Madonna, who has been known to adopt a British accent.
Madonna, who has been known to adopt a British accent. Siebbi/CC BY 3.0

When Lindsay Lohan appeared on camera in October speaking in some kind of pan-European accent, she was subjected to the same form of mockery that generations of American college students who study abroad have experienced. I myself, after attending college in Montreal, returned to the US saying things like “to-more-owe” and “sore-y” and “aboat.” (Not “aboot.”)

The reaction of Americans to a fellow American who, upon returning from extended trips abroad, speaks with an altered accent, can be harsh. “People often don’t react well when someone comes back with an accent, like they’re putting on airs or trying to be somebody else,” says Jennifer Nycz, a specialist in sociolinguists and phonetic and phonological variation at Georgetown.

But how conscious is this change in speech, really? How much is a natural shift in the way one speaks, and how much is a concerted effort to change one’s accent?

Dialect or accent acquisition is not the most well-studied linguistic field, but for her dissertation, Nycz extensively studied Canadians who had moved to New York for subtle changes in their speech, trying to figure out how, how much, and why people change their accents. Having grown up in New Jersey and moved many times, the ways people change their speech has become a pet project for her.

It is not especially easy to consciously change an accent. Even for, say, newscasters, who are trained to change some of the most telling regionalisms in their accents, a close listen can usually pick out the subtler or less stereotyped regionalisms that remain unchanged. But for people who move around, or who spend a significant amount of time talking to people who speak in a different accent or dialect from their own, patterns of speech and pronunciation can prove strangely fluid. (Accent refers simply to the pronunciation of words; dialect can include changes in vocabulary or sentence structure. Changing “about” to “aboat” is accent, but adding “eh?” to the ends of sentences is dialect.)

What Nycz discovered is that accent acquisition is tremendously complex and hard to predict. “It’s not always obvious, but we all make these little shifts depending on who we’re talking to, what we’re talking about, the way we feel about what we’re talking about, and any number of other things,” she says. At a very basic level, research indicates that we tend to like people more when they mirror us in certain ways: posture, facial expression, and accent. The idea is that someone who is more like you is a friendlier entity. And it can be one factor that triggers someone who is spending a lot of time in a different dialect zone to slightly change the way they speak.

The parking lot at the King of Prussia mall, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, which has one of the best-studied accents in North America.
The parking lot at the King of Prussia mall, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, which has one of the best-studied accents in North America. Montgomery County Planning Commission/CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the most important variables in how quickly a person can acquire a new accent is their age. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a linguist named Arvilla Payne studied families who had recently moved to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia best known today for having a gigantic mall. King of Prussia natives speak with a Philadelphia accent, one of the weirdest and best-studied accents in North America. (It’s well-studied largely because the godfather of modern linguistics, a guy named Bill Labov, worked at the University of Pennsylvania. Also, because it’s weird.)

Payne studied two elements of the Philadelphia accent. One is well-known, and is referred to as “oh-fronting.” When Philadelphians say words like, well, “hoagie,” that “oh” sound is made with the tongue further forward in the mouth, hence “fronting.” It comes out sounding sort of like “eh-oh.” That’s a classic; if you know a single thing about the Philadelphia accent, it’ll be oh-fronting. Payne found out that children who had recently moved to King of Prussia did indeed use those fronted “oh” sounds, indicating that they’re adopting some of the local accent.

“But there are other changes which are much more complicated,” says Nycz. “Philly has this very intense short ‘a’ system, which involves the sound ‘agh’ in words like ‘cat.’” Sometimes Philadelphians will pronounce that “agh” sound in the same way as someone from Ohio or Nevada or wherever else, but other times it’ll be more complex and sort of Midwest-y, sounding like “ey-yeah.” The rules for when to use which short “a” sound are really difficult to parse: sometimes the sound will change based on what kind of consonant comes after it, but there are also plenty of exceptions. In other words, unlike oh-fronting, this is a non-stereotyped and difficult to reproduce accent quirk. You basically have to be born into it.

Payne found that the King of Prussia kids who had come from elsewhere were not reproducing the short “a” in the same way that a native Philadelphian would. Some of the kids would use it some of the time, but would use it for words a Philadelphian wouldn’t. Some of the kids just didn’t have this feature at all.

What this indicates is that accent acquisition is messy. It’s not just a matter of wholesale adoption. People in a new accent area have to, on some level, understand the changes in order to acquire them, which indicates some sort of agency in the whole process.

A Banksy artwork in New York.
A Banksy artwork in New York. Derrick Shields/CC BY-SA 4.0

Other studies, however, indicate the opposite. When examining the speech of Canadians who had moved to New York, Nycz set out what’s known as a “minimal pairs task.” Essentially, Nycz would have her subjects read many pairs of similar words, and tell her whether those words sounded the same or different. Further, she asked the Canadians whether New Yorkers would think those words sounded different.

The key difference between Canadian English and New York City English that Nycz used is called the cot-caught merger. In Canada, as well as in California, those two vowel sounds are the same, something like “ah.” But in New York City, those words sound very different: “cot” has a flat “ah” sound, but “caught” has a rounder sound, more like “awwuh.” (This is the source of the New York “cawwwfee” stereotype.) The Canadian “ah” sound is somewhere in between the New Yorker’s “ah” and “awwuh.”

She got a wide range of responses to her minimal pairs task; some Canadian New Yorkers could pick out the difference between a Canadian’s “cot-caught” pronunciation from a New Yorker’s, and some couldn’t. Some got some of them right but not others. Some got nothing right.

