The Return of the Native Accent

I would wager many people have had the experience of a long-faded regional accent returning to their speech when they make a visit to the place where they were reared. The classic example is the person who goes to a high school reunion back home with a spouse and in a day the spouse is asking “Why are you suddenly talking so funny?” (Underscoring that the process is not effortful and may therefore not be noticed).

I have observed that “accent relapse” does not require the stimulus of actually being home. In Illinois, I had a roommate who was from Southwest Virginia. He had a slight remaining accent, but when he talked on the phone with his relatives his marked Vah-geenya accent returned. The effect lasted for a few hours, such that at dinner I could usually tell if he had called home that day.

Now, here is where I want to introduce some new data on this phenomenon and ask RBCers if they have had similar experiences. Last week I got an email from West Virginia (i.e., I did not talk to the person and hear their accent). The email invited me to give a talk back home, and as I was practicing it aloud I noticed that a West Virginia accent was returning to my voice. In other words, an entirely internal, cognitive stimulus — imagining I was speaking to an audience of West Virginians — changed my accent.

As as informal study, please post if you have ever had such an experience, for example maybe a dream or a memory or relating the story of a childhood incident caused your accent to come back without the stimuli of actually being back home or talking to someone from home. And as a question for everyone, accent-inflicted or not: What do you think accounts for the phenomenon of “accent relapse”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

40 thoughts on “The Return of the Native Accent”

  1. My information is second or third hand, to the best of my recollection I'm recalling an essay by Stephen Jay Gould who was writing about this research, so have the salt handy. But apparently there is research in linguistics indicating that many aspects of speech, including accent are used automatically for social signaling. In particular Gould was saying that the classic "dees dems and does" of the Long Island accent are not used at a set rate by any given speaker. Rather any given individual will use them more or less frequently depending upon the social situation. The speaker does not want to either appear lower class than he is, nor to be putting on airs beyond his station. As a result he will increase or decrease the frequency to match the expectations of the group he is in. It may well be that your brain is automatically trying to signal to the upcoming audience that you haven't completely left your home behind, an impression they would get if you accent were to be completely Northern. If this is what's happening, I would guess too that you are getting traces of that West Virginia accent, so you'll still sound a bit "northern". Otherwise, it would seem fake.

  2. Yes.

    I'm from East Tennessee. In a neutral setting, I have a fairly unnoticeable accent, but if I talk to a family member who still lives in that area, or a childhood friend, I have (per my wife) a noticeably Tennessean accent. She says that even if I'm just preparing to talk to someone there (thinking of making a phone call, for example), my accent will come back.

  3. I grew up in North Carolina but moved to the Midwest many years ago. In my now-home surroundings I don't have a noticeable accent, but I do notice it coming back when I am in NC for any length of time, esp. around my family, who all live there and all have strong NC accents.

    As for what accounts for it: ???

  4. " The German book is “Mörder Guss Reims” "

    I've seen a French one: "Mots d'heures: gousses, rames". The contents are hilarious.

  5. My birth family calls me "Jamie", but I go by "Jim" to the world– including my wife.

    When we visit, she switches between "Jamie" and "Jim" depending on which side of the family is speaking with.

    She can talk with my sister about "Jamie" then ask "Jim" a question in the next sentence.

  6. Slight twist: yesterday, I finished reading "True Grit". Having seen the Coen brothers version of the movie a week ago, I wanted to read the story. I've noticed that reading that book leaves me with Mattie Ross in my head, even though I wasn't born in the 1870s and never lived in Arkansas.

