Accents you expect to hear

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From "Imitating accents", in Penn Today newsletter (4/6/22):

Research from linguistics postdoctoral fellow Lacey Wade of the School of Arts & Sciences found that people imitate accent features they expect to hear, even without hearing them explicitly. The work, the first time such expectation-driven convergence has been shown in a controlled experiment, reveals just how much the subconscious factors into the way people speak.

People imitate accent features they expect to hear, even without hearing them

Research from postdoc Lacey Wade confirmed this idea, what she calls expectation-driven convergence, in a controlled experiment for the first time. The work reveals just how much the subconscious factors into the way people speak.


Certain accents in the United States are unmistakable: the twang of someone from the South, the dropped “r” by a Bostonian. Without realizing it, people often copy this kind of accent when talking with someone who uses it, a concept in linguistics known as convergence.

“There’s a lot of work looking at convergence toward observed features like sentence structure or imitation of speech sounds,” says Lacey Wade, a postdoctoral fellow in Penn’s Language Variation & Cognition Lab. Previous research had confirmed the existence of these temporary shifts in interpersonal communication and the context in which they most often show up. But Wade wanted to study another type of convergence, the kind focused on how people expect their conversation partners will sound before they’ve said a word.

Prior theories on what Wade calls expectation-driven convergence had been mostly anecdotal. Now, in the first controlled experiment of its kind, Wade confirmed that people do imitate accent features they believe they’ll hear, even before they’ve heard them. She shared these results in the journal Language.

“We didn’t realize how strongly expectations were influencing speech,” Wade says. “It’s never been established in this controlled way before. But we’ve now shown it’s something people do, with findings that are robust and replicable, too. People can build off this and ask a whole new set of questions about other ways expectations drive speech.”

For the past several years, Wade has been trying to answer such questions herself, first as a doctoral student and then as a postdoc in the lab of Penn’s Meredith Tamminga. Broadly, Wade’s research looks at how social influences affect language. For this work on convergence, she hoped to delve into how memory and social factors play into speech patterns and variation.

She and Tamminga created an experiment around a particular aspect of a Southern accent, what happens with the vowel “i” in certain words. “This vowel has two parts,” Wade says. That is, when broken down, it sounds like ah and ee squished together. “In Southern-shifted speech, people often take the ee sound and reduce it. Instead of a strong movement over the course of the vowel, it’s weaker. It sounds more like the ah.” The words “dime” and “ride,” for example, often sound more like “domm” or “rod.”

This particular feature, called glide-weakening, “is a very stereotypical feature associated with Southern speech,” Wade says. “It’s something people almost always use when putting on a Southern accent.” Regardless of how the researchers felt about that fact, they knew that made it a sociolinguistic feature people would likely expect, meaning it was a strong starting place to study this phenomenon.

To do so, Wade built a word-naming game akin to popular word games like Taboo or Catch Phrase. In each of three rounds, participants received clues meant to prompt them to say specific words out loud. In round 1, they read these hints from a computer screen, to provide the researchers a baseline. In round 2, someone with either a Southern or Midwestern accent—representing the experimental and control groups, respectively—read the clues, intending to elicit specific words. In the final round, participants again read them from a screen.

“We wanted them to feel like they were doing something fun, playing this game, taking their mind off their own speech,” Wade says. “It’s been found that feelings of interaction, feeling like you want to align with who you’re talking to, promotes convergence.”

As the researchers had hypothesized, simply hearing someone with a Southern accent say any words led participants to change how they spoke the vowel “i,” to do this glide-weakening. The same wasn’t true of hearing someone with a Midwestern accent. Wade replicated the experiment a second time, to similar results. She also replicated this with different model talkers of different genders and with different words.

The findings revealed to her just how much the subconscious factors into how people speak. “The person we’re talking to, the situation, how we’re feeling, they all exert influence on our language,” she says. “At the very least, this work can make us aware of the powerful role stereotyped associations can play in our lives, even in our speech, and help us understand that sometimes our language is shaped by our expectations instead of reality. From a scientific perspective it’s useful to understand how we might draw from stereotyped beliefs if we want to combat them.”

