Can TV programmes change your accent?

Glaswegian youngsters are picking up speech characteristics from Eastenders, researchers have found.
16 September 2013

Interview with 

Jane Stuart-Smith, University of Glasgow


Warning! TV programmes can seriously affect your accent!The Queen Vic

At least that's the conclusion of a study published this week by Glasgow researcher Jane Stuart-Smith, who's found that speech characteristics from characters in the popular BBC soap opera Eastenders are being picked up by Glaswegian youngsters...

Jane - We've done some research to look at Glaswegian at the end of the 20th century. And to our surprise, because Glasgow is a very long way away from the southeast - it's about 450 miles away - some of our informants, particularly inner city kids were using features that we would associate more with the southeast of England and much less with Scotland.

Chris - When you say, 'using features', can you just explain what you mean by that?

Jane - Yes. We're looking specifically at features of pronunciation.  So, we're looking at, when you say, faffatha and in the following clip, what you'll hear is the word 'tooth' spoken by two people. The older man says, 'tooth' and the younger man says, 'tooth' with a 'fa'.


Jane - It's quite subtle and you might not automatically got it because actually, 'fa' and 'tha' are very easily confusable. In the younger boy, you can hear how he definitely has a Glaswegian 'uh', but he's also got this 'fa' at the end.  The other feature that we found which is spreading involves the 'l' sound - things like 'people' and 'shelf'.  That is really quite unusual. So here are another two speakers. An older man who's saying 'shelf' and he's got an 'l' sound and the younger adolescent doesn't have it. Can you hear the 'shelf'?

Chris - It's very blatant actually once you highlight it to me.  The older person who presumably speaks pure Glaswegian, untainted by whatever we think the influence is, is very different to the younger person who has this new way of saying it.

Jane - Absolutely. They have very different accents. Probably, everybody listening to this programme, if you were to hear those speakers just talking, you would still get the impression that they were both very Scottish and very Glaswegian. So, what's happening is that very specific aspects of that accent are changing, but the rest is staying very similar.

Chris - How did you actually do this research?

Jane - Well, we actually went and recorded people. We worked with some local schools. We thought the people would talk more naturally to each other if they were allowed to choose who they could talk to.  They would find a friend and then they would sit and chat to each other, and then we got them to read a word list.  And we also got lots of information about their life and their social life. So, we wanted to find out about the kinds of different factors that might affect their speech. So obviously, if you've got somebody saying things like 'shelf' and 'tooth', you might immediately think that it's got to do with the people that they know.  Because we know that in language change, what's affects us most is who we talked to on a daily basis. That's how language changes.

Chris - So, you're quizzing them about who your friends are, who you interact with, but also, what you do with your life presumably.

Jane - Exactly, so what we were looking at was everything from, how many family members lived in their house and where their relatives lived and how often they saw their friends, to how often they went out, and the kinds of things they did.  And also, amongst all of that, we asked them lots and lots of questions about all aspects of their media: the kinds of music they listened to, radio, films, videos.

Chris - So, what do you think is causing this?

Jane - Well, now we've done the actual study, and we've looked at it statistically, what we found, there are several things together. One of them was to do with social practices. The more that our kids adhered to local Glasgow street style then the more they were going to use its features. We also found a weak relationship with having relatives and friends and family, and communicating with them who are outside Glasgow and specifically in the south of England. And then this other factor was this effect of television. Specifically, we'd looked at a number of programmes, but the programme that emerged as a significant factor in the analysis was EastEnders.  It wasn't just watching EastEnders. It's not just having it on. Your mum might be watching it, your auntie might be watching it. It's not that. It's actually really engaging with EastEnders.

Chris - When you say 'engaging', so that would be for example, if I particularly identified with a character or a particular story line had resonance with me and a personal experience. So, I almost identified and wanted to mirror the individual that was having that experience in the programme, that's when what this emulation of the way they speak on EastEnders come through.

Jane - Yes. Well, I certainly agree with you about really being involved in the characters and sort of being involved in the stories. So, I think there's must be at some level, some kind of social identification. But I have to step back a bit about whether this genuinely emulation or imitation of speech because from what we can see, it's definitely not imitation in any sense of being consciously aware, or being able to imitate overtly. We actually looked at imitation as a possible model and the kids couldn't imitate EastEnders characters.

Chris - So, they didn't all go around saying, "Can I have word?" which is what seems to be the buzz word in EastEnders quite frequently.

Jane - Exactly. They're not picking up catch phrases and they're not trying to imitate EastEnders at all, or indeed, they're not really trying to imitate any kind of media.  This is one of the reasons that actually, it's taken us a bit of a while to think about, so, what is the mechanism?  How is it actually working? Traditionally, linguist have always said the media doesn't have an influence on language change. And there's good reasons for that because when people watch TV, on the whole they get up after their evening viewing and they don't end up speaking with different accents.

Chris - But I will refute the fact to a certain point which is that my children are not very old, but they've been immersed in a lot of cartoons with American voiceovers and I hear them playing the American accents.

Jane - Exactly and we do see a lot of kids using specific voices for specific characters when they're playing, and this is what they do. But I don't think there's any good evidence yet about the features are actually kind of leaking out into their normal pronunciation.

Chris - So, can you put all these together for us into a sort of nutshell. What exactly is the bottom line on what you found?

Jane - Kids in Glasgow with not that much contact with southern English speakers are using more of this London based features and that's significantly associated with strong psychological and emotional engagement with EastEnders.


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