Scientists Working in Antarctica Inadvertently Developed a New Accent
September 15, 2023 8:38 PM   Subscribe

How Scientists Working in Antarctica Inadvertently Developed a New Accent. A 2019 study of scientists over-wintering in Antarctica revealed subtle but measurable changes in the participants’ speech.

As part of an ongoing project to explain the forces "that shape spoken accent development ultimately leading to language diversification and change," a group of researchers headed by Jonathan Harrington, professor of phonetics and speech processing at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, embarked on the study.

They recruited 11 participants from the British Antarctic Survey who were part of the small team that overwinters on the continent. Eight of the participants were British speakers of English (five were from south or southeast England, while three were from the north/northwest), but the group also included an American, a person whose first language was German, and a person whose first language was Icelandic.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries (35 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
This is so interesting - especially this bit:
The linguists also did more than observe: They created a model based on the pre-arrival recordings, which successfully predicted some specific changes they later observed.
I did find it a little jarring to read this assertion:
Given that adults typically have great difficulty with pronunciation when learning a new language, it stands to reason that after a certain age, our accents would be set. But that turns out not to be the case.
since I've been soaking in all the anecdotes over in the Southern accent thread about people's accents shifting over the years or even over the course of a conversation.

It seems to me that deliberately acquiring a perfect accent in another language is quite hard - but picking up and adapting to local pronunciation, consciously or unconsciously, is fairly common.

This is fascinating - thank you so much for posting it, chariot pulled by cassowaries!
posted by kristi at 10:59 PM on September 15 [11 favorites]

Accents make no sense. Mine, anyways, is ridiculous. Born into the white near west side of Chicago, two moves by fourth grade had me in the western suburbs that are "the accent which isn't an accent", a totally white bread tongue which you'll hear on national news cast. I do think that coming up with the friends I ended up with has had something to do with where I've ended up. But more was from construction sites, which I stepped onto at 13, all blue collar and a lot of it from southern states, unreal hard workers, strong, tireless men who I greatly admired. And cousins in Peoria IL also (they called it "soda" and we called it "pop"), the coarse, vile, crude vulgarity of these cousins hit my ears at 10 or 11, right through my ears and into my heart, onto my tongue.

I took off at 19, to Florida, construction sites, already over the line into alcoholism, too, which counts in a big way. (If 12 step programs weren't totally about anonymity I would perhaps suggest you imagine over 44 years of AA meetings seeping deep but I'll just leave that to your imagination.) Florida has a southern tongue but nowhere near Alabama, or Arkansas. I married Arkansas but not as deep Arkansas as it could have been; though she was born in Arkansas, and there until 8 years old, I met her in that same white-bread Chicago suburbs I lived in, the "accent without an accent."

I didn't know or care that I had a yankee tongue but it was stark when living in Florida, then married to Arkansas. It began to get really strange when we moved back to the Chicago suburbs; somehow the south had gotten into my mouth. Kathy got smart, dumped my drunk ass, married a guy in Arkansas. I stayed on in Chicago area until November 77, then heeded the siren song of Texas. Houston, to be specific, filled then and still with people from all over the US, all of them bringing their mouth with them.

Texas is absolutely not a southern tongue. It's Texas. It's surrounded by Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and of course Mexico, and it draws from all of these places, and stronger as you near them, as the tongues weave together, but Texas is too proud to be taken in, too much a sense of itself, a love of itself. I love the Texas tongue; it's truly amazing.

My favorite are Arkansas and Alabama. If I'm in danger of falling for some woman, I'd say that there's at least 10% greater weakness in me if they are strong from either of those two. Voice of experience. But Texas is a fantastic tongue, and close to Louisiana and/or Arkansas it's just amazing, it's just so much fun.....

My tongue? It's bizarre. A very strong blue-collar Chicago, and not those candy-ass suburbs, either, but somehow I ended up with the south side of Chicago, Bridgeport, Mayor Daly's stomping grounds. It's ludicrous. How in the hell this happened I will never know. One word out of my mouth in the south and I'm marked. You move to Texas and you've got to adapt, protective coloration, boots and jeans and pickup trucks and Willie and that's me anyways so it wasn't at all a stretch. I love Texas, if I'm going to live in the US I'm going to be in Texas, and if I have my way it'll be Austin. Texas gets a bad rap, a lot of it earned. But born/raised in Illinois I can tell you that it totally sucks, the cops completely out of control, the taxes berserk, the winters gruesome...

