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Relation between physiology and accent (linguistics)?

  1. Dec 6, 2012 #1
    Do you believe genetics can cause one to have a particular accent in a given language?

    Or are accents only related to post-birth personal development?

    Are there ethnicities having anatomically distinct voice boxes, that have more difficulty in emulating specific accents?

    I tend to believe so, but I haven't yet found reliable sources.
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  3. Dec 6, 2012 #2


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    Males and females have different voices, the voice of boys changes when they reach puberty, apparently genes are important.

    I don't think accent is determined, environment is very important: people from China are known for their difficulty in pronouncing English words, while offspring born in an English-speaking country won't have that difficulty.
  4. Dec 6, 2012 #3

    jim mcnamara

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    Define accent?

    To follow up on Monique's point: There are a lot of phonemes, a linguistics term for the basic sounds of language. When you learn to read you begin by mapping phonemes to letters. The whole phoneme arena is complex. You learn phonemes as a small child. The ability to hear and emulate new phonemes goes away with aging.

    Phonemes: To see what I'm talking about : http://ipa.typeit.org/
    You can the sounds of lots of languages expressed in IPA (the pronunciation guide you see in dictionaries). Try English.

    Anyway, the phonemes in English do not match those in Chinese or Pitjantjatjara . Some languages have phonemes that only exist in that language or its related languages. Once you leave childhood you lose the ability to hear distinctly some sounds that are not in the languages you learned as a kid.

    This shows language "families" in North America circa 1600

    In Navajo the only phoneme that is close to the sound we make at the end of the word "stop" is something linguists call a glottal stop. We have one in English: the "gg" construct in jogging. The p sound is called a plosive, Navajos do not have the sound natively. BTW: Everyone there now speaks good English thanks to TV.

    Years ago I lived with Traditional Navajos, ones who were not exposed to English until they were adults. I asked a elderly man where he was going when I picked him up, he
    answered 'Gallu<glottal stop>'. Meaning Gallup NM. To him it sounded the same as when Anglos pronounced it.

    It works both ways. When I was trying to learn Navajo everyone around assured me I had a life long job as a Navajo comedian. One nice old lady actually wet herself laughing at something I mangled one day.

    Because of the phoneme problem it is actually impossible to grow up speaking English and then later become fluent in some languages as an adult, because you will always pronounce the sounds incorrectly. And in some circumstances you may not understand because you cannot hear (understand the phoneme; you really do hear something) the difference.

    The point - "accents" as I perceive your idea, are the result of growing up in another language. It is not really physiology. Exposure to language changes the brain. Not the other way around. Maybe you could view it as what environmental variables affect neural pathways of language. Kind of like programming a computer. You have linux in your android phone, and linux in your modern car, but each does wildly different stuff. Programming.

    If your library has Brain and Language :

    Brain and Language in September 2012 published an entire volume on
    Neurobiology of Language 2010, Neurobiology of Language Conference
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2012
  5. Dec 6, 2012 #4
    I wonder what accents correspond to acoustically. In terms of the Fourier spectrum of the sound, what does an accent correspond to?

    The word "accents" may provide a clue. Maybe part of it has to do with what syllable is loudest in a word. However, it seems to me there is more than that.

    Sometimes, the difference between accents sounds to me like a matter of timbre more than accent. That is, the difference is in the harmonics of the sound rather than the fundamental. People can talk with entirely different pitches and have the same "accent". They can pronounce words precisely the same, and punctuate their words precisely the same, and still have distinguishable accents.

    There is an interesting biophysics problem, here.

    Also, the question of the title is a little more general than genetics. There has to be a physiology to an accent corresponding to the physics of the way it sounds. Even if accents are not inherited, and even if there are copied from other people, the motion of the anatomical features has to be different in different people.

    Therefore, I would also like to know the relation between physiology and linguistic accents. However, please leave out the genetics. So far as science has been able to show, an accent has nothing to do with genetics.
  6. Dec 6, 2012 #5


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    On a related issue of timbre, Eidsheim's thesis (p33) summarizes current findings:
    "Contemporary vocal scientists agree there are no morphological differences that indicate race. Therefore, there should be no timbral differences based on race. However, as my opening example illustrated, and as we will see in greater detail later in this
    chapter, people do hear racially-based timbral differences. I argue that such differences are based on the flexibility and possibility of the instrument, and the choices made as to which aspects of an individual vocal timbre to bring forward. Thus expressive limitations are the results of choice of use rather than of physical premises."
  7. Dec 6, 2012 #6
    I don't think you can make a blanket statement like this. People's ability to adopt new accents is surely as varied as their ability to learn anything new. On one end of the spectrum you have people who can't pronounce one foreign word correctly and on the other you have professional actors and impressionists who are complete linguistic chameleons. In his 40's, Hugh Laurie learned a perfect American accent to play House, for example.

    When I was in college I was studying French, German, Russian, and Spanish. Even at college age, 18-20, there was a huge spread of talent for the accent. It seemed impossible for some people to adopt new phonemes but others were incredibly good at it.
  8. Dec 7, 2012 #7

    jim mcnamara

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    Zooby -

    I agree.

    However, I believe this blanket statement is not that far off.

    The only reference that comes to mind is a Nova (PBS) program dealing with early childhood language sound processing and neural pathway development. The example given was for a Salish language which had unique phonemes. The bottom line was that children after the age of one year could not learn to speak the language correctly - when they had not been exposed to the sounds previously.