The two people in my life who were / are* uncannily adept at imitating accents were / are my former colleague Michel Strickmann (1942-1994) and my son Thomas Krishna.  The former had so many alter egos that it was difficult to keep track of them.  One of his favorites was "Michel Strickturk", with whom I was quite familiar, but whom Michel's own parents did not know about.  The latter, from the time he was a little boy, already by the age of around 4-6, would astonish me by mimicking a surprisingly broad range of voices and personae.  It was fun to converse with them over dinner or during long trips in a car, be they German, French, Indian (South Asian and  Native American), Mister T, r2d2, various space creatures, Civil War soldiers…, the list was endless, so there was never a dull moment in the Mair household with its large cast of characters.  BTW, TK's Mandarin was flawless:  he could even correct his Shandong waipo ("grandma") — "Báixuě gōngzhǔ 白雪公主" ("Snow White"), not "Baehue Gonqtschu".  [I tried hard for about half an hour to insert the Shandong tones, but just couldn't make them look right.]

*QUESTION:  how to express this felicitously?


Selected readings


  1. MM. said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 6:46 pm

    *QUESTION: how to express this felicitously?

    I have faced the question many times and in this case the best I can suggest, which may not be fully satisfactory, is to use the present perfect: have been.

  2. Daisy P said,

    April 6, 2022 @ 6:57 pm

    To answer the felicity question: maybe the present perfect, where you have the asterisk and possibly also in the main clause. "The two people in my life who have been uncannily adept…" or "The two people who have been in my life who have been uncannily adept…" The second one is pretty clunky.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 2:50 am

    In my own life, I am very aware that I automatically use "aye" and "wee" when conversing with Scots, but I'm not aware of any other adjustments that I habitually make. However, from the perspective purely of accent, I am fairly certain that I would endeavour to switch to a more prestigious accent when conversing with (say) a member of the aristocracy, but would be very resistant to the idea of switching to a less prestigious accent when speaking with (for example) a Smithfield porter. I have no idea which American accents are regarded as more prestigious, but assuming that such exist then I would be interested in learning whether the researchers found that (or even investigated whether) the probability of convergence is affected by the perceived prestige of the target dialect.

  4. Stephen L said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 6:28 am

    I'm living abroad from my home-country, and upon speaking to a co-national cashier recently I found myself immediately speaking with a very exaggerated accent, far more than I'd usually have even when speaking with my parents. And generally, the more time I spend away from it, the more theatrical my attempts sound. I find myself speaking to myself in my own accent when nobody else is around just to enjoy the feeling of making sounds in an unforced/natural fashion, but yeah it's drifting away from the baseline as the time away grows.

    I do a lot of video streaming online, where I'm talking (while playing video games or whatever) and other people are viewing and writing in chat, and I'm more likely to drift into home-accent there because I don't have auditory cues from other people to get back to the standard accent. I hadn't thought about the asymmetry before but now that I do I find it interesting!

  5. Chris Button said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 8:30 am

    It’s something people almost always use when putting on a Southern accent.

    Would an interesting follow-up experiment be to conduct it on native English speakers who are not Americans and aren’t familiar with “putting on a southern accent”?

  6. Mike Grubb said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 9:41 am

    As a native American English speaker raised in south-central Pennsylvania, when conversing with someone from England, I've occasionally found myself adjusting my pronunciation to sound "more British," but I didn't have a clear target dialect in mind, just a conglomeration of influences from TV shows & movies. Had someone asked me what specific accent I was trying to achieve–RP, BBC, whatever–I would have been at a complete loss because I wasn't going for a "real" accent but my idiosyncratically imagined "British accent." I suspect that, for those without much exposure to conversation with Southerners, something similar happens with a generic "Southern drawl."

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 10:36 am

    Having grown up in the British zone of postwar Germany, I first spoke English with a "BBC" or RP accent, but changed it to General American in its Southern California version when I moved there at age 15. Now, when I visit the UK, I find myself actively resisting slipping back into the former.

    I speak in Spanish with a neutral pan-Hispano-American accent (closest to that of central Mexico, and when I am in Spain I have to resist saying gracias with a /θ/.

    Vocabulary is another matter. I always try to use words that would be understood by my interlocutors.

  8. David L. Gold said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 2:18 pm

    This seems to be a good solution to the problem of tenses:

    One of the two people in my life who have been uncannily adept at imitating accents was my former colleague Michel Strickmann (1942-1994) and the other is my son Thomas Krishna.

