Linguistic accomodation decribes the phenomenon of people subtly changing the way that they speak when they are communicating with others in order to become more (or sometimes less) similar to them. Although the theory was developed in the realm of social psychology, linguists have observed interesting instances of accomodation at many levels of speech.
It is easy to witness it happening on some of these levels. A friend and fellow linguist once went to Edinburgh to study abroad, and when I visited her near the end of her semester, I noticed that her speech had acquired a distinctly British flavour. No, she hadn’t actually picked up the infamously phone-confounding Scottish brogue, but while we were chatting over tea, I heard her consistently use a downward intonation when she asked yes-no questions. Americans never do this; our polar questions go up at the end. But it was clear that after several months immersed in Scotland, that particular cadence had rubbed off on her speech.
The effects are not always noticeable, however. Recent phonetics research has demonstrated that parts of our speech that aren’t even discernable to the casual listener still change to accomodate to what we hear. To simplify the research findings: suppose the way you naturally pronounce your b’s takes, say, 30 milliseconds. Then, you hear someone talking who takes about 50 milliseconds to get their b’s out. If you were to repeat their words, your own b’s would lengthen almost imperceptibly to match theirs!
Anyway, to get back to the more conspicuous kinds of accomodation, I’ve actually caught my own vocabulary and speech patterns shifting every so slightly in the two months I’ve been back in California. I did grow up here and thus speak English with a typical West Coast accent, but after six years away from home (including two years abroad), I dropped some of what you might call my native NorCal vocabulary. And now it’s coming back.
I was talking to Ginny, a fellow first-year: “But, dude, you should’ve– Oh, sorry…” I remembered too late that I’ve been trying hard not to refer to my female friends as dude or you guys.
“Oh, it’s all right, I don’t mind being called ‘dude’,” she said cheerfully, “Actually, it’s kind of funny. I find it very Californian of you.”
Except she pronounced it Cali-faw-nian ([kʰælɪˈfɔːnjən]), because Ginny is from Canberra, Australia. The more I hang out with her, the more I want to say I’m keen to hang, instead of down to chill. But overall, I find myself navigating back into the weirdness of the way I used to speak in high school, and yo, Californians are like, exactly how I remember them. Check back when I’ve graduated and ask me if I say hella.
In the meantime, I’ve enlisted Ginny to help me perfect an authentic Aussie accent by the end of the year, and I’m sure our training in phonetics is going to come in handy. I’ll also be listening for the Americanization of her English. Sorry, Ginny, but accomodation is inevitable!
Have you ever noticed your own speech change in response to your environment?
Word of the Day: brogue, from the Irish barróg, meaning “accent”, a word used to describe the quintessential lilting inflection of Ireland and northern Scotland. Over a hundred years earlier, however, the same word was being used for a type of sturdy shoe worn in the same region. From the Irish bróg, meaning “leg covering”, brogues were meant to protect the feet while traveling but also had small holes in the soles in order to let water drain out. Today, the elegant patterns on brogues are just for style. I can pick up brogues if I order online, but to pick up a brogue would take more time.