Everyone has an accent — there’s no such thing as an “accentless” version of English or any other language. The many, varied ways we speak are influenced by who we grow up with and where we live and tons of other demographic factors. The way we feel about how we speak and how others sound to us is influenced by society.
Language can have a huge impact on our workplaces, media, and even a trip to the store. So it’s no wonder our personal accents and languages get tangled up in our identities.
Looking at this social element of language, and how language forms part of our identity, is the study of sociolinguistics. We talk like the people we know that can include our accent, the way we pronounce things, but also other linguistic features like the words and grammar that we use. Especially before the internet