Hi, we’re your friendly neighbourhood sociopaths

Dot writes (under a shamelessly eye-catching title): here are some idle speculations on the topic of accent. Funnily enough, Ken and I don’t have local accents. He’s from New Zealand and I’m from England and the most we manage in the way of Dublin patois is remembering to say orr instead of ah for the letter r and asking in shoe-shops for runners not trainers. Perhaps more surprisingly, our children don’t have Dublin accents either. They sound a bit Irish to their English relatives, but definitely English to the Irish. Here are some comforting words from Peter Trudgill on the subject of accommodation to local speech:

The conventional sociolinguistic wisdom is that young children speak like their peers rather than, for example, like their parents or teachers (Trudgill 1986, 220)….No one expresses any surprise, though they may express regret, if a Welsh-accented family moving to East Anglia quite quickly comes to consist of adults who still sound Welsh and young children who sound as if they have lived in Suffolk all their lives. It is true that occasionally individuals may be found of whom this is not so, but they are usually socially maladjusted, nonintegrated people whose lack of linguistic accommodation to their peers is a sign of social pathology (Newbrook 1982).

(Peter Trudgill, ‘A Window on the Past: “Colonial Lag” and New Zealand Evidence for the Phonology of Nineteenth-Century English’, American Speech, 74 (1999), 227-239, at 227-8)

Ouch. I never had a Norfolk accent in Norfolk, either. I guess I was too busy polishing my collection of thumb-screws in the cellar to get one.

Thumb-screws apart, it’s true my family were not particularly well-integrated with the village people in Norfolk; our accent is, despite our not having any money, a middle-class accent rather than a rural Norfolk accent, and this is not actually particularly uncommon. Most of my friends at secondary school had fairly similar accents. But what about Hugh and Frank? Well, they are still young enough that we remain their primary influences. I confidently expect that the Dublin sound will get stronger in their speech as they progress through their school years. However, there are other factors that may impede their becoming fully assimilated.

One is rhoticity. Irish English is rhotic and neither New Zealand nor English English are, so there’s a whole set of sounds that they’re not just hearing differently from Ken and me, but not hearing from us at all. For those internal /r/ sounds, they can’t just learn a regular correspondence, but they have to learn the Irish pronunciation word by word, which is a bigger deal.*

For another complication I can go back to Trudgill. The ‘colonial lag’ of his title is an effect by which, in a colonial society with a mix of settlers from different places, language change takes about a generation to get going again. This is ‘an automatic consequence of the fact that there is often no common peer-group dialect for children to acquire in first-generation colonial situations’ (227). Now, the peer-group dialect Hugh and Frank will hear has two strata, the more fiercely local, but to some extent stigmatized, working-class Dublin accent, and an RTE kind of accent (though not, in Raheny, the infamous ‘D4’ variety) that has less local colour and is a degree or three posher. I don’t imagine that will be too confusing for them, though it’s worth noticing that there is no single overpowering standard to conform to (and, historically, Ireland hasn’t developed a ‘received’ or ‘standard’ accent of English to the same degree as England). But I do wonder if it complicates matters that Ken and I don’t just speak differently from our children’s peers, but also differently from each other. How many different accents does a child need to hear before he or she gives up on accommodation and goes his or her own sweet way?

*Actually, assuming they are motivated to accommodate, they may hypercorrect and introduce postvocalic r where it has no business to be. What an interesting few years we are going to have.


9 thoughts on “Hi, we’re your friendly neighbourhood sociopaths

  1. Katimum

    I wonder how much our ‘received English’ accents are a result of very mixed accent influences? I learnt to talk in Bristol, then moved to Borderland Shropshire (Welsh in the streets on market day), then back to industrial Cheshire. N had a father with a French accent, although my memories of Audrey quite ‘Southern England’. Although we have lived in Norfolk for ages, it is a notoriously difficult accent to imitate – witness various cringe-making attempts at in on Television.