Nycz also did some careful phonetic measurements to find out exactly how much their cot-caught speech had changed since moving to New York. Previous work, she says, had come to the conclusion that mergers like cot-caught aren’t really ever split, but her work found otherwise: some of those Canadians she measured had begun to make some distinctions between the words that New Yorkers would pronounce with an “ah” and those they’d pronounce with an “awwuh.”

What’s weird is that she then compared how the Canadians did on the minimal pairs task with the results of the phonetic measurements. In other words: does someone with more knowledge of the differences between the New York and Canadian accents more or less likely to have adopted the New York accent?

She found no correlation at all between those two tasks. Her research indicates that what we know about an accent has no relationship at all to whether or not we adopt it. That implies that accent acquisition is pretty much an unconscious thing, something out of our control.

Canadians who moved to New York were studied for changes to their speech.
Canadians who moved to New York were studied for changes to their speech. Jeff Turner/CC BY 2.0

There are other factors that influence how we pick up a new accent. Nycz found that the subject of conversation can have a huge effect on which accent shows up. In her research, she found that when Canadians were talking about Canada, they had a more Canadian-like speech pattern, but when talking about New York, they had more New York-ish variants. That’s simple enough, but it can get even more complicated based on the way a person feels about that subject.

One of Nycz’s subjects was a Canadian from a small town in one of Canada’s sparsely populated prairie provinces. Her accent didn’t follow those patterns, at least not at first: when talking about her hometown, she used distinctly New York pronunciations. When talking about New York, same thing: New York pronunciations.

The only time she used notably Canadian speech was when talking not about her hometown, but about Toronto, where she’d lived for a few years. Further interviewing indicated that she didn’t much like her hometown, couldn’t wait to get out. But she loved Toronto.

Even though you’d expect an accent from the prairies to be stronger than an accent from huge, multicultural Toronto, this subject changed her accent depending on how she felt about each conversational topic. Not a fan of her hometown, not wanting to be associated with it, she spoke in a way that people from that town did not speak. But for Toronto and New York, places she loved, she used the local dialect from each. Perhaps speaking like a local indicates your emotions about that place. You love New York? You consider yourself a New Yorker? You’ll speak like a New Yorker.

Toronto. The City of Toronto/CC BY 2.0

Lindsay Lohan told the Daily Mail that her odd new accent is a product of her attempts to learn multiple languages. “It’s a mixture of most of the languages I can understand or am trying to learn,” she said. “I’ve been learning different languages since I was a child. I’m fluent in English and French, can understand Russian and am learning Turkish, Italian and Arabic.”

What Lohan is saying is that her efforts to learn new languages have actually affected the way she speaks English, her native tongue. Is that possible or likely?

Turns out, maybe! In the mid-1990s, a linguist named James Flege attempted to answer that same question. He studied fluent bilingual speakers of French and English: both native English speakers now fluent in French, and native French speakers now fluent in English. One of his most important discoveries comes from measurements of a very wonky linguistic metric called “voice onset time,” or VOT. (Nycz, before she explained VOT to me, excitedly described it as “very fun.”)

VOT is what decides the differences between a few pairs of consonants, namely “p” and “b,” “t” and “d,” and “k” and “g.” Those consonants are extremely similar; your mouth is doing basically the exact same thing in order to create each of those pairs. To make each of those consonants, a speaker has to build up air in the mouth and then suddenly release it. (The release of air is called “aspiration” in linguistics.)

In those pairs, you can measure the exact length of time between when a speaker releases that air and the moment the vocal cords vibrate for the vowel to follow. That amount of time is extremely short, but also very telling. Someone who only speaks English will pronounce “bah” with basically no VOT at all: the release of air from the “b” sound happens at the same time the vocal cords begin vibrating for the “ah” sound. But for “pah,” there’s a tiny tiny gap, maybe 40 milliseconds between the release of the air from the “p” sound until the vocal cords vibrate.

But for someone who speaks only French, well, it’s all very different. A French speaker will actually begin vibrating their vocal cords before they expel the air to make a “b” sound, rather than at the same time. A monolingual French speaker’s “p” sound is made more like an English speaker’s “b” sound, with the air and the vibration happening at the same time. This incredibly subtle and basically inaudible difference means that a French speaker’s pronunciation of “place” will sound like an English speaker’s “blace.”

What Flege found was that by learning another language fluently, the bilingual speakers ended up with VOTs somewhere in the middle between what a monolingual French and monolingual English speaker would have. But he found that effect in both the learned language and the native language. In other words, learning a new language does, even if in a very subtle way, have an effect on the way you speak your native language.

Of course, whether this applies to Lindsay Lohan is anyone’s guess. “These are highly experienced bilingual speakers he was looking at,” says Nycz. “Whether it applies to Lindsay Lohan taking a language class? …Possibly?”

I had a few questions that Nycz couldn’t really answer. How long does it take an acquired accent to wear off, once a speaker is back home amongst that speaker’s native dialect? “That’s hard to study for stupid practical reasons,” says Nycz. Finding people before they leave, measuring the people they speak to both abroad and at home, and systematically measuring someone’s speech after they return is a very tricky proposition, one potentially laden with variables that could throw off the entire study. “I don’t know that we have systematic empirical data to speak to that,” she says.

Nycz wasn’t sure if the American attitude to an acquired non-American accent is different than it would be in other countries, but it’s not an easy question to answer. Someone who comes back from a study abroad semester in London might feel that speaking in the US with London-inflected speech contributes to the identity they want to put forth. Worldly, maybe. But the reactions can vary. Some Americans might be more interested in someone with a slight British lilt. Others might view that person as, you know, a falsity, an inauthentic poser. But that attitude isn’t necessarily reflected in the research. Adopting a new accent isn’t entirely, or even mostly, a conscious choice. It’s a natural impulse.