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I've heard it said that accents of towns drift over time. I find this hard to comprehend as how could an accent of a whole town change?

I think it is established that we mainly pick up our accent from our peers at school. But this is also odd, since if we are separated by age, peers in an age group should not really interact that much from other age groups, so where do their accents come from in the first place? Perhaps, maybe this is the answer, that because in schools we are separated from older children to a large degree, the accent can drift as it has no correction from older children.

But this still seems unlikely to me as universal schooling is a quite recent thing, and before then we had mainly apprenticeships which children would learn from adults and presumably pick up their accents.

Another (to me) unlikely idea is that a town's accent (e.g. Liverpudlian) has changed due to people talking over machinery in factories or mills so it gets higher pitched. Can an accent of a town really change that quickly?

But what I do see is that immigration affects accents a lot, for example the Jamaican accent changing the London cockney accent. Or the Geordie accent with lots of Scandinavian words also from immigration.

So in essence, is accent drift a real thing (has it been observed) and what is the main cause?

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    In the area where I live (South Germany, Schwäbische Alb), it is said that experts know which village a person grew up in just from listening to them for a while. This works/worked well with older people; teenagers show a lot less differences. – Guntram Blohm Jun 24 at 12:47
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    Nearly my entire workplace has incorrectly replaced the first person pronoun "me" with "myself" because one very outspoken high ranking manager would misuse "myself" in every meeting. – Keeta Jun 24 at 15:06
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This does indeed happen! It tends to follow the same processes that make whole languages change over time. Just on a smaller scale: smaller area, smaller changes, smaller timespans. (Intuitive example: surely the first American colonists spoke "British English", since what would be the alternative? And look at what that's led to now.)

One way to think of it is, language is a tool for communication, and if it's not serving its purpose, it'll evolve with ruthless efficiency until it is. For a dramatic example, look at how quickly people stopped using capital letters in text messages: they were getting in the way of fast and efficient communication, so they were pruned away. Then, within five years, they were brought back, with a new purpose: SHOUTING, Distinctly Emphatic Tone, SaRcAsTiC MoCkErY, and so on. This helped communication, so it's stuck.

It might start with a "random mutation", just by chance. One man in the town pronounces his /a/ a little more like [æ]. He teaches this pronunciation to his children, who might influence their peers, until everyone pronounces that vowel slightly more to the front. This starts crowding /æ/, so over time that starts to shift upward in order to remain distinct. And so on, and so on…a small initial shift like that can lead to a complete restructuring of the vowel system, given enough time.

  • Hmm, but if this was just random, this sounds like it would take an awful long time for things to spread. On the other hand, if it was by people of influence, or importance, I can see that people would tend to mimic those people they admire. Just as people mimic the royal family's clothes, and even Christmas. But then again slang terms originate by 1 or 2 people and they can spread quite fast. So maybe vowel sounds can too. But this seems like a more conscious effor to sound cool than purely randomness. (Like when Londoners started mimicking the accent of the Beatles or Oasis.) – zooby Jun 24 at 1:31
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    @zooby Depends! Children are extremely impressionable, linguistically, and it's very easy for them to pick up little quirks. But high-status people like the Royal Family do indeed tend to create their own standards: see "Received Pronunciation" or "the Queen's English". – Draconis Jun 24 at 2:22
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    British English has changed too. Many features of American English are conservative. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jun 24 at 3:22
  • Is there any evidence of this process happening? I mean for the 'nudges' you describe, individual quirks getting amplified. It seems plausible, and comparable phenomena do happen in genetics (see founder effect), yet these mechanisms are observed in controlled experiments too (e.g. Petri dishes) while I can't picture a parallel with linguistics. Do you know something I don't? – mattecapu Jun 24 at 19:48
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Every community has "influencers". This isn't a social media invention. An influencer is someone who has an above average impact on their surroundings. Think of this like how Genghis Khan has more genetical ancestors today than some random farmer. While it may not always be visible, some people simply impact the world more.

  • Maybe they're a well known and respected person and their mannerisms therefore rub off on others who copy them, subconsciously or not.
  • Maybe they're infamous and their mannerisms turn into a comical impersonation/stereotype, which becomes so well known that people start using things unironically.
  • Maybe they simply raised many children (or taught them) who then go on to spread the things they've learned.

There are many ways to become such an influencer. Not all cases are a matter of intentionally wanting to create this influence. Some cases are just luck of the draw or random selection.
At any point, anyone could become an influencer in the future. We simply don't know.

So we've established that the spreading behavior exists but cannot always be pinned down or predicted. All that's left to consider is random variation. Like in nature, mutations always exist. Given a large group of people, you're likely to find that some people have different linguistical ideas.

  • Maybe they pronounce things differently because of a physical reason.
  • Maybe they apply a word in a novel way because to them it's similar to another thing (which the word comes from)
  • Maybe they misunderstand the meaning/context of a saying and therefore alter it to make more sense to them

Whatever the reason, you will over time encounter people who deviate from the regionally normal language. Random selection ensures that it's possible that these people happen to end up being an influencer (possibly for completely unrelated reasons), and thus end up making a regional impact, causing a shift in linguistics for e.g. their entire town.

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There are very many causes. There are many phenomena which exhibit fashion, trends, or shifts over time, and accents are one of them.

First off, an individual's accent can change over time. Possibly the best example is when going through puberty, boys undergo rapid changes in their anatomy which directly changes their accent as well as indirectly requiring them to re-learn to speak. Not to mention they wish to sound more mature and distinctive, to show they will push boundaries and break rules. Of course they generally imitate each other to be part of the club.

Second, an individual's accent changes in different company. When addressing friends one speaks a little differently to when one is, say, addressing customers. Or parents. Or in-laws. We don't have fixed accents within a single day, and this creates a degree of pliability.

That pliability is limited—it is hard for someone to shift from British to American English. However, this is partly because of how incompatible they are. The way all the muscles are configured needs to make a big shift. But when a town's accent shifts, the change has much higher "compatibility". Things change that are not a difficult change for most people there. (Even if some do not end up making that change.)

When we talk to people we take subconscious cues about the degree of effort they are putting into understanding you and adjust our own behaviour. Subconsciously. Usually to make it easier for them, but certain people have an urge to make others uncomfortable.

Coming back to trends and fashions. Some trends seem to morph into being, while others are catalysed by trendsetters. There is a human desire to chase "the new thing". We are impressioned by our friends.

As for what might actually cause changes, it can be everything from wanting to sound more posh to wanting to sound more vulgar. Sometimes families with a particular accent are more successful than other families and grow in size or are simply more influential. Often it's just a kind of laziness of speech. Sometimes accent changes would lead to an inability to distinguish words (e.g. cot/caught merger). This might affect some places more than others, potentially based on their local economy, local place names—basically how often people go to the effort of making that distinction. By the same token, if accent changes have absolutely no effect on identifying words, then those changes may quite easily occur.

So, there is no simple answer. Language is a sum of billions of small decisions...

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I live in an exceptionally remote village in the West of England (UK). The local dialect/accent among the older generation took a long time for us to understand when we moved here 7 years ago. My wife is a reading mentor at the local primary school. She has noticed that since the introduction of Phonics as a (highly effective) technique for teaching the children to read, much of the local accent is disappearing from the children's speech. Phonics provides a standard, and they are all eager to read. Phonics is widely used in UK schools, and must be standardising speech sounds in many places, changing the accents of towns and regions.

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