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(I'm not a linguist, just a Stack Exchange user who thought this site is the one for this question)

It is often the case that people living in rural areas (in any country) have a "stronger", less intelligble way of speaking. Why is this so? Perhaps because in smaller population it's easier for new words, new pronunciations to evolve?

It occured to me that it might not be the case at all, but that it appears to be so because we take the "urban way" as standard, and in reality, all are equally strong/intelligble. But I think that there really is an objective difference. Is there and why?

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    In addition to all the learned answers, I will note that, anecdotally, "standard" accentless French is the dialect spoken in Touraine, a rural part, whereas all large French urban centers (Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse...) have a distinct and very recognizable accent of their own. – Olivier Jan 17 '14 at 9:54
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This pattern does show up a lot, and there seem to be multiple factors driving it. Rural areas (though not only such areas) tend contain small, immobile, tight-knit populations, in which local identity is socially important and outside communication is (historically) limited.

On one level, simple isolation means there's less exposure to the mainstream forms, and to the 'leveling' effect of contact between speech communities. Such conditions instead seem to favor the maintenance of non-standard language features, and resistance to incoming changes from the mainstream; in the face of incoming changes, such conditions may even promote a reaction of 'exaggeration' of non-standard, local-identity features. Socioeconomic class may often play a role, and rural areas tend to be poorer.

Note, though, that the conditions described have often applied equally well to dense, urban enclaves. In addition, as a general rule, isolation of regions has trended down over time (due to growth of transportation and communications technology). This breakdown of isolation seems to be the major factor in the loss of the distinctive local variety of e.g. Martha's Vineyard, or North Carolina's Outer Banks communities.

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Less intelligible to whom? I think what you are trying to mean with "accent" here is the form of "accent" that can mean either of three things: 1) a form of speech that differs from some standard, prescriptively more correct form of speech of the same language 2) a form of speech that differs from your own, but is still the same language 3) a foreign accent, where the speaker has learned the language as an adult and cannot pass for a native. Let's ignore 3). The first generally only holds for modern countries with a strong capital city, a high degree of centralization and/or mass media. Preferably all three. The second definition first occurred the moment the very first group of speech-using humans became two groups of speech-using humans, + about a generation of passed time.

Accent sorts under sociolinguistics for a reason. The intelligibility is, among other things, dependent on the status difference between speaker and listener - if, say, the listener considers him/herself to be of higher status, there is less of a penalty if the listener cannot understand the speaker. A low status person on the other hand might depend on being able to understand a high status speaker. Rural people are often considered lower status by people living in cities, ergo, rural people are unintelligible. Power games.

Moving away from the sociolinguistic side, read up on dialects as to why area-dependent accents differ. (There are also solely status-based accents, aka. sociolects, for instance those acquired through being stuck in a boarding school.) Dialects are accents turned up to 11, and is why one language can split into two or more languages given enough time.

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Peasants tend to be conservative in their clothing, religious beliefs, customs, and speech. They're resistant to adopting innovations originating elsewhere but in their small communities, albeit when they do acquire innovations they normally retain them for a long time.

The urban poor tend to use and abuse the language in an effort to create their own shibboleths. They frequently invent new words, give new meanings to existing words, and from time to time innovate in grammar. These innovations then spread "up" to the urban middle class and from there permeate the speech of the riches/nobles.

Once this last group adopts them, they suddenly cease being considered "substandard" and become "The Standard" - whereas the speech of the townsfolk, previously considered an exemplary standard, becomes substandard (until they "upgrade", of course).

You can see it everywhere: In France, the further you're from Paris the more conservative the language becomes, either in pronunciation ("moi" sounds as "mwè" in Québec and some parts of rural France, ending in "ils pensent" still being pronounced in some regions) and in vocabulary (some areas retain crevette, mar, chatel instead of chevrette, mer, chateau).

Same happens in U.K., with Broad Scotts retaining features Standard English has lost.

In China, the southern so-called dialects are much more conservative than Putonghua (an idealized version of Beijing's dialect). Icelandic is almost the same language the vikings spoke, whereas modern Danish and Norse are way different, etc.

Happens as well when a languages is imposed via a conquest: in rural Mexico, peasant communities that abandoned their indigenous languages long ago in favor of Spanish speak a grossly outdated version of it: ansina, truje, vide instead of así, traje, vi... that's so XVI-XVII century!!! It's now considered very sub-standard, even though that was the prestigious way of speaking long ago.

Cities tend to excercise a standardizing influence over surrounding towns. When you notice small town folks have a strong accent what you're really seeing is people who have not standardized their speech based on how the nearest urban people speak. Cities have the advantage of being highly populated and dense, so have an easier time imposing their ways to the others than the other way around.

Disclaim: I'm no professional linguist either, just a linguistics aficionado.

