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Accent

The purpose of a grammatical accent is to indicate that a given letter (usually a vowel) is to be pronounced a certain way, or even pronounced at all. For example, some people may spell "cooperate" as "coöperate", in order to indicate that both o's should be pronounced. It is worth noting that this use of the term accent is quite different from the more culturally and sociologically rooted one of saying that a given person "has" an accent. 

Introduction & Definition

An accent in sociolinguistics is the way in which words and syllables are pronounced, particular to an individual, location, or nation. An accent of this sort can be regional, geographical, or socioeconomically influenced. An accent may differ according to quality of voice, pronunciation and distinction of consonants and vowels, stress, and prosody. It is important to note that an accent is not the same as a dialect; an accent is a subset of a dialect, which includes linguistic differences other than accents. Accents are fluid until the early twenties, at which point they become more permanent, in most cases.

Examples & Rules

Non-native accents are common in non-native fluent language speakers. An example is a fluent German speaker with an obvious Spanish accent. Many social factors come into play with a “thick” or “strong” speaker accent. Irish brogue is an example of a thick Irish accent in an English speaker.

Being understood may be difficult with an unusual or strong accent, and can often interfere in social life, work, or school. The subtleties of correct pronunciation in a second language can be very difficult to acquire for a non-native speaker.

Prestige is positively associated with certain accents, and negatively associated with others. For example, Southeastern Brazilian accents are the preferred variant of Portuguese because is rarely spoken by rural, uneducated Brazilians.

Accent stereotyping and prejudice are common issues globally, and often result in negative stereotypes. People with strong accents may be considered more unintelligent or less competent despite evidence to the contrary.

Additional Information

Because humankind expands over available territories, intonations and accents naturally develop among groups and change over time. Development, non-native accents, and social factors all affect accents and their interpretation in society. Everyone speaks with an accent, whether aware of it or not. Discrimination due to accent is experienced in all walks of life, including occupations, education, and housing.

The place of residence of an individual often allows that person to be most familiar with the different accents that occur in his or her locality, leading to the best accent differentiation. Age predicts the strength or noticeability of an accent, and critical period theory (which is debated among researchers) indicates that a native accent does not usually occur when language acquisition happens after a certain age. Title VII of U.S. Civil Rights Act does not specifically mention accents, but is implied in prohibiting discrimination based on national (or native) origin. However, if an accent interferes with performance of job functions or understanding by peers, subordinates, or executive personnel, loss of employment may be upheld by a court of law.

Due to these issues, accent reduction through speech therapy is often sought out by speakers with strong accents, as are the services of psychologists. Regional accents are very common across the globe, with small pockets of speakers forming speaker communities which may only occur within a few square miles of land area. Foreign accent syndrome is an uncommon condition that can develop following a stroke, head trauma, migraines, or other neurological problems.

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