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.
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.
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.
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.