What reality TV reveals about changing accents

Chloe Wilburn, a contestant on Big Brother: Timebomb. (Credit: Getty Images)

Researchers used reality TV to uncover surprising variation in how easily people’s accents change over time.

The capacity for accent change among adults is well documented in linguistics, over both the short-term (temporarily in the context of a single conversation) and the long-term (slowly evolving based on exposure to other accents over a period of years). This study, which appears in the journal Language, focuses on the middle period between the short- and long-terms.

“This might help explain why some people never ‘lose’ their accent when they move to a new place…”

The authors investigated accent dynamics by taking advantage of a “natural experiment”: the reality TV show, Big Brother UK, whose structure is uniquely suited to investigating how and why an individual’s accent changes over the medium term.

Contestants live in an isolated house for three months, are continually recorded, and interact with each other constantly, without access to the outside world. This makes the house a linguistically closed system, where it is possible to both determine the dynamics of contestants’ speech from day-to-day and reason about the sources of any observed changes.

To address these questions, the authors built a dataset of 14.5 hours of speech for 12 contestants from the “diary room” segments of the show, where they talk to Big Brother in an isolated room. The linguists transcribed what contestants said and annotated five variable aspects of a speaker’s accent.

Researchers added transcription and annotation with automatic tools based on machine learning and speech recognition technology, which allowed them to construct datasets much larger than those used in most work analyzing how people speak—which enabled them to chart fine-grained variability in how people speak, on a day-to-day basis.

The analysis showed that accent change over the medium term is ubiquitous: large daily fluctuations in each sound variable are the norm, while longer-term change over weeks to months occurs in a minority of cases.

Their results, along with previous studies, show that the dynamics of accent change over time within individual speakers—even in settings of intense social contact—are highly complex.

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The complexity of these dynamics rules out any simple path from social interaction to change in a person’s accent over their lifetime: despite constant interactions over three months, contestants do not end up all sounding more similar. Instead, the degree of accent change over time can be explained by systematic differences between people and sounds in how subject they are to change over time.

“People differ a lot in how susceptible their accents are to change over months—we can think of ‘changers’ and ‘non-changers,'” Sonderegger says. “This might help explain why some people never ‘lose’ their accent when they move to a new place, while other people’s accents change so completely that people are surprised to learn where they are originally from.”

Funding for the study came from SSHRC and FRQSC.

Source: McGill University