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The Gradual Changing of Accents During a Lifetime

By Edited Oct 11, 2014 0 0

Is Your Accent the Same now as it was When you Were a Child?

Is Your Accent Changing

Four Generations
Accents often change from one generation to another, as families move about the country, but have you noticed how people’s accents sometimes change as they grow older. Now as travel around the world, and mingling with people from different cultures and backgrounds happens far more than in the past, more and more people’s accents are adapting to fit in, and to make them more acceptable to the people around them. There is even, to some extent, a subconscious mimicry of the accents of people, we may hold in high esteem, and whom we listen to regularly. This is not the case with everybody and, in my experience, is more prevalent with women than with men.

Where did I get my Original Accent

My Father
Our first accent must, naturally, be gained from those around us in early childhood. These people, usually our parents and siblings, ever-present in our lives when we are learning to speak, inadvertently influence our early accent. Mothers especially, by the nature of the time spent with young children, have a huge influence.

I grew up in Harrogate, a town in Yorkshire, with Yorkshire parents and grandparents. My Dad was a Harrogate lad, and my Mum was Leeds lass. Both my parents had Yorkshire accents and, as a result of family, friends and neighbours, I spoke with a strong Yorkshire accent.

My maternal grandparents lived in Knaresborough, a beautiful and historic little market town, next door to Harrogate. Although both of them had been born in Leeds, my Grandfather’s  family had come from rural Yorkshire, around the Pateley Bridge area, and were farmers and miners. He still had many connection there.

The Sullivans

One day I was out with my Grandfather, as I often was at weekends; I was probably about ten years old, we had been to a farmer’s market in some little town, I think it was Ripon. As I was climbing back into the car Grandfather saw someone he knew and called them over. A conversation then ensued between the pair of them and it might as well have been in a foreign language considering how little I understood. When the exchange was over Grandfather looked at me “Did you get all that?” he asked smiling. I just shook my head. “That’s how real Yorkshire is spoken” he said. I asked why he didn't speak like that all the time and he told me that if he did few people would understand him. Which was true.

At primary school my accent, to me, seemed the same as every one else’s. I never noticed any thing strange or different about any one, but that may just have been a child's acceptance, as I know there were children of Indian, Polish and Belgium descent in my peer group.

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Places of Influence

The places in Yorkshire where my family lived, or were born, and so influenced my early accent.

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Harrogate, North Yorkshire, UK
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Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, UK
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Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire HG3, UK
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Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK

The Beginnings of Change

On starting secondary school  my accent was certainly broader than it is now. Things really began to change at this school. I had passed my 11+ and, as such, I became entitled to a Grammar School Education. My parents enrolled me, at a convent in York, as my sister already attended there. It was a train journey away from home, and both exciting and scary, at the same time. It had a wider range of students than our local primary school, and I encountered many children, of what was possibly considered a higher social status than my own. This meant I became exposed to a greater range of accents than I had ever heard before. I was both amused and bemused by these “Posh” accents, but I soon accepted them as normal, as I heard them day after day.

The nuns, that taught me, always spoke in very precise and proper  English and expected us to do so as well;  we were often berated if we used language deemed inappropriate, and I do not refer to swearing here, I simply mean slang or colloquialisms. We were even subjected to elocution lessons, these days know as Accent Reduction,  to improve our spoken language skills. I was frequently made to feel inferior and inadequate because of my accent, even being asked by one nun if I had been “dragged up” instead of being “brought up” by my parents. Needless to say this had a profound effect on me and my accent, moderating it considerably.  As I also had a sister and brother going through the same process I think between us we had an effect on the entire family.


Yet More Change

Before I finished my Convent education my family moved to Scotland and we were all relocated to East Kilbride, just south of Glasgow. This move brought about yet more changes to my accent. On arriving in Scotland I had a few difficulties fitting in to the local groups. It was not just about accent at this point it was like learning a whole new language. There was a huge difference in many of the words use to describe simple objects and tasks.  I was just attuning my ear when I obtained a Saturday job in a green grocers in Govan, Glasgow.

The difference in accents here was as extreme as that day out with my Grandfather. I had incredible difficulties understanding what people were asking for and neither could they understand me. I survived by the skin of my teeth; with help from the friend who had helped me acquire the job in the first place. She worked alongside me and would shout translations back and forth as she continued her own work. Eventually I grasped the local dialect and I adapted my accent so that they could understand me. It was certainly a learning experience for me.

Even now my accent is constantly changing. After marriage I have moved all over Scotland as my husband is in the construction industry.  I found that after moving to a different area I would over time subtly change the way I spoke. I would start by simply adapting certain spoken words to correspond to the local pronunciation. Then I would notice that more and more of the inflections were creeping into my speech. It was often my children that would point this out to me.

The Quinlans

My Family and Accents

My brothers and sisters, that moved to Scotland with me, also changed their accents. Being younger than me the effect was even more pronounced. People assume my youngest sister is Scottish due to her speech.

My children’s accents have flitted back, and forward, between the accents of the different regions where we have lived. Their accents, although Scottish, are moderated considerably by having an English mother, even though her accent is no longer as broad as when she was a child.

Fleeting Changes

I often went to visit my sister on long holidays. She lived in Chicago at the time but had lived a truly international lifestyle. She started as a child in Yorkshire, grew to adulthood in Scotland, married a Scot,  went to University in New Zealand, then taught in Australia before landing in the USA. She is now back in Australia. As you can imagine her accent is a complete mix and match. After being with her for a couple of weeks I would begin to speak with a twang reminiscent of the Southern Hemisphere even though I have never been there.  This change did not persist and disappeared after the continuous contact of the holiday with my sister stopped.

Most people can adapt their accents when they need to. I still speak with a more pronounced Yorkshire accent when speaking to my older siblings, who remained in Yorkshire when we moved to Scotland, and hence retained much more of their childhood accent. My Mother had her “Phone Voice” which would switch on instantly when ever the phone rang, or when, someone she considered important, or wanted to impress, came to the door. I think I may do this to some extent as well. My Grandmother, who was at one point in her life “in service”, had this accent that she would “put on” when speaking to authority that always, as a child, had me in fits of giggles.

In conclusion

I think that it depends on the listener's personality as to what influence the voices around them have, but it is certainly not unusual to adapt in such a way. Some famous people have done just this, not always to the acclaim of the media.

Is it not just part of human nature to want to fit in and be part of the society around you? Is it insulting when the person you are talking to assumes your speech patterns? Obviously it would depend on if it was to done to ridicule you or not, but if it simply happens then surely it is nothing more that a form of flattery.

I wonder if my accent has now completed it’s journey or if there are more changes, yet to come, for me.



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  1. David Derbyshire "Talking Double Dutch." Mail On Line. 6/8/2010. 8/02/2014 <Web >
  2. Stephen Smith "Why people change the way they speak." BBC. 17/4/2013. 8/02/2014 <Web >

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