Anyways. I'm marked the instant I open my mouth in the south, at least in yankeeland I won't have that, right? Wrong. Pretty much the south is what people hear. (They are actually hearing Texas but they don't know it, or care.) And/or maybe that blue-collar Mayor Daley south side comes out, and no matter what accent I've spent my life with salt of the earth people, by which I mean vulgarity often, crudity at least at times, and many, many bad words if I hit my thumb with a hammer or some fumb duck cuts me off, or tries to.

I go on.

Obviously, accents are something I've given a lot of thought to. People really do pay close attention. It's beyond me; I can filter the filth mostly if your mother is there but accent is lots deeper than that. I was in London, got to talking with some high-toned London woman, asked her straight-up if she'd be talking to me if I was blue-collar local, she liked the honesty of the question and answered honestly -- it was my boots and jeans and accent and carriage that had her giving me the attention she was. It was a fun conversation. I found Paris to be a different animal, a real arrogance in the people there, to which I gave the same response.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:10 PM on September 15 [15 favorites]

My accent is highly contextual, I have come to realise. When I am interviewed on the radio it is something close to the speech of university-educated New Zealanders, nowhere near RP but NZ with the corners knocked off and I still pronounce bear and beer differently. There is the much more working class, Māori-inflected accent of the secondary school I went to which manifests if other people are talking like that. There's the clearly articulated, neutral accent I have when I talk to people who have English as a second language (New Zealanders are always particularly hard for them). And then there is the terrible habit I have of unconsciously starting to imitate interlocutors (our former prime minister Jim Bolger was famous for doing this).

My mother was raised in Leeds in the UK and arrived here age 10 with a strong Yorkshire accent. It was teased out of her within a year. Her secondary school taught the girls to speak Properly and she had something approaching NZBC standard speech (a modified version of the old BBC standard). But when she spoke to her sister on the phone I would heard her revert in 5 minutes.

I am told I have a good accent in my various other languages and my secret as a musician is: pay attention to pitch and timing. Languages differ a lot in intonation and prosody and if you can mimic the typical melody of native speakers you can be forgiven a lot of approximation in vowels and consonants.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:07 AM on September 16 [9 favorites]

This finding is really interesting but unsurprising when you think about it.

My native accent is Standard Southern English (as in, from the Home Counties in England). Within a term of moving to Birmingham for University I had a flexible bath-trap split, mostly no split but occasionally pronouncing words with the split. It's not that I heard very Brummies, as that the majority of people I met were from the Midlands and the North.

Generally speaking, my accent is pretty porous, but it's also something of an asset for my work as other British people will tend to hear me as educated and middle class. I worked very hard for the first decade of living here to avoid picking up a West Midlands accent. I'm less bothered about it now, but that effort has restricted the influence to just a few words. I'm told I get more 'London' when the closer I get to the capital on the train.
posted by plonkee at 12:24 AM on September 16

Most interesting thing I ever learned about accents happened accidentally while working outside my home country for a few months.

By my ear, to the extent that Australian cows go "moo", German ones really genuinely do go "muh".
posted by flabdablet at 12:36 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

I realise this is a derail, but plonkee when I was in the UK I was somewhat shocked at how some regional accents were essentially stigmatised as comedy accents (I was living near Dudley at the time). I knew that intellectually but seeing it in operation really struck me then and it still does. How deeply unfair that is.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:53 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

What's interesting is that it sounds like there were shifts that were neither a sort of reversion to the mean, nor everyone getting pulled towards one of the outliers, which is what you'd naively assume. I didn't click through from the link to see if I had access to the full article, but it would be interesting to know how many people total overwintered--the authors are well aware it's a biased sample, but I'm curious whether 11 is, well, representative of the group or if, I don't know, there were 50 Australians running around or something.
posted by hoyland at 12:55 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

This is super interesting. When I was working in Antarctica (at US bases) I was always taken by the truly ridiculous dialect that had developed there over the decades. For instance, this is a perfectly coherent and meaningful statement (and is fact one that I once used in a conversation!):

