Sure, we all have our preferences – for some, the sultry sweetness of français has them weak at the knees, for others it’s the rich luxuriousness of italiano that does the trick, but for all of us, the sound of someone speaking our language in even a slightly different way can be astonishingly sexy.
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Even CNN featured an article on the World’s Sexiest Accents! It’s clearly an oft-mentioned topic. But what is it about foreign accents that make us swoon? Is it the melodic lilt that dances across our eardrums? Is it the savoury sensation of rolled ‘r’s that we can almost taste on our own tongues?
Nope. Apparently, it has little to do with the actual sound and far more to do with the cultural and social preconceptions we have.
It’s all about perception.
That’s right! You might love the sound of español, but your affection for the accent more likely stems from your affection for the people, country, or region that speak it. So, when you catch yourself subconsciously drooling over Antonio Banderas’s dreamily deep Spanish accent, it’s more likely a tall, bronzed and delectably dark-haired Spanish man you’re envisioning – like this!. (See if you can recognise his and countless other celebrity accents by playing our Celebrity Accent Game!)
But not all accents bring to mind positive associations. For instance, some adore the honeyed Southern accent from the United States – the lazy drawl reels them in – while for others it is truly disdainful.
So what is it that so heavily influences our perceptions of the way people talk?
Geography is an important consideration with regards to accent and dialect. The physical location of a particular community (their level of isolation and the amount of contact they have with outside ethnic groups) greatly influences the way they speak. But it also plays a significant role in our perceptions of certain speakers. Southern American accents (there are many, but most often the Texan accent) are stereotypically considered “less intelligent” across the United States.
Like geography, socio-economic status is a huge player when it comes to accent perceptions. Posh British accents are frequently associated with being higher up on the proverbial socio-economic totem pole, and are thus frequently considered more likeable, whereas inner-city Baltimore accents (like on the Wire!), bring to mind a very different image.
Check out Nick Foti going through 35 common accents in the English language!
But how do accents develop?
So we’ve established that an infatuation with a particular accent depends more on the listener than the speaker – the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak – but how, exactly, do they develop?
It’s difficult to track the exact development of accents and nearly impossible to determine the length of time it takes for them to blossom; however, the key ingredient is a combination of cultures. Take the United States for example: hundreds of years ago settlers arrived on the continent armed with their European heritage, epidemic diseases, and language.
Unfortunately, they nearly eviscerated the pre-existing language and culture of the Native Americans, but they also kickstarted the process by which today’s North American accents were born. As ethnic groups from around the world immigrated to the continent, they heavily influenced the speech of established British settlers, and engrained their linguistic diversity in the burgeoning American culture.
The homogenisation argument
But the era of the British settlers is a far cry from the era in which we currently reside. Technological advancements have made world travel exceptionally easy, and there are arguments that because of our access to so many different cultures, our speech will eventually homogenise into one standard dialect.
It’s a reasonable assumption; scholars have argued that globalisation and cultural assimilation play a role in language death. There is no doubt that languages are dying out, but with regards to accent, globalization may not be the devious culprit it’s made out to be.
As aforementioned, dialects and accents develop because of interaction with varying cultures, so why then, wouldn’t globalisation lead to the development of more accents?
Whatever your preferences, it’s hard to admit that there’s not at least one accent that, at the very least, brings a smile to your face. And maybe your accent speaking a foreign language could be equally as endearing! So, contact us today to get started on learning one of them!