The Student
Two people talking in different English dialects
Science
Shifting linguistics: how we mimic those around us
by Ece Kucuk, 20/03/21

Have you ever been on holiday, or been with a group of friends, or at a new workplace, and found that your accent or way of speaking has changed?

Maybe you’ve started using slang terms you’d never even heard of before, or the initial words that come to your mind are something different than the way you had spoken to someone hundreds of times before. Or maybe your accent had shifted entirely, and you’d gone from sounding like everyone else you grew up with to communicating completely differently.
Well, I am here to tell you not to worry, as what you have experienced or are even currently experiencing is entirely normal and happens regularly to almost every person.

In linguistics, we call this self-conflicting phenomenon ‘communication accommodation theory’. So the reason a person from London adopts words like ‘wee’ and ‘bairn’ into their vocabulary is utterly dependent on this theory that the way you speak and communicate with others can shift depending on the social and cultural context.

A subconscious act most of us don’t realise we are doing until someone calls us out, accommodation can mean anything from changing the way you acknowledge people to a complete shift in your dialect.

For me, the level of accommodation has continued to increase the longer I’ve spent in Scotland. Especially now that I work with a group of Scottish women every day, I sound like I just took the train in from Glasgow every time I leave work.

According to The Cambridge Handbook of Sociolinguistics, Communication Accommodation Theory (or CAT) ‘examines how language affects relations between people in dynamic ways, via accent, tone, and syntax.’ The way we express ourselves shifts depending on who we are speaking to and the context.

Sometimes, it shifts to imitate or mimic what we hear around us, and so subconsciously, we want to fit in. Other times, we change the way we communicate because we want to be liked or want to impress someone, and instead of copying the person in front of us, we incorporate a communication we view as ‘more elite’.

Howard Giles’ accommodation theory identifies how accommodation relates to social interaction and models this interaction where ‘one speaker accommodates (and more specifically converges) toward the speech of another under specifiable subjective conditions’.

“When he or she wants to increase the extent to which he or she is perceived to be socially attracting to the other, and when he or she wants communication to be more effective.”

Another aspect of the theory can also deal with social, cultural, and national identity. Labov’s study on sound change in 1972 regarding Martha’s Vineyard and the social identity of being an islander is one prevalent example of the vast influence this theory can have on how we portray ourselves and the way we feel as though we should.
There are, however, others who believe that quantifying the effect that social situations have on accommodation is a problematic and unattainable goal.

It is evident that something is different and that something changes but trying to identify a pattern to the so-called madness of communication accommodation and attribute it to something like identity feasibly defies the nature of the theory itself.

In Miriam Meyerhoff’s article on …the use and misuse of accommodation theory in sociolinguistics, she examines instances in sociolinguistic research where considering the scientific analysis that may at times be limited and replacing it with what she calls ‘linguistics as séance’, is perhaps a misuse of the theory.

The truth is it is difficult to explain every instance of accommodation or convergence in speech forms. Trying to explain away the anomalies by contributing them to social identity might not necessarily be the correct answer.

Still, when examining something as difficult to quantify as accommodation in language, it becomes clear why some linguists defer to that as a method of explaining it away.

When we accommodate our speech, it isn’t necessarily and arguably something we can control. The bulk of general sociolinguistic research claims that we generally tend to do it due to the need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It also shows how other people have shaped our lives, hopefully for the better and, unfortunately, sometimes for the worse.

Over the last two years, I’ve noticed that I’ve changed a lot regarding the way I speak, the way I dress, and even what I eat. I’ve realised that I structure sentences differently and use different words to mean what I want to say. My partner is Australian and has a habit of shortening everyday words such as ‘McDonalds’ to ‘Maccas’ and ‘breakfast’ to ‘brekkie’, which are not things I have accommodated into my variety of speech.

My once rhotic accent now switches between pronouncing my r’s to forgetting they exist. I swallow syllables and call elevators, lifts and the trash can a ‘bin’. The Scottish influence in my life has been more significant than I have cared to admit, and there is a part of me that is giddy about the way I have evolved and the way accommodation links this country to my person is something I hope stays with me for the years to come.

After all, language can be a roadmap of the places and people you’ve come into contact with – a verbal scrapbook of your life.

Have you found that your accent has shifted or that your partners or friends’ quirks have become your own? Share your language journey with us. Wherein part two of this look into communication accommodation, I will be examining how accommodation has shaped other people’s lives.

Image: Ece Kucuk