"the herc fulll of beakers on its way from cheech to mactown boomeranged because of a herbie storm"
posted by deadbilly at 2:37 AM on September 16 [13 favorites]

For instance, this is a perfectly coherent and meaningful statement (and is fact one that I once used in a conversation!):

I enjoy sentences that parse for some people and are completely unintelligible for others. In grad school, my advisor was reading a paper I wrote and hit some sentence where he had no idea what I meant. I'd missed a word, but it was still a well-formed sentence for me, just not in "academic paper" register. For him, it was so wrong that he couldn't figure out what it was possibly meant to say.
posted by hoyland at 3:03 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

Within a term of moving to Birmingham for University I had a flexible bath-trap split, mostly no split but occasionally pronouncing words with the split. It's not that I heard very Brummies, as that the majority of people I met were from the Midlands and the North.

I lived in Birmingham for 7 years. It was pretty crazy. I eventually developed an ear for my local Brummie but only for milder versions of it. If I walked two miles north of where I lived in Kings Heath I couldn't understand a word of lots of people around the big Sainsbury's! Then there was Wolverhampton where I once gave up on understanding a fella at introductions but still had to spend the rest of an afternoon with him as part of a group. Good thing British people like awkward comedy!
posted by srboisvert at 3:31 AM on September 16

I've been soaking in all the anecdotes over in the Southern accent thread about people's accents shifting over the years or even over the course of a conversation.

I have an aunt who was born in East Texas. She met my uncle in college and married him soon thereafter, moving back to Cape Cod with him. And so over time...her accent became a blend of East Texas and Cape Cod.

That posed a problem for me when I was in speech and accent classes in college, because whenever I was asked to do a Southern accent...I would end up doing an Aunt Mary accent, which was really wrong.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

I would like to commend this article for finding the most harmless way imaginable to end the sentence "Scientists Working in Antarctica Inadvertently Developed a New".
posted by mhoye at 4:31 AM on September 16 [31 favorites]

I was once at a conference and, at the mixer, a woman asked where I was from. I replied that I was from Indiana. She looked puzzled and then told me I didn’t sound like I was from Indiana. I took it as a compliment.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:39 AM on September 16

I would like to commend this article for finding the most harmless way imaginable to end the sentence "Scientists Working in Antarctica Inadvertently Developed a New".

You're gonna have to sleep sometime, MacReady.
posted by rory at 4:40 AM on September 16 [13 favorites]

There's a guy at my American Legion post who swears that he can tell whether someone is a GWOT-era veteran by their "accent". He says it's a blend of Southern influence, slightly academic, and a couple of key Iraqi-Arabic-style vowel shifts that we pick up from interpreters.
posted by Etrigan at 5:37 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

i, like, talk how i type?
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 7:25 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

I attended a 2 week conference with a large German/British contingent for 10 or so years, and I developed a different accent that I'd speak only at that conference.
posted by joeyh at 7:40 AM on September 16

Near as I can tell, time spent in Antarctica has had no effect whatsoever on Werner Herzog's accent.
posted by flabdablet at 8:00 AM on September 16 [5 favorites]

Since we're telling personal anecdotes, the area I grew up in has a very thick inland north with a heavy dose of Belgian/French accents in the mix. (e.g. a bit thicker "redneck" dan yer stand bears) Like there's a road named "tru-way" of course it means "through way" but it's little called that cuz no like : "T'row da cow over da fence some hay"

Anyways, I moved to Madison and not even there a year and my friend said "What happened to your accent" LOL. I never had a strong one cuz both my folks weren't from the area, but my friend has family from there for ages so it was stronger in him and apparently he lost it a bit too (or was good at the adaptation).

Cool to see some of their predictions match...
posted by symbioid at 8:27 AM on September 16

My accent is highly contextual, I have come to realise.
Me too. We immigrated to England when I was four, and for the first six months, I didn't say a word. I was at a very posh school, and when I began speaking it was the English posh people speak, with a tiny bit of a lisp. My little brother even got the rhotacism. Then we moved north, and the posh accent was teased out of me within days.
Then we moved to Germany, to live among American service-people, who thought even my Northern accent was fascinating and sounded very intelligent and high-brow. I always had to read texts out loud in class, so the other kids could learn to pronounce stuff "properly". I promise, you get a lot of friends that way /s. But our best friends were French, so we spoke that too. But hardly any German.
Then we moved to Italy, but were home-schooled so our Italian was not very developed.
Then we moved to Denmark, without many words of Danish, and went to an international school where people came from all over the world, I guess here we developed global English tones.

