The Vanishing of Accents

Have you ever stopped to think about accents? I’m not talking about accents we use to create emphasis on syllables or words, but in terms of the way a specific nation pronounces a language. It’s important to note that accents aren’t the same as dialects. An accent is all about how people sound. A dialect encompasses the idea of accents, but it extends farther by touching on the particular grammar a person uses when talking. A great example is the word “y’all”, which tends to be used by Southerners in the United States. The use of the word “y’all” would be a Southern dialect, while the word “southern” is the accent.

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Simple enough, right? The world has many languages so it’s only reasonable that we have many accents. But did you ever stop to wonder why a German girl singing “I Will Always Love You” doesn’t sound any different (accent wise) from an american singing “I Will Always Love You”?  In the video from the link above, Laura, a little girl from Germany, appears to have an American accent while she sings. However, this is not the case. If you had talented singers from around the world singing the same American song, and you were unable to visually see them, it would probably be quite hard, to nearly impossible to figure out which voice was from where. This is all because of phonetics, and how singing causes two main things to occur: a change in our vocal cord’s air pressure, and the pace of our delivery.

A person’s accent is lost by the slower paced delivery of the song, which causes one’s accent to turn neutral. Accents, for the most part, disappear when singing. David Crystal, a linguist from Northern Ireland, explains that our intonations and rhythm of speech are removed while singing. A song’s melody causes the rises and falls of our voice to disappear (intonations) while the beat of the music causes the systematic arrangement of speech to disappear (rhythm). Furthermore, songs have accented syllables (no pun intended) that require the singer to elongate vowel sounds. This same neutralizing effect happens with air pressure as well. A singer’s whole quality of sound is altered by the expanding of enlarged air passages.

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Despite recognizing that accents don’t usually come through in songs, some people still argue that singers are getting rid of their accent on purpose. Discourse & Communication researcher Andy Gibson, from Auckaland University of Technology in New Zealand, disagreed. He explained that neutralizing the accent simply comes more natural than anything else. In a study he conducted, singers with accents when speaking weren’t even aware that any change was occurring in their voice, but there were very few cases where vowels they sung matched the vowels they spoke.

So why is it, then, that little Laura appears to have points in the song that sound less like an American accent? We can assume this is similar to Gibson’s study. While his participants had very few moments that their vowel sounds while singing matched up with their vowel sounds while speaking, they still had instances where their accent snuck through. In fact, it’s actually harder for a singer to attempt to retain their accent while singing, though some still do this anyways.

CSC_BOY AND GIRL SINGING

Thinking about all of this makes me wonder about how kids differ from adults once again. We established in class that kids make all of the sounds in speech, regardless of their native language, which enables them to learn languages more easily than adults. Does that make it easier for kids like Laura to have their accents disappear when singing, even if they can’t actually speak the other language? In my mind, kids would be better at imitating the musical notes; therefore, able to neutralize their voices more effectively. Perhaps, though, this would only occur for those kids who were musically inclined.

2 thoughts on “The Vanishing of Accents

  1. amarti22

    I think about this same thing, and accents all the time. More specifically when people cannot believe that english is my second language. The only reason why people don’t believe me its because I put 100% effort to make my accent as americanized as possible. I even wonder, what I would really sound like if I don’t put in the effort, and how that would change my understanding and perspectives of the english language, and how it can possibility impact the way conversations flow with other people.

  2. mcao

    Great post! I’ve studied music most of my life, choral music more specifically and I remember talking about this one day in high school. Music is fascinating and singing is a whole other art on its own. To produce sounds with your body that a seemingly natural yet so easily manipulated by mouth shapes, air flow, air pressure, notes, pitch, volume. All that stuff matters. Just as it does when we speak. When I sing songs in french, we sing the song not just with a french “accent” but also so that the sound will carry as that sound. So if we were to sing a difficult sound that we don’t have in the english language but exists for french, we have to modify our mouth shapes and the way we would produce the sound to make it sound french yet with a full, resonate choral sound. Even if we were to sing a super southern song (african american slave songs for example, yeah chorus kids are weird) some songs have diphthongs and “ugly vowels” and to make the sounds carry more melodically, we would sing those trouble words with a english accent, so for example if we were to sing y’all, we would sing yaw to keep from closing on the sound too early and to take out the diphthong altogether. Dialects are similarly structured, where we just say similar words with different mouth shapes (for example roof, room, water… we all know people who say them the way people say it in Minnesota). I kinda lost my point to this comment (sorry I rant), but this was super interesting! It maybe easier for children who are musically inclined to learn multiple languages, it would be interesting to see if there is a connection. I speak multiple languages and had been as I was growing up. I would love to look more into that and find out!

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