Self-isolation can lead to accents

It’s not like the coronavirus pandemic will make us all talk funny. But according to recent research, even short isolation periods can cause some shifts in the way we shape sounds.

Isolation can change the way you speak — but only slightly. Image credits: Olivier Guillard.

The fact that isolation brings forth new accents is not new. There are numerous examples of isolated populations that started with one accent and ended with another or a different dialect altogether. But even shorter periods of isolation can create micro-accents.

“You can’t hear the differences very well because they are so small,” says Jonathan Harrington, a linguist at the University of Munich and lead author of the study, published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. “But you can measure them.”

The catalyst for change in these very earliest stages of accent formation is thought to be communication density — who talks to whom and how often. Obviously, our communication patterns have changed significantly since the start of the lockdown, but is this sufficient to generate accents?

In order to test how this process happens, Harrington and colleagues recorded the speech of several individuals before and after they spent a few months isolated in the Antarctic as part of the British Antarctic Survey.

“We sought to predict these changes in Antarctica using an agent-based computational model applied to the same individuals’ speech data recorded before they had left for Antarctica. The situation in which Antarctic ‘winterers’ are together for several months is the closest present-day microcosm of former colonial settlement: there is no access to or from Antarctica in winter and the winterers are in regular (spoken) contact with each other,” the study reads.

The study found two types of phonetic changes among volunteers’ vocabulary. The first was a novel one: a phonetically more fronted /ou/, compared to their pre-Antarctica pronunciation. The second was a slight convergence between participants when it came to vowel pronunciation. Researchers predict that the more people spend time together, the more they start talking alike, but the cause of the former change is less clear.

Researchers note that there may also be other factors at play when it comes to explaining these phonetic differences and more research is required to understand how new accents form in isolation. For instance, one of the volunteers’ native language was German, and this may have had a slight effect on the other participants. If you are stuck inside the house for a longer period of time, there is a chance that other peoples’ accent might rub off on you, or that you’ll start to develop new accents altogether — but these changes will almost certainly be imperceptible.

It’s not clear if the changes are temporary.

The study has been published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

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