  7. I have a somewhat different experience than Gould suggests. First, I lost much of my hearing at age 11. Prior to that my speech was largely uninterpretable Green Bay WI. With the loss of hearing I discovered that a) the more clearly I spoke, the more clearly others spoke to me and b) if I spoke in a manner that reflected the speech of someone I was talking to, the more friendly they were likely to be. The result on one occasion was that while buying boiled peanuts at a farm on a mountain in northern Georgia, I had slipped so completely into a reflected (mirrored) accent that my wife became concerned that the guy selling the peanuts would be offended. He wasn't, and soon had me in the back room sampling hard cider (that he couldn't legally sell) and specially boiled peanuts (boiled half as long) and insisting on matching the peanuts I had bought with another batch of the special peanuts (they're softer at that point, quite addictive) and refusing money. Point: my manner of speaking was quite successful. My "normal" speech is very correct with a tendency to too many long words. I've since learned that I do this mirroring when functioning as a therapist (I'm a psychopysiologist/psycholinguist, but have had opportunity to work as a therapist) and looking back, I had done much the same thing in working with customers in a pro camera store, matching their speech, both in level and accent with very positive results (sold a lot of equipment). I've never found it useful to try to stay at a "higher' level (appropriate for a Ph.D.), but that mirroring provides benefits in communication. I've just never figured out how to do this for a class of a dozen students.

  8. I grew up a Connecticut yankee and, sometimes while reminiscing, I am told I slip back into my yankee accent, though I myself am not aware of it. Reminiscences put me back in an earlier time and place, and it just seems natural that the speech patterns would emerge as part of the process. The effect lingers for a few hours, and is noticeable enough that I've had strangers ask me what country I'm from, based on my accented English. (Accented, that is, if viewed from a southern California viewpoint). I tell them I'm a Connecticut yankee, leaving them wondering what I'm talking about. Understand that LA county is 50% hispanic; "other white" and small minority.

  9. I was born in Virginia, but moved to Idaho at age 7. In my teens, I visited friends in Virginia again for 2 weeks. I didn't notice anything myself, but when I returned to Idaho, I remember being asked, "Are you from the East Coast?" more than once in the time immediately following.

  10. I have a tendency to adopt the local accent even though I wasn't raised around it. This leads people to think I am coming home mo matter where I go.

  11. I was just talked about this not even two days ago. I was on a date and related how, whenever I go back to Boston (where I spent the first 14 years of my life), I inexplicably pick my accent back up.

    As a side-note, moving to the mid-west at that age with a full-blown New England accent in the late 80s wasn't the easiest. Especially after correcting the teacher on how to say Worcester (it's not Wore-chester, people) and feeling the wrath of kids who will use anything to target the new kid.

  12. I'm with Glue. While visiting Ireland, which is my heritage but not my upbringing, I found myself adopting just a bit of the local inflection. Not to be puttin' on airs, but just to make yourself understood, don't ya know.

  13. I lived a long time in the south, and still keep in touch with friends there. There are many times when I lapse, if not quite into a southern accent, then into southern expressions and the like.

    I only do this, I think, when talking to actual southerners, not people who moved south from elsewhere. My supposition is that it simply enhances communication. The inflections and word choices efficiently convey subtle nuances.

    Don't we generally tend to adopt different styles, if not accents, depending on who we are talking to, even in informal conversation? I think I do. In some situations I may refer to someone as a gonif, for example, which to my ear has a different connotation than "thief." I would use "thief" to refer to someone who steals cars, gonif for a swindler or other fraudster.

  14. I grew up in New York City, but neither of my parents (mother from Ohio, father from New Jersey) had a strong regional accent, and I never acquired a New York accent, so my speech is normally pretty bland. But whenever I get into an animated conversation with someone who has a New York accent, I find myself spontaneously mirroring it. That doesn't happen with people with other types of accents (e.g. Southern, Bostonian).

  15. My father grew up in southern Illinois, and must have had when young the same accent (more or less identical with that of southwestern Virginia, Kentucky and southern Indiana, through all of which his ancestors traveled)as his sister and mother and everyone else in the small town where they lived. He enlisted in 1941, received an appointment to the Naval Academy, and when he got back from Japan spent most of the rest of his life up to the present in upstate NY. To me, he sounds accentless except for a few words here and there. My mother (who grew up on Long Island and kept her strong accent for all *her* life) used to twit him about his hillbilly accent. And sure enough when we'd go back to his home town for a visit, his mode of speech would change (immediately!) and he'd sound sound like all his old friends and relatives. He tells some awfully funny stories about my mother's first meeting with his family.