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It has nothing to do with the country-side. Many cities have strong local dialects.

Take Glasgow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nrmcxa1yBec

Or Dublin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViBnWEF7P3c

Or London: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUZRjQET6mg

I believe it has more to do with movement of people. If you have a lot of different English speakers coming to one place, they have to "lose" their dialect enough so as to fit in. In so called working class communities and in the country-side, the population tends to be more static with a stronger local identity.

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To expand on Jeremy Needle's point, the insularity of a community has a great effect on that community's accent and dialect (and in some cases, language). As many people have already pointed out, the reasons this lie in sociolinguistics.

First, it is important to note that language change does not happen by divine intervention. Language change happens because a single person or small group of people make a change; inventing a new word, using an existing word in a different context, or pronouncing a word differently. Sometimes these changes make there way out into the world and become popular ("it is speakers that innovate and not languages").

The exact method of change is up for debate (in fact, the book I linked to above has an entire chapter devoted to the different theories) but most of the proposed theories rely on changes spreading through social interactions between speakers. For example, using Social Network Theory it should become obvious why rural areas tend to have more distinct accents/dialects/languages: these communities have relatively few links to outside communities and thus fewer paths through which changes can spread. Additionally, the the generally tight-nit nature of rural communities may mean that innovations can become squashed by social pressure to sound like the rest of the community.

There is a flip side to this too. If a high-status member of community creates an innovation, the tight-nit nature of the community may cause this change to spread faster and the lack of links to the outside communities may prevent this innovation from spreading further.

The interesting part is that none of this necessarily means that rural accents/dialects/languages need to be harder to understand than their urban brothers. In actuality, "[un]intelligibility" the OP speaks of isn't so much that rural accents are harder than their native accents but rather that they are different.

In summary: there are social factors which make rural communities less likely to adopt language changes originating from the outside but which may also encourage the adoptions changes originating from the inside. Additionally, the same social factors which inhibit rural communities' ability to adopt outside changes also inhibit the ability for changes form inside the community to spread to other communities. Over time this can result in accents/dialects/languages which are very different from the surrounding accents/dialects/languages and thus [potentially] harder for their neighbours to interpret.

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It's purely based on the fact that the standard variety is based off the speech of a region these speakers don't come from. If theirs was the standard and yours wasn't, they'd say the same thing about your 'accent'. Every form of speech is intelligible to those that speak it - and if parts ever become problematically unintelligible, there are natural mechanisms for fixing that problem (e.g. the rampant compounding in North Chinese making up for a drastic reduction in the number of available syllables, making distinctive bisyllabic words out of problematically less distinct monosyllabic ones).

Indeed, areas farther away from sociopolitical centres tend to change slower, due to less pressure to keep up with prestigious norms; though this is at times counteracted by a tendency for areas that are largely isolated from most other speakers to change faster, as they have less of a need to remain intelligible to passers-through. So regional variation can involve varieties that are both closer to and farther from their common ancestor. In Appalachia, Shakespeare remained intelligible with little effort as recently as the last century; and the same remains true of the sagas in Iceland (indeed, I knew a guy who spoke Faroese and took Old Norse as a blow-off class) - yet for me, who speaks enough Norwegian to get by, they are largely nonsense. On the other hand, the languages in the Ryuukyuu Islands south of Japan are -spectacularly- more innovative than mainland Japanese - to me they look like they ought to be spoken by time-travellers from the future.

There's also a tendency for similar-enough varieties of speech to become more intelligible simply through exposure. In the early days of sound films, British films had to be subtitled for American audiences and vice-versa, but once people had heard enough of each others' varieties, the need for subtitling vanished.

So it's just an effect of the fact that many people speak versions of a language that isn't the version of a language the majority of people are most familiar with, and their unfamiliarity creates a general perception that non-standard dialects are somehow more universally hard to understand.

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  • In general agree with your post, disagree only about the Ryûkyû languages - in some regards, they're actually more conservative than standard Japanese! Standard Okinawan, for instance, still retains Old Japanese's tu, ti, du, di syllables which Standard Japanese has turned into tsu, chi, dzu, ji. On the other hand, Okinawan has turned most "ki" into "chi" and has taken to the extreme the tendency of some Japanese dialects to soften intervocalic "w" so it disappears, so Okinawa becomes "Uchinaa" in the local speech. – Joe Pineda Jan 17 '14 at 19:38
  • That's true, they're clearly descended from Proto-Japonic rather than any documented form of Japanese. It just seems to me that even Modern Japanese is on the whole distinctly more conservative (especially in terms of grammatical change, but phonological as well) than anywhere in the Ryuukyuus. I'm just kind of shocked by things like *kusi > Miyako /ff/ and *j > Yonaguni /d/ and crazy things like that. – Sjiveru Jan 17 '14 at 20:05

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