  2. Very funny, I have two totally Weegie girls (Glaswegian) which is the strangest feeling, no sign of German accent or even my own accent in English (which is a mix of German and Irish English but definitely not Scottish) and husband is not from Glasgow either, even though Scottish. I do know lots of kids of English parents here and they don’t speak with a Scottish accent, so I think the statement above is very sweeping, as these kids are well adjusted and definitely don’t lack social skills. They did generally have stay at home parents or grandparents taking on the early care, rather than local nursery care so time spent with primary and secondary care giver seems to be important too, not just the peers. What I can say is that the minority language in our home only started to be used after older daughter realised that real kids speak it, rather than mummies who also speak English. So peer group was important to kick start language use, and motivate it.

    1. kenanddot

      So your girls perfectly fit the theory. I think you are right and time spent with primary caregivers is a key factor. I also think that the fact children ‘play out’ much less than they did, especially in middle class families, restricts the influence of the peer group and increases that of the parents.

  3. Mairi Jay

    My sister Laura has the accent that the three of us ‘girls’ developed in white Colonial Kenya. Laura is married to Ilkka who has a distinctly Finnish accent. Their three kids grew up in Sydney, Australia. To my ear, Arto, the eldest, has a classic ‘Ozzie’ accent while Tom and Nina, the two younger ones, have an Ozzie accent with Finnish and Colonial English flavours (Nina sounds more like her Dad, and Tom sounds more like his mother).

    My theory is that Arto, as the flag-bearer of the family, probably felt stronger peer pressure to fit in than his younger brother and sister. I think also, that Arto is a more extrovert person than either Tom or Nina and that probably influenced him.

    Hannah, Mat and Jessie’s daughter is a year and 10 months; so she is in the prime language learning years. Her mother speaks to her exclusively in Korean, and Mat speaks to her in NZ English (‘Nuzild’). Korean and English are very different in their sounds and structure and their demands on mouth and throat musculature. So far, she has learned much more Korean than English. It will be interesting to see how she develops once she goes to school.

    1. kenanddot

      That’s really interesting, Mairi. You have to be right that personality type is also a factor. That could apply to me too – I am quite introverted and socially awkward, and was especially awkward as a child, whereas my sister is more outgoing; and of the two of us she came much closer to acquiring a Norfolk accent. Nowadays she has a strong flavour of Southampton, where she now lives (though it’s more a question of intonation than pronunciation). As an adult I too have tended to accommodate a bit to where I’m living. I’ve also picked up Ken’s accent to a small degree – at least, people here are puzzled when I tell them I’m English and become much happier when I mention the kiwi husband. Ken says his friends perceived you as having a non-kiwi accent, but do you think you’ve picked up some kiwi elements in your years in NZ?

  4. Mairi Jay

    Interesting that you’ve picked up some of Ken’s accent. I have a notion that when you made your marriage vows, the commitment went deep. Perhaps depth of commitment also has something to do with it.

    For example, when Sue first arrived in NZ her accent had a distinctly South African flavour. But she was strongly committed to becoming a New Zealander and very rejecting of her South African experience. So perhaps by the time you met her, her accent had lost its South African flavour and you were hearing her earlier accent formed mostly in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

  5. How did I manage to miss this great post! (yip – that ‘r’ was rolling… 😀 )

    I’ve nothing but anecdote to add: my close friend (North Yorkshire) and husband (North Yorkshire by way of Sicily) had their daughter here, in Lanark. Pre-school, daughter was cared for by my Mother and grew up with my own kids – she then attended local primary. She spoke with a very ‘soft’ Scottish accent – but there were hints of Yorkshire. She is now 12 and at school in Leeds – becoming increasingly Yorkshire over the last 2 years.

    However my Brummie cousin’s new partner sounds as Central West Scotland as I do – despite leaving Scotland 26 years ago when he was 8yrs old! But his older brother ‘switches’ between Brummie when out of the family home – and Scottish when with his family.

    We really are a wonderful animal.

    It is such a fascinating subject!

    1. kenanddot

      It’s impressive when people can turn their accents on and off, isn’t it? I can’t do it myself; I just bend it a little. However, I know a Canadian who sounds utterly English (she lives in Oxford) until she gets on the phone to her mother, when the Canadian sound suddenly reappears. She is a talented linguist with a good ear, but I think more importantly she’s very anglophile. But as far as I know she came to England as an adult.

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