an accent seemed more sensitive to this pronunciation.

We learned from our study that mostly the idea of an accent (like thinking southern Ohio is a place where people have accents) isn’t associated with having a “good ear” for accents. Only features that are themselves talked show any link between the two, and it’s very small. That suggests that thinking someone else has an accent is less about hearing them talk, and more about how you’ve heard them talked about.

Kathryn Campbell-Kibler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics who work focuses on sociolinguistics and whose interests include language variation, with an emphasis on the role of the listener in variation; language and sexuality; language and the construction of masculinity; and the role of language in the formation and performance of identity.