The Incipient Antarctic Accent.

Last December Susanne Bard reported for SciAm about an unexpected but not actually surprising development:

University of Munich linguist Jonathan Harrington [is] interested in how accents first get started. But because of global communication, most communities are no longer linguistically isolated, and audio recording equipment didn’t exist back when more of them were. So how to capture the early stages of accent formation today? Harrington and his team turned to members of the British Antarctic Survey, who speak with a variety of English accents. “When you are in Antarctica during the winter period, then there’s no way in, and there’s no way out. So they were isolated together, and they interacted with each other, and they have to cooperate with each other.”

Harrington’s team recorded the winterers reciting a list of words before they left for Antarctica. Then, while there, the winterers recorded themselves saying the same words four more times. The linguists then analyzed the recordings—in particular, resonances: the way airflow shapes sound. […] And even during their short time in Antarctica, the way the winterers produced certain vowels began to converge, averaging out the resonances.

In addition, the winterers invented slightly new ways of pronouncing vowels, such as shifting the production of the second syllable in the word “window” very slightly forward in the vocal tract. The linguists think these small changes document the very beginnings a common accent. The study is in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. [Jonathan Harrington et al., Phonetic change in an Antarctic winter] Harrington says the research isn’t just relevant for understanding Earth’s colonial past. He thinks there’s every reason to expect that prolonged isolation will cause astronauts on Mars missions to end up with an out-of-this world accent.

Thanks, Joan!


  1. There was no recording equipment, but there were plenty of new speech communities, some of them suddenly isolated. And a lot of people with good ears. Anybody noticed that ship crews of yore leveled out (or whatever it’s called) their accents? The usual story is that people carry their childhood accents their whole life without a deliberate attempt at conformity.

  2. David Marjanović says

    The usual story is that people carry their childhood accents their whole life without a deliberate attempt at conformity.

    That’s how it works for some people. Others assimilate unless they make a deliberate attempt not to – and when they do that, they probably overlook some features.

  3. Maybe an examination of accent can replace the blood test to see if people have been replaced. Then again, Donald Moffat’s accent is notoriously wonky, yet he turns out to be human after all.

  4. In that situation, wouldn’t it be practical to adjust your accent in order to be more clearly understood? Even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. We adapt our language to facilitate communication, right?

  5. If the Queen’s governess were still alive today, she may have noticed a few discordant notes in her charge’s formerly crystal clear diction. OK, she ain’ exactly droppin’ her Ts and her Gs like Russell Brand, but linguists have nevertheless found that her enunciation today might have been considered a little, well, common in her youth.

  6. The usual story is that people carry their childhood accents their whole life without a deliberate attempt at conformity

    Not true for me. My accent changed when I went to university, and then when I moved to the US. Not deliberately but just because it happened.

  7. Andrej Bjelaković says

    I recommend the stuff Peter Trudgill and Elizabeth Gordon wrote on the formation of New Zealand English.

  8. John Cowan says

    In addition, even non-native accents move with the times: cant and can’t no longer sound when I say them as they did in my youth in the West that is forgotten (i.e. New Jersey), and boo! has been fronted.

  9. Ok, it seems I was wrong or misremembered. New version, people do change they accent, but do not eliminate their young accent completely. Which basically has nothing to do with the research in question. My bad.

    JC, what do you mean “non-native accents”? L2 speakers change their speech dramatically. I know two people who moved one from British to American and another one from Southern to Northern American in a hurry.

  10. David Marjanović says

    L2 speakers change their speech dramatically.

    Or not. It all depends both on the person and on the social circumstances.

  11. @D.O.: One must infer that John Cowan grew up speaking Valarin in New Jersey.

  12. John Cowan says

    Non-native was poorly chosen. I mean that my NJ accent has moved in some of the same ways that NYC accents have moved, even though I have not adopted a NYC accent after 40+ years of living in NYC.

  13. John Cowan says

    Here’s the Journal of the Acoustical Society of American article: “Phonetic change in an Antarctic winter”, just in case the SciAm article (which links to it) is taken offline.

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