  16. Thanks to everyone for thoughtful experiences and interesting data points (Brad's experiences as someone who lost hearing are particularly intriguing). I tend to be suspicious of evolutionary explanations for human behavior because they are often a bit too neat and not falsifiable. That caveat said, I wonder if accents help indicate who is an insider and who is a potentially dangerous stranger? Pure speculation on my part.

  17. Slipping into an accent that you used to have, when you're with others who share the accent, is a sign of solidarity. I do the same with an accent that I never had, when visiting my husband's home town. But, I try to tone it down because even though it's semi-unconscious, it feels false.

  18. My thesis advisor, much admired by grad students, had a Texas accent, and decades later I find myself mimicking it slightly when I talk about econ theory. (I don't know about the "decades later" part for his other students, but some of them at the time had the Texas tendency, too.) I have heard that for years all airplane pilots mimicked (consciously?) Chuck Yeager.

  19. I don't know that there is anything mysterious about accent relapse; the brain always reverts to the familiar, and it makes most of its adjustments outside of conscious awareness.

    Your experience of reverting to your original accent while practicing the speech probably reflects a phenomenon we see more and more evidence for as we keep doing fMRI studies: that doing something and imagining doing it activates the same circuits in the brain, including motoric ones.

  20. Exactly . . . people have an instinctive desire to fit in with whatever group is most salient at the moment. Whatever the origins of this instinct, it's there. My wife, for example, has an Afghan father and American mother. She was born and grew up in the US, never learned Farsi, and has no discernible accent. But when she's on the phone with certain of her older Afghan relatives, she suddenly falls into what I'd have to call a completely fake foreign accent.

  21. Yep. I'm from the edge of the Missouri Ozarks, and my accent comes and goes. It was very difficult, but early on I trained myself to speak (as a friend of mine puts it) Standard Collegiate. The old ways of speaking come back sometimes, and one thing that does it is going back home. Just talking to somebody from back home can do it, too. I'm sure part of it is unconscious, but part of it is conscious–I just feel like kind of a phony if I use my artificial, acquired accent when I'm speaking to someone who speaks…well, as I'd say, normally…

  22. I don't have a tendency to slip into regional accent when talking with folks from home (central Pennsylvania coal country) but I do slip into a Scottish accent when I have had more than 3 drinks. I unconsciously emulate my maternal grandfathers accent because I associate being drunk with that accent. I cannot, even with extreme effort, control the accent until I sober up. Those I provided great entertainment to my friends during college in that the measure of alcohol consumption was to increase or decrease by the thickness of my accent.

  23. I find that I revert to my native Texas accent when I'm around other Texans and when I sing. As a result, no matter what I sing, it becomes a country song, regardless of what it was supposed to be.

  24. I revert to a Texas accent when I am with Texans, or when I am tired. I've lived in California for 40 years, and have only a small amount of Texas left in my voice when I'm here. I think of it as sloughing off an overlay of "standard American" accent.

  25. Two stories:

    One boss of mine was born in England, but has lived in the U.S. for 40 or so years now. You'ld probably recognize his accent as English, but normally it's not too strong. When we were working on a project that required daily phone conversations with the UK, I mentioned that he seemed to "Brit up his voice" when we were talking with Brentwood. "Oh yeah?" was his reply. It was quite noticeable.

    My partner is from Boston, and has lived here in Michigan seven years now. When he first moved here, people always asked him where he's from, but that's pretty much gone away now. But when he's on the phone with his siblings (or when we go to visit) I can hear the Boston creeping back in.

  26. I'm from a southern mid-Atlantic state. When I was at work at my first job in NYC, occasionally I would get a phone call at the from a family member back home, and my co-workers around my cubicle could tell by *my* accent that I was talking with a southerner (and of course, they gave me a very friendly hard time about it).

