Why do people have different accents?


Each person speaks differently, and accents depend on numerous factors including where people come from, culture and education.


Everyone has an accent – which simply means a way of speaking.

There are two kinds of accents – the way a group of people speak their native tongue, and the “foreign” accent of someone speaking a language using the rules or sounds of another.

The Linguistic Society of America says people are born capable of speaking all languages, but children quickly learn “what sounds are important in his or her language, and to disregard the rest”.

“By the time you’re a year old, you’ve learned to ignore most distinctions among sounds that don’t matter in your own language,” it adds.

As a result, people “have trouble with sounds that don’t exist” in their language (for example, French and German speakers often struggle with the English word “the”).

The roots of regional accents are less obvious.

Professor James Lantolf says they have developed in “isolated areas”, adding: “Where there is no contact between regions, entire words, languages and vernaculars can grow and evolve independently.”

He also says people who settle in an area have an impact on local accents, and the English spoken by people descended from speakers of other languages is “coloured by their mother tongues”.

The British Library says accents are influenced by factors including “the roots of our elders, our social and educational background, our working environment, our friends and our own sense of identity”.

It points out that no two people speak identically, and “even within the same small community there are variations according to a speaker’s age, gender, ethnicity and social and educational background”.

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch says people often wrongly assume that accents are unchanging – for example, they assume posh British people have always talked as they do now.

But she says when the majority of British settlers arrived in North America, they “actually spoke much more like current Americans than current Brits”.

A person’s accent may affect the way they are treated by others – and judging someone’s intelligence and social background based on their accent has been described as a “very British sport”.

George Bernard Shaw wrote: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.”


Writes for a living. Has never won a fight.