linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
People often say things like this:
You can tell she comes from Scotland just by listening to her.
After the school trip to Paris, my friends said I came back sounding all French.
In the school play, Fred tried to speak like a posh nobleman, but his voice came out like a parrot being strangled, so we couldn’t understand anything he said!
What everyone is talking about is an accent - the part of your voice which tells your listeners which country you come from. Of course, we don’t usually notice accents when the people speak like we do. But if newcomers arrive in the school, their accent can stand out a mile - especially if they come from a foreign country. Do you have any teachers with foreign accents? Or pupils from abroad who have kept their original accent?
Most people can tell the difference between some foreign accents. American English is usually easy, because we hear it so much in films. Australian, too. And even if you’ve never been to France, Germany or Spain, you’d probably recognise the accents of those countries from films you’ve seen on TV. Listen out for the different accents used on television in the course of an evening. If you’re an accent investigator, you have an excellent excuse for watching Neighbours, Eastenders, Coronation Street, and the other soaps - but you have to remember to stop listening to what the characters are saying and listen instead to how they’re saying it! People usually have distinctive accents in comedy shows, too. And the baddies in James Bond films are generally given accents which make them sound like baddies. Accents which really stand out are often called broad accents.Cartoon 1
Accents tell people which part of the country you are from. But they can sometimes tell people something about how you were educated. Listen to the way the Queen speaks, or Prince Charles. Can you tell which part of the country they come from? Does Prince Charles sound as if he’s from Scotland? Or from Birmingham? Or from the West Country? Not a bit. He doesn’t sound as if he comes from anywhere. His accent doesn’t have any regional marks about it. But he does still have an accent. It’s an accent which tells us something about his social origins - about the kind of society in which he grew up, and the kind of education he received. People sometimes call his kind of accent ‘educated’, ‘public school’, ‘upper class’, or just ‘posh’. `They used to call it a ‘BBC accent’, but that’s not so accurate any more, as these days you’ll hear many regional accents from the presenters at the BBC.

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