I didn’t speak a word of English until I was 10 years old. From the first English lesson at school — “I am Jill, I am Bill” — I had this unshakable feeling that this was really, really important. Even at 10, I understood that this language was the key to the world, and I knew that I needed to learn it if I wanted to travel and meet people whose lives were different from mine. It took me five years to speak English well enough to get by, and nine years to be fully fluent. Now it’s my primary language — speaking, working, dreaming. When I speak what was my native language, I reach into English when I can’t find the words because it’s the language that I live in now; it’s the sound closest to my heart. So, tell me: Where am I from?
Accents are a social identity; we tend to prefer accents we are familiar with. Our attachment to language starts in the womb, and research shows that babies who are just a few months old will prefer a person who speaks in their own language and accent. This preference for people who sound like we do continues as we grow up — research demonstrates that adults will deem people who speak with a foreign accent to be less trustworthy.
Judging a person based on their accent may be an evolutionary trait to discern who’s part of your tribe and who’s not, but in the modern world, it will just as often lead to stereotyping and discrimination. With increasing globalization, we’re constantly surrounded by people who sound different. In 2013, the United Nations estimated that 232 million people were living outside their country of origin, having migrated either to seek refuge or employment.
On the surface, an accent tells you where someone was born. Beyond country and region, accents also tell us something about which social class a person grew up in and, likely, their level of education. It can represent a strong bond: When researchers looked into why some Scots spoke with stronger accents than others from the same area, they found that a heavy accent was correlated with support for Scottish independence.
When I first moved to England, at age 20, I spoke English with an American twang, as is the case for lots of Europeans who were influenced by TV. After a year or so, I made a conscious choice to try to shift my accent toward the British, as I figured I’d probably stay here and it would sound a bit more coherent. I’ve gotten better at it over the years — it’s now at the point where I can travel to America and not have anyone question where I’m from, as I sound British enough to them. But to a native Brit, my accent has never quite passed the sniff test.
Of course, the moment you start poking at it, you realize that no one has a plain accent. I asked a few native Britons whom I perceive to speak a “plain” English about it, and they all rejected the notion that they don’t have an accent. What we recognize as “plain British voice” is actually received pronunciation (RP), a social accent based on the speech of southern England. Some call it the Queen’s English, Oxford English, or BBC English, but in any case, RP is associated with education, authority, and privilege.
Everyone reveals things about themselves in the way they sound — even the queen’s accent is far too posh to be described as neutral. My friend Chris has an accent typical of the London commuter belt, specific to the town where he grew up. My friend Mike has a North London accent. My friend Gavin is a proper Northerner, no explanation necessary. But what they all confirmed, after thinking about it for a moment, was that they’re rarely asked where they were from. It was either obvious, they reckoned, or people didn’t ask because they hadn’t been flagged as “other,” so it wasn’t very interesting.