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23 July 2014
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Changing voices
Language and the elderly
Playground talk and teenspeak

Language and age by Philippa Law

Does your language change through your life?
As children, we're linguistically malleable. We pick up new words, new accents and even new languages at the drop of a hat, to fit in and keep out of trouble. Ian Spencer from Solihull told us:

"As I grew up, we moved from one end of England to the other - all places with strong accents: Sunderland, Spalding in Lincolnshire, Saff Landan, Manchester and now I am a Brummie. I found that I adopted accents as a necessity to avoid bullying - and which ever way you went you always seemed to be blamed for talking posh."

James from Somerset had a similar experience:
"I was born in Colchester, and moved to Northern Ireland at the age of 2. At 6, my family returned to England, and we lived in rural Nottinghamshire. My slight Northern Irish accent disappeared, to be replaced with something close to my parents' RP mode of speaking. This brought its own problems, as I was constantly teased for being 'posh' at school, and being corrected at home when any dialect, or accent strayed into my speech. At secondary school, I developed a strategy of having a 'home' accent and a 'school' accent."

After emerging from our teenage years, however, our speech more or less settles down, as James found: "I eventually settled into something like RP, and have put up with being called posh, and assumptions of intelligence ever since."

That doesn't mean that our speech is set in stone at the age of 20; it's just that it's not as easy for us to change. That's why those who want to master a convincing new accent go for elocution lessons or visit voice coaches - few adults would be able to pick it up by themselves.

"Being more relaxed, the Queen no longer puts on her 'best' voice."

One person who may have changed her accent is the Queen. Researchers in Australia studied the Queen's Christmas message from over the years and discovered that her "pronunciation of some vowels has been influenced by the standard southern British accent of the 1980s, which is more typically associated with speakers younger and lower in the social hierarchy."

Many journalists had a field day when the report came out in 2000, feverishly proclaiming that the Queen had 'turned Cockney'. Of course, listening to her you can immediately hear that she is still thoroughly upper-class.

If the Queen sounds different nowadays, that doesn't necessarily mean her speech has changed as a whole - it could simply demonstrate that she's more comfortable talking in front of the camera. Being more relaxed, she no longer puts on her 'best' voice - not surprising, given that she's had more than 50 years' practice!

As Gerry Docherty, Professor of Phonetics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, points out: "Pronunciation often changes with people's perception of their environment."

This 'code-switching' is absolutely normal. We don't have just one way of speaking - we have a linguistic repertoire made up of different styles.

Besides being able to use more formal or informal ways of talking, some people who have moved around in their youth also have access to different regional accents.

Harold Smart wrote to Voices to say: "I find my accent differs depending on my location. During the second World War I was evacuated to Cambridge and went to Grammar School there. When in Cambridge I find that I automatically transfer to a University accent whilst in the Midlands I resume my Coventry voice. I wonder if this happens to many people?"

Well, yes, it does. Sam Hewitt from North Yorkshire, for example, finds that his accent moves in the opposite direction: "Yorkshire born and bred. Whilst at university in Newcastle Upon Tyne I have noticed that my accent has become stronger; this wasn't deliberate. I feel that this is probably my own way of defining who I am and where I am from."

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Your Comments
What 'teenspeak' have you used?

Nicole, Canada
Sadly, I left Glasgow at 10 to go to Canada. Within two weeks, I had to adopt a Canadian accent, because the kids were verbally abusive and isolating to all immigrants. The only time I fully regained my accent was when I had a tonsilectomy. The first couple of days after the surgery, my father, who is Canadian, was shocked to hear my accent come back from out of nowhere. However, when I go back to see my family in Glasgow, the inflection comes back but not the vowel sounds. When I ask people in Glasgow to guess where I am from, they assume I'm American, which is my worst nightmare. I certainly prefer a Canadian accent with certain British inflections to the drawl of the american accent.

Daniel, Bristol
I lived in South Africa for four years - I really loved it there and my friends noticed how my accent gradually changed. I tended to say Ja instead of yes or yeah and the way I talked became slightly more lyrical. Almost 18 months since I came back my friends say they've noticed my old accent is coming back.But I notice if I'm out with friends in a loud bar or nightclub my SA accent gets stronger and also, when I'm teaching it comes out a bit. Don't know why!





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