    They said also I tended to lapse into my home accent when I got indignant or irritated about something.

    I was told once by a linguist I met that this phenomenon is called being "bi-dialectic" or "code-switching", and it's quite common among those who were raised among more than one dialect, such as (in my case) southerners of higher education.

    It's supposedly most common or likely among those whose welfare depends on being functional in more than one accent/dialect. That would certainly be true of southerners — we are all quite aware that a southern accent is an automatic minus 10 I.Q. points in the mind of most hearers, and any southerner working in higher education (as both my parents did; they had 2 doctorates and 3 master's degrees between them) had better be able to switch to standard collegiate tone at will, or suffer real career handicaps, regardless of whether merited.

  27. I'm a native of the District but was raised in Nebraska, then lived all over the northern plains, so my Washington roots are pretty well concealed. My wife is from Baltimore and left much later in life than I ( we met "out west"); even after nearly thirty years' separation, when he is tired, she asks for "warter."

    I find that when I am tired, or irritated by my Southern surroundings, the high-plains sound is what surfaces, rather than the accent of the District. Hmm. I can speak like a local well enough to not stand out too badly in these Midsouthern parts, but natives know that I'm a "damyankee" (one who came to stay), rather than a native son who has strayed, then returned.

  28. I should also mention that New Yorkers often said, "But you don't have an accent," when I said where I was from. I was always torn between two possible replies: "But YOU do!", or "Not in front of you, I don't!"

  29. Also, my Yankee (New York & New England) cousin who spent a lot of time as an adult in the Appalachian (southeastern) part of Ohio tends to lapse into that hilljack Ohioan accent when he's around me, a southerner from the eastern seaboard. It's funny because the two "southern" accents are quite different — but the southern culture they both represent is very similar.

    I've always just intuited that what is happening is that his mind is having a cultural reaction — trying to fit in with expectations of one's audience, as MSR and EB note above — and the Appalachian Ohio accent is the one his mind is familiar with that matches the culture behind my North Carolina accent. His mind recognizes my accent as southern, but he can't actually speak that because he hasn't been immersed in it as he has in the Appalachian Ohioan version, so that's what surfaces instead. But the signifier "southern" is what's resonating, I believe.

    Supporting this idea, I saw some research quite a few years ago, showing that cultural traits tend to be affiliated strongly with language — Mexican-Americans who were fluent in both Spanish and English displayed more communitarian and social sharing traits when speaking Spanish; more individualistic and selfish traits when speaking English.

    From what I know of being half Yankee, half Southerner myself — I believe it. Twenty years after living in Brooklyn for a while, I still lapse into New Yorkese when I need to be assertive or argumentative; back into a southern accent when I need to make nice while masking my dissatisfaction, the thing that Southerners do the very best of anyone (a southerner will be polite until he's ready to kill you).

  30. Oh, yes, this happens a lot to me. I was raised in the South (Louisiana) and spent much of my adult life "up north" in Ohio and Wisconsin. Now I live in Britain. When I'd talk to my mom or other southern relatives, yes, my accent noticeably changed. When I even thought about talking to my relatives, I also, in my imagination, used my Southern voice. On the other hand, when I spoke to my writing group in New Mexico I used a normal, non-regional accent, and when I was interviewed a couple years ago in a podcast I can definitely hear my normal modern accent, not a Southern one.

    I also have an opposite reaction here in Britain. When I speak to Brits, I tone down my Rs, enunciate my Ts, and otherwise mimic the British accent, unconsciously. I remember being in a supermarket and asking where an item was, and replying in a very British accent that seemed to come out of nowhere!

    Today, after having lived all over the US and in Britain, but having many Canadian friends, I sound a lot like a Canadian. Probably because during the six years in Wisconsin was when my accent most changed, since that was where I felt most out of place sounding Southern.

