What’s in an accent? And can it be changed?

Posted On December 5, 2023

What does an accent mean? How do we get them? And can we change them?

Accents and dialects are the specialty of University of Alabama Assistant Professor Paul E. Reed, Ph.D., our guest in a recent episode of “What’s Working with Cam Marston.” He says that our accents are developed at an early age, but can change over time.

“You tend to sound like the people who raised you,” he said. “As you grow and become more independent, there are certain things that because of the input you receive, they fade away.”

And yes, we can choose to change certain things about how we speak, Reed says. And we often do, depending on the situation or who we’re speaking to.

There are, of course, various stereotypes that come with many accents – particularly Southern accents – and we may seek to avoid them. But Reed warns not to judge people by how they sound. He’s a good example – an eastern Tennessee native and self-described “educated hillbilly” with a Ph.D.

Besides, he said, accents also carry positive associations for many of us – triggering a sense of belonging – and many words and phrases in Southern dialects that some might consider unsophisticated – like “fixing to” or “might could” – are actually quite useful in offering different shades of meaning.

“There’s an additional layer of nuance,” he said. “They can be very, very useful, and they can also trigger those things about belonging, and home, and connection with people.

“Sometimes, using Southern features is a way of creating a connection with someone.”

Tapping into the connections that can be made through shared accents can be useful in business, as well, and we may shade our speech to foster those connections. But Reed cautioned that faking it is a sure way to torpedo those opportunities.

“Every time you open your mouth, you’re signaling a little bit about who you are,” he said. “We all adjust based on where we are – the formality of the situation, people we don’t really know vs. people we know really well. … But we change authentically based on who we are. It’s when you try to inauthentically do that, that really registers as fake and can be very offensive to folks in the sense that you immediately become less trustworthy.”

Categories: Blog, What's Working with Cam Marston