  9. stephen said,

    April 7, 2022 @ 9:21 pm

    Nobody brought this up, I felt like asking anyway…

    Does speaking in the listener's accent make it easier for the listener to understand what is being said?

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    April 8, 2022 @ 1:50 pm

    Stephen — on the basis of a single ad hoc improvisation, I can say "yes, it definitely can". On my first visit to Birmingham, I became lost and stopped the car to ask a passer-by "can you tell me where to find the Hagley Road, please ?". He looked completely bemused, and said something along the lines of "Fo what, mate ?" (I won't try to convey any of this using the IPA). I then switched to broad Brummie, asked exactly the same question, and he replied (in equally broad Brummie) "Yeah, it's right there on the corner, mate !".

  11. Terry Hunt said,

    April 8, 2022 @ 5:46 pm

    @ stephen and Philip Taylor — One should not not discount the possibility of dissimulation on the Brummagem interlocutor's part.

    In a former job I worked in an office in Hampshire where all of us had regularly to speak by phone with locally-based field engineers in various parts of the UK, and most of my colleagues complained that they found it almost impossible to understand one particular Glaswegian. Though also having a southern English background, I once lived and worked in Scotland for several years and had less trouble, but nevertheless also found some of his diction suspiciously difficult to grasp. During one call I therefore casually mentioned my time in Scotland, using a few Scots locutions and a hint of Fife accent (which at one time I genuinely had), and from then on his speech – to me – became noticeably clearer.

    I strongly suspect he was deliberately garbling some of his language to wind up the soft Sassenachs sittin' on their airses doon Sooth an' sendin him off tae all they shite jobs oot in th' pourin' rain. I further think this is quite a widespread (and understandable) human response to apparent non-local strangers, which can often be disarmed by a demonstration of some element of commonality (though one must beware of overdoing it and being thought to be taking the piss).

    This is not to deny that employing a more familiar regional accent and register may indeed aid initial comprehension when the addressee may be expecting it. That said, in the UK everybody is familiar with RP and the accents of other regions (and Commonwealth countries) from national TV and radio, if not personal acquaintances, so I suspect that continued non-comprehension is often deliberate bloody-mindedness. This may of course not apply elsewhere in the world.

  12. Alexander Pruss said,

    April 9, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    Occasionally, when translating a sentence or two of Leibniz from French into English for my students, to my embarrassment I have found myself lapsing into a stereotype of a French accent, and finding it difficult to stop it.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    April 9, 2022 @ 12:04 pm

    … whilst I had an English friend who would regularly holiday in French camp sites, and when two of his French friends came to visit him in England, he spoke to them for the whole duration of their visit in a faux French accent without seeming in the least embarrassed and within seeming to appreciate that this was neither normal nor necessary.

  14. Rob said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 2:29 am

    I was born and brought up in Zambia, a then-British colony. My (mainly) British parents made it clear that I was not to speak like a "jaapie", although that was the natural accent to use with my friends. I became adept at switching accents, and it still happens 60 years later!

  15. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 9:49 am

    I'm not as talented at it as Michel Strickmann and Thomas Krishna in the o.p., nor as given to it as many of the commenters to this thread, but I have found throughout my life that willy-nilly I take on aspects of the accent of whomever I'm talking to. Sometimes, however, I become conscious of what I'm doing and have to temper it so that I do not appear to my auditors to be mimicking them.

    When I was in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer, during the monsoon season when I couldn't get out and trek to take care of my community development work, I would teach English in the local college. There was one most unusual student who repeated back to me everything I said with exactly the same accent, intonation, and every other phonological attribute of my speech. It annoyed me because I couldn't help but think he was mocking me, though I knew full well that he was just trying his best to speak proper American English.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    April 10, 2022 @ 2:52 pm

    I think that I must have something in common with your "most unusual student", Victor. During a conference in Paris, I spoke both in French and in English, and was asked (politely) by one delegate why, when I spoke French, I spoke about an octave higher than when I spoke English. Somewhat surprised, I said that I was not aware that I did, and if I was doing so, then I had no explanation. It later became apparent to me that while I had learned "conventional" French at grammar school, when I later needed conversational French for my work (French being the international language of telegraphy at that time), my tutor was a woman, Mme. Strasbourg, and I must have modelled my own intonation on hers without ever realising it. Now if I have occasion to speak French, I automatically check my pitch and adjust if necessary.

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