  31. I have a marked Ozark hillbilly accent with a lot of old English pronunciation and sentence structure. When I have lived in the south, it has altered to be slightly more mush mouth.

    When I was in my mid 40s, I was taking a course in a university in New Hampshire. The professor took it upon himself to "correct" my accent.

    The third time he did it, I got up, walked up to him on his platform and asked, "Did you understand what I said?" "Yes." "Then I don't want you trying to teach me your perverted New Hampshire accent and drop this correcting crap ASAP. Do you understand this?" "Yes."

  32. I thought I noticed President Obama, in his Tucson speech, sliding into a slight Southern inflection when he started talking about what families do together when they mourn a death. He was trying to sound intimate and warm, and that accent seemed well-suited to that kind of talk.

    People are prickly about this kind of thing, so I should emphasize that I don't think Obama was doing anything phony or calculated. It just comes to mind as an example of something: That we may adopt accents not only to fit a social context, but to convey a tone. And that we think of certain accents as fitting certain kinds talk. (And in a media-saturated world, we all have a pretty broad palette of accents we can "borrow.") For example, I sound much, much more like a New Yorker when I'm arguing.

  33. I live in the UK but grew up in Ontario (Awhhn Tah Re Ohhh). Distinct protestant Irish lilt in parts of rural Ontario.

    Here in the UK I am quite capable of saying that I 'duuhnt knoe' for I don't know.

    Give me 3 days back in Canada, and it's 'Tranna' rather than Toh-Ron-To all over again.

    For me, it's like switching languages. The words we use are different (takes me a moment to remember a 'dustbin' is a 'garbage can' and that 'fag' is not a disused publicschool boy term). Oh and that public schools are private etc.

    To the extent you are attuned to the people around you you try to mimic them, consciously or unconsciously, I think.

  34. Accent is quite exoskeletal here in the UK. Your accent 'places' you even between minor and major public (ie private) schools. Northern has a context here closer to Southerners for you. Actually it's West Country (think Sam GamGee in Lord of the Rings) that says 'dumb'.

    US it seems subtler but I note in 'The Big Bang Theory' the ongoing humour about a character's mother, that one only hears yelling at him, never on screen (Howard Wolfowitz) and his mother's very strong New Yawk accent.

  35. Betsy

    More grist for the mill that southerners are closer to their English forebears in language and culture than those from the NE. I tend to see southern culture as 18th century England: the combination of the genteel landowning aristocracy (one owns slaves, in one's Carribean investments, but one does not brag about it) and utterly wild, hard drinking and gambling lower classes (with the boys of the aristocracy going through a phase at college where they drink, and whore). The emphasis on attending 'the right church' and of land ownership (even for successful merchants and manufacturers) and of travelling socially with 'the right sort' and marrying well. Watch the whole Kate Middleton thing (successful entrepreneurs of common origins, daughter marries heir to throne) and the court sniping ('Doors to close' an allusion to Mrs. M's first job as a BA air hostess).

    And of course the love of a good fight. A gentleman must be prepared to defend his or his lady's honour, after all, Marquess of Queensbury rules or not. And service in the Army Regiment is no bad thing for the younger son.

    That British attribute (or English, Glasgow is very different, and Yorkshire far more blunt than the south) of trying to make nice until you punch someone in the snoot, sounds very much like the southern one.

    Surveys of call centre voices here show that the most trusted accents are a soft Scottish (Edinburgh more than Glasgow) and northern, particularly Leeds in Yorkshire.

    Least trusted would be the East End of London, which is our version of Bronx or Jersey Shore (once you get out into Essex).

  36. Values, it all depends on what part of the south. We've got regions of patrician squirearchies and regions of working-class stiffs. The culture and politics vary from state to state, and from county to county within a state, depending on settlement patterns by highland or lowland Scots, East Anglian -derived merchant class, or others, and on the basis for the local economy — mills, fields, ports, or mines.

    In other words, more has been written on this than you or I could attempt to summarize here.

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