Why does the UK have so many accents? How is it you can travel 20 miles outside of your home town or city and hear marked differences from your own accent? Linguists often focus on language drift – how words change, take on new meanings and evolution, but not so much about accents.
How Our Accent Forms Through Kinship
Like word use and local quirks of dialect, accents form in a group of isolated or close-knit people. The main reason is believed to be the human nature. We are not solitary; we are and have always been about kinship groups. The most obvious sign is devotion to blood, then to extended family, but also there is the image of shared kinship between those who share our geographical location. It’s a form of tribalism.
Accent development may have had an evolutionary advantage before the dawn of mass transit and certainly before free and easy migration. It also explains now how that even though we now have these things, accents are not homogenising. What we do see is most people moving to a new area or new country eventually adopting the accent or certain aspects of it.
The Concept of “Linguistic Accommodation”
Linguistic accommodation can explain migrants adopting local accents but it is also responsible for such things as our “posh telephone voice”. Similarly, ahead of the 2015 General Election, then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visited a factory to deliver a speech about employment. He was mocked at the time for effecting a type of speech that sounded working class. However, it’s possible that being in the presence of the factory workers for the day meant Mr Osborne was not aware of how he sounded. If it wasn’t deliberate, then it’s an example of linguistic accommodation.
Here, local kinship is not necessarily the aim or even an effect – it is an attempt to fit in, even temporarily. It can also explain how and why residents in economically poorer areas of London can sound American – they may feel a kinship with the American rappers singing about issues that also affect them (gang violence, no opportunities, low employment, gang violence, early death) despite living on the other side of the ocean.
But Why Do We Have So Many?
Newcastle and Sunderland are less than 15 miles apart. To the trained ear, this short distance creates accent variation even if not obvious to people from outside the northeast. Similar can be said for the West Country where Bristol and Gloucester (40 miles) sound quite different. It’s to the UK’s history of migration and invasion that we can explain most of these accent variations, although that is a simplistic answer.
Some Scottish accents sound like those heard in Northern Ireland and that’s because the Scotti tribe came originally from Ireland’s northern areas, displacing the Picts as they migrated. The accent of Antrim is said to be closely associated with the pre-Roman Scotti.
Wales has an interesting range of accents. The south is largely influenced by England’s West Country while the north is influenced heavily by Merseyside; it’s also important to remember that this is two-way. Central Wales is likely to be as close to the “original” Welsh accent as we can get.
England was invaded by the Romans in the 1st century, Saxons in the 4th, Vikings in the 8th (who also invaded Ireland, Scotland and the Northern Isles) and Normans in the 11th (who were Franco-Norse). Each of these invasions had profound impacts on the English language, place names and yes – accents. It is claimed there is a strong similarity between Danish accents and Lincolnshire, and between Yorkshire and Norway.