Automatic accents: When people expect to hear an accent, they start talking that way

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WASHINGTON — It’s very common, perhaps even universal, for people to absentmindedly start imitating how others speak. Maybe you unintentionally start using a certain phrase your friend keeps repeating or start talking like Paulie Walnuts after watching a few episodes of “The Sopranos.” So, what makes people do this? A new study reveals our expectations alone are enough to make us mimic the way others talk.

Scientists refer to this phenomenon as linguistic convergence. Now, researchers with the Linguistic Society of America indicate that our expectations about how others may speak (as opposed to the actual speech itself) can end up influencing and shaping our own speech patterns.

The study consists of two main experiments that examined how someone’s own pronunciations of various words changed after hearing somebody else speak with a strong southern U.S. accent. While playing a word-guessing game, study participants started pronouncing the vowel in words like “ride” and “dine” with more of a southern accent (more like “rod” and “don”) after hearing a genuine speaker with a southern accent.

Importantly, there’s a catch: The volunteers never actually heard how the southern talker vocalized that particular vowel. This means the participants inferred the speaker’s pronunciation based on how they pronounced other words and vowels and imitated what they expected to hear.

Accents and stereotypes

Astoundingly, even people who had never even lived in the southern United States “converged,” suggesting people are quite capable of making these subconscious linguistic assumptions and changing their own speech even in reference to accents that are not their own.

Study author Lacey Wade from the University of Pennsylvania theorizes that many participants made the same linguistic accent assumptions about that vowel in particular because it “is a particularly noteworthy feature that is stereotypically associated with the south.”

In other words, the southern accent has been ubiquitous across media representations and caricatures of southerners for decades. In summation, this work just goes to show how many factors are affecting our speech at any given moment — whether we may realize it consciously or not. No individual speaks the exact same way across all scenarios and situations. Our brains, bodies, and vocal cords are constantly making subtle adjustments that often go unnoticed altogether.

In more specific terms, study authors conclude these findings make a strong case that besides just copying what we see from others speech-wise, we also imitate linguistically what we expect from others as well. That means expectations founded upon untrue stereotypes linked to various accents may be changing not just how countless people listen, but also how they speak.

The findings appear in the journal Language.