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How to Grow a Regional Language Variation

Updated on March 16, 2011

Recently my husband and I went shopping in a city which was about 15 miles from our home. If we drove the same distance from the house where I grew up in Orange County, California, this could mean going to any number of places including either: Brea, Irvine, Costa Mesa, Cerritos, or just inside the border of Los Angeles County.

There is a very striking difference that occurs in the fifteen-mile drive here in the UK compared to driving the same distance in Orange County. This difference is how dramatically the local accent changed from the starting point to the destination. The difference between the Coventry accent and the Birmingham (or Brummie) accent is almost as dramatic as the difference between Los Angeles and the Bronx, New York.

When I mean the accent changes, I mean that there is a difference in the way the locals pronounce their words and the way in which syllables are emphasised. There are also dialect differences in that, between the two regions, different words are used for the same things.

It reminded me of when, many years ago, I worked as a barmaid in a small Yorkshire mining village. I found it amusing to hear the locals banter over the differences in the accents and dialects of the neighbouring villagers. Some of these other villages were as close as five miles away.

Contrasting this to my own experience of growing up in California, even from San Francisco to Los Angeles, there is not a vast difference in the accents and dialects. Of course, California has the Spanish speaking population and the street lingo which varies between regions. But, the accent and dialect of a clerk working in a shop in Orange, California who is a native of Orange County may not even be that recognisably different than the accent and dialect of a shop clerk who is a native of San Francisco. Yet, there are nearly 500 miles between them. Compared with the UK, the distance between London and Birmingham is roughly 120 miles and the distance between London and Manchester is roughly 200 miles. But, the accents and dialects of the speakers between these regions are very distinctive.

Thinking about this, I started wondering why there is such a strong and distinctive variation in such short distances between UK regions and not so much in vast distances of California. This is probably because California, as a state of the USA, is still relatively young. Whereas some of the villages that combine to make up Birmingham in the UK, have been documented since the 7th century. Coventry has been around since at least the 11th century as it was listed in the Domesday book of 1066.

In the early days, people living in these communities were somewhat isolated, did not travel nearly as much as they do now as large areas of the UK were comprised of forests or moors and difficult to traverse. All work and social life would have been focused within the immediate community. Whatever way of speaking and dialect they developed within this community would have been continually reinforced by their interactions with each other. As S.I. Hayakawa stated, language is required for humans’ “adequate functioning as citizens”. Babies born into the community would grow up to also speak the language the way their parents do and to blend within their community. It would be unlikely that they would have been exposed to anything different. This exposure, if it did happen, would have been very infrequent.

Through the centuries, the core way of speaking became entrenched within that community as with all other aspects of the culture. So, centuries later, even with exposure to outside influences, and a greater ability to travel, the language and way of speaking was deeply ingrained. How ingrained? One’s accent and way of speaking is very difficult to fully change as it becomes a core part of a person's identity. Very often, even people who have lived for 20 or more years outside of the place where they grew up often still retain strong nuances of their regional origins. Due to immersion, they may pick up the local accent and dialect to a certain extent. However, unless they moved when they were very young, or worked very hard to change it, the original accent never fully goes away.

California, as a state, is somewhat of a melting pot. It is a place where, generationally speaking, the majority of residents have come from somewhere else. The accent variations are often from the speaker’s familial roots and not peculiar to a region of California. It is also a transient state where, again generationally speaking, people tend to move about quite a bit which reduces the chances of a deeply entrenched culture developing within individual cities or towns. Instead, there is a “California culture” and a “California accent” which has evolved as a watered down and blended version of all of the accents of the people who settled in California originally.

Of course, there are exceptions. I am sure there are pockets of areas within California where the people have lived for generations and have their own dialects.

As time goes on and, if residents of those areas were to isolate themselves, live work and socialise only in those areas and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were also to isolate themselves in those areas, then, it is possible that over the course of a few centuries, the accents and dialects of those communities would become more distinctively different from those of the surrounding areas and this would evolve into a unique language variation of their own. However, given the constant flux of people in and around the state, I can’t see this ever happening.

It takes a few hundred years of isolation and dependence on the local community for a true language variation, such as an accent, to form.

Here are some famous regional UK accents you might recognise:

Ozzy Osbourne - Birmingham
Elizabeth Taylor - London
Richard Burton - Wales
Dudley Moore - Essex
Susan Boyle - West Lothian, Scotland
John Lennon - Liverpool
Wallace (Wallace and Gromit) - Lancashire
Liam and Noel Gallagher (Oasis) - Manchester
Sting - Newcastle Upon Tyne
Sean Connery - Edinburgh, Scotland

Is Your Accent "Native" to where you currently live?

Which of the following describes your accent?

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    • M Selvey, MSc profile image

      M Selvey, MSc 8 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you Maty and Dorothy for stopping by and for your comments. Maty, that is an interesting link.

      Dorothy, I know what you mean. I am immersed in a way different accent than the one I grew up with and I have been told that I have picked up a British accent. But, what I really have is what is known as a transatlantic accent. This is a watered down version of a combined American and British accent. It happens to expats who have made their homes on the opposite sides of "the pond" from their home origins and comes from constant immersion. As soon as I spend time back in California or have visitors from the USA, the American elements of my accent become more prominent.

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      Dorothy 8 years ago

      Good thoughts on the accent people use. I have lived in California for over 50 years, but so very often people comment on my New England Accent, and I have tired to eradicate it, however, it crops up often, especially after I have talked with my relatives from there.

    • profile image

      Maty 8 years ago

      actually, a california accent has begun to emerge /nudge/