    Now all I have to do is to find the references.
  9. Dec 7, 2012 #8

    jim mcnamara

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    This is one of the reasons I tend not to post too much. It takes too darned long to find good references. I had 30 minutes. The stuff I wanted cost money to access, these are some free relevant ones:

    This discusses the discontinuity of phonemic categorization in adults v small children:
    http://home.fau.edu/lewkowic/web/Eimas infant speech discrim Science 1971.pdf

    The common definition of Non-native means phonemes heard after age 1:
    How non-native phoneme recognition is impeded:

    See slide 38:

    If you look at the first 3 boxes, and if you care to google for more follow up on those terms, go for it.

    If you think I'm wrong, that's fine too. I can't devote any more time to this right now.
    Biological systems are plastic, but they have inherent limits. I personally believe phoneme categorical perception of previously unheard phonemes in adults to be one of those limits.
  10. Dec 7, 2012 #9
    I skimmed the links and don't disagree with what they seem to be asserting. It was clear in my own learning of foreign languages that I was missing, or maybe dismissing, many sounds at first, and that has to be pointed out to you by a vigilant teacher. It takes exposure to many different native speakers to pick up on what sounds are actually part of the language and which ones are idiosyncracies of a given individual. The more remote the foreign language is from your own the more that will be true. What I disagree with is that it can't be overcome, that it's universally impossible to become fluent in a foreign language as an adult due to the accent problem. I think it's analogous to learning to paint at a later date in life: some people will never get the hang of it and others will become "fluent".
  11. Dec 7, 2012 #10

    jim mcnamara

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    Found a relevant link

    Purves D, et al 2001 The Development of Language: A Critical Period in Humans
  12. Dec 7, 2012 #11

    jim mcnamara

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    And a comment on experiences learning languages - 'phonetic element peculiar to non-native languages' means very unusual sounds. The Salish-Quinault language from several posts above, has two phonemes that you simply cannot distinguish from one another-- when you grow up speaking English. Your brain lost the neural pathway along the way to acquire English.

    If ever I find the reference it will put this to bed. IMO.

    Zooby - were you learning languages that come from your branch of the language tree?
    If you do more than skim some of these references I posted you might notice that related languages share lots of phonemes.
  13. Dec 8, 2012 #12
    As I listed, I was studying French, German, Russian, and Spanish, and my native language is English. There are sounds in all those languages that just don't exist in English and which trip up every beginning student. The German "ch" is a good example. We never make this sound in English and it requires learning from scratch.

    There were plenty of sounds in all these languages I wasn't reliably hearing at first, which was true of all the students, but the teachers always police these pretty rigorously; point them out to you and require you to drill them. You may or may not take the fact that people don't pick up on them on their own as confirmation of what you're saying, but to me the important thing is whether you can hear it and learn to reproduce it once it's brought to your attention. The problem is often not that people can't hear it, but that they completely dismiss it's importance. It's not obvious that the failure to mimic a certain sound will stand out like a sore thumb in the ears of native speakers. Someone has to tell you, "The way you're pronouncing that is completely outside anything a native speaker would ever produce."

    On that subject, there was a Japanese guy who lived in my building several years back. He told me most English classes in Japan were taught by Japanese teachers who butchered the accent. When he arrived here he could not understand one word anyone said despite the fact he could read and write English extremely well. He had to re-learn the accent from scratch, and, when I met him, he could pronounce "r" and "l" correctly, having learned by immersion. It could well be the first time he heard either properly pronounced it didn't register in his brain at all, and it may not have registered till the tenth or twentieth time, but eventually it registered and he could pronounced them properly. The fact that new phonemes stop registering automatically after one year of age is probably irrelevant to the issue of whether one can become fluent.

    I suspect that the Salish sounds you're talking about might be harder than most to distinguish, but this would represent a freak rather than a norm. If you foot the bill I'm certainly willing to accept the challenge of traveling to the Pacific Northwest to see if I can learn to pronounce them to the satisfaction of Natives, hehe.

    Opining here: the sounds a person produces are very personal and become mixed up with their identity. I think that's most people's biggest problem in picking up a foreign language: they balk at the accent because to dig in and adopt it would cause a minor identity crisis. Actors, mimics, and children don't have that psychological block.
  14. Dec 8, 2012 #13


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    One thing I do notice is that a person does sing in a language other than their own native, an accent is less noticable than when they speak. Think Samantha Fox, British singer.
    Although this is dialect comparison, the full extent of her British accent ( of that of which is particular to Mile End, England ) does not come across to me as a North American when listening to her songs.
  15. Dec 9, 2012 #14
    I just listened to half of one of her videos and couldn't hear much of a British accent, no. There are plenty of other examples I can also think of. I'm not sure if this is because all pop singers tend to adopt a standard American accent thinking of it as a "pop" accent or not, but it is certainly possible to sing in a full blown British accent as evidenced by all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as well as Pink Floyd's The Wall.

    When I was working on a play about coal miners in Pennsylvania we went to Schuyllkill County to interview real miners. Most of them had Irish accents. We asked one where he was from in Ireland, and he said he was of German extraction. He said if you worked in the mines long enough you adopted the "Miner's Brogue" where ever you were from. That tendency for British pop singers to sound American might conceivably be the same sort of thing.
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