So, when I speak with others in English, the way I do it is highly dependent on the context. I had a student from Sheffield who was a lot like me as a young person, and with them, my Northern voice returned. I sometimes use Americanisms. Sometimes I have a typical Danish accent. I've even had an Italian accent in some cases. Unfortunately, if someone meets me in different contexts, they might assume I have made fun of them when I adopt their accent. I haven't. I'm just not able to control it without making a huge effort, that distracts me from the content of our conversation.

The good thing is that I am pretty good at understanding languages and dialects. This summer I was with my daughter at a store in an area where they speak a relatively heavy dialect, and when we came out, she started giggling. She told me she hadn't understood one word of the conversation in the store and was wondering wether I was just inventing random replies to whatever the shopkeeper said, Monty Python style. For me, it had been a very soft version of the dialect, not even close to the old-timers' speak, and I was really surprised she didn't understand.

Anyway, I feel the article validates my shape-shifting language, and that is a huge relief. Now I can point to science when people feel hurt by my unpredictable mannerisms.
posted by mumimor at 8:49 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

i read that and my jealousy re: third culture kids intensifies so much that it effectively blots out my capacity to think.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 8:58 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]

this is really fascinating and I am enjoying these personal stories too!

I was born NYC/grew up in NJ but really do not have the local accent. like, my school teacher asked my mom where I'd been growing up because she couldn't tell from my speech. "right here"

I went to summer camp in North Carolina as a tween and I COULD NOT understand anyone. they said I had a New York accent.
posted by supermedusa at 9:54 AM on September 16

Here I thought it was just frozen lips.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:17 AM on September 16

I once met a woman in Portugal who was fluent in English. One of the fun things about talking with her was her accent would vary within sentences. Casual words would come out with an American accent. More formal words would have a BBC style accent. "Shit" would be American. "Fuck" would be more British. And all of that had a slight Portuguese accent floating above it all and shifting the guest accents mildly. She was mostly self-taught on English so the accent shifts revealed where she had learned a word or had heard it most.

She was a lovely person and had a life experience similar to yours, muminor. Thanks for sharing your story. As someone who spent my first 18 years in one place, I'm a little envious of those who had a variety of places and languages in their childhood.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 11:33 AM on September 16

Years ago by now, I heard on NPR in the US about a Norwegian radio quiz show in which a panel of 3 experts/personalities would try to guess where in Norway random callers to the program had grown up.

Success within a radius of ~10 miles was said to be greater than 80%, as I recall, but it’s hard to imagine that kind of granularity could persist anywhere in Western Europe today.
posted by jamjam at 12:40 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

Success within a radius of ~10 miles was said to be greater than 80%, as I recall, but it’s hard to imagine that kind of granularity could persist anywhere in Western Europe today.

Yeah, when I was a teenager in Denmark, I could recognise very local dialects because I competed in a sport that brought me around two very different wide regions, but those dialects don't exist anymore, because of the general media-immersion and the proximity to the capital. Most people, including myself, use more English phrases while speaking Danish than traditional dialect expressions. The holdouts are young men with little education in areas further away from the main cities. Who'd have thought they would be cultural icons? (Actually, I need to think about this). There are still what I would call regional accents here, rather than dialects, maybe 8 or 9 of them. And sociolects, maybe 5 or 6.

Also, I was just listening to a podcast with a Persian refugee who was speaking the dialect of my Danish grandmother. Wild! But that is part of the story too. Immigrants and refugees have unfortunately often been pretty isolated during the last 50 years, and thus, they sometimes speak a more pure dialect than people who were born here, who had better options for moving around for studies and jobs.
posted by mumimor at 1:09 PM on September 16

I am someone who has lived in the US as a child and in Ireland (mostly) for nearly 50 years now. And England for the first two years of my life. To me, I sound Irish. But almost everyone I speak to detects the American in my accent.
posted by Samarium at 2:04 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

As a counterbalance, my grandfather grew up eastern Ontario, in a small town in the Ottawa valley, and had an accent apparently typical of his place and time (born shortly before WWI).

The town of Renfrew, a century and change ago, was full of Irish immigrants and the children of these, so my grandfather (who never to my knowledge left Canada in his fourscore years) had an Irish accent.

By the time I was around to hear it he was in his fifties and had been living away from his hometown for decades, but even then it lingered in a few vowels.

I myself have spect very little time in Renfrew but I have never noticed any of these telltales in the denizens. Maybe broadcast radio and tv eradicated the accent in the ensuing century.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:20 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

I learned to speak English in The Bronx but then moved to Ithaca, then back home to Chile, where for I mostly spoke English with a few Florida-based cousins when they came to visit, and then had a gringa gf for a few years who was from upstate NY but went to college in Wisconsin. A few years later, I lived and worked in California, in Napa and Berkeley.
Nowadays when I speak English I have a pretty average, nowhere-specific US accent, and am quite miffed I completely lost the Bronx accent of my early childhood.
posted by signal at 7:44 PM on September 16

For a while when I was very young, my family lived in a village called Portland Ontario. It is between Kingston and Ottawa. Thirty years later, I moved to Northern California to work in a software company. As part of my job, I negotiated a printing contract with a local print shop. After we concluded our first meeting, the print shop owner politely asked about my accent. It turns out that he grew up in Upstate New York, and used to go fishing in Portland Ontario, and bought his bait at the same general store where we bought our groceries. He recognised my accent from his experience of visiting Portland to fish.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:15 AM on September 17 [2 favorites]

I used to travel pretty extensively for work, and worked in a lot of remote industrial locations (packing plants, mines, remote wastewater plants) where I would spend a few intensive weeks with a laborforce that was often very local. I discovered I have a tendency to mimic when immersed in that kind of situation, not least because I (I think subconsciously at least) think it helps me get across my communication requirements more effectively, and plus it's more friendly, I get more buy in.

Hence after two weeks in remote Labrador I was all "where ya to?" and "lor'tunderin'!". When I was in the carolinas I did a lot of not-swearing: "heck fire!" and "gawl durn it!" oh and if something was broken "dog don't hunt". On reflection, in Jersey I probably just swore a lot more than usual. oh and had to refine my breakfast sandwich order for a "taylah ham". In American Samoa, for obscure reasons, I would occasionally use Korean catch phrases.

I worry sometimes that this comes across as insulting but it's certainly not my intent and I haven't had much luck curbing it.
posted by hearthpig at 5:34 PM on September 17 [1 favorite]

Mod note: [btw, this post has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:49 AM on September 18

She was mostly self-taught on English so the accent shifts revealed where she had learned a word or had heard it most.

You've reminded me of a DELIGHTFUL conversation I had during a trip to Paris. I was at a market stall and chatting with the stall keeper; we'd started talking in French but I had to switch to English (my French is....shakey). At some point, he'd mentioned he was a huge Beatles fan as a teenager, and that's how he learned English - by listening to their records and their interviews and watching their films. We kept talking, and a few minutes later I noticed that every so often a Liverpudlian note crept into his accent along with the French.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:12 AM on September 18 [2 favorites]

To me, I sound Irish. But almost everyone I speak to detects the American in my accent.

With everybody sharing accent stories... We're from rural Northern Ontario with our own French accent. My dad tried so hard to run from that accent and when he went to school in Quebec he actively shed it and cultivated a Quebec French Montreal accent. Years later he was working in the Democratic Republic of Congo and to his dismay when he spoke to them in French they correctly identified his Sudbury Valley French accent (how on earth they would be familiar with a small regional accent that even a lot of people in Quebec are unfamiliar with I have no idea - maybe via Catholic clergy from the region?) He was nonplussed but he stopped busting me for my accent after that.
posted by Ashwagandha at 11:20 AM on September 18 [6 favorites]

adding a story, but at a recent meeting I approached a person during a break and said "I'm guessing you are from Nova Scotia, you don't happen to be from Liverpool area?" and the guy turns out to go way back with my cousin and cousin's partner. and that's exactly what I heard in his voice: my aunt's and cousin's voice.

in Alberta you hear a bit of "Ukrainian punch" in some sentences, someone with a background in linguistics would have the right words but I just hear a history of hard work and breaking land in people's phrasing
posted by elkevelvet at 1:13 PM on September 20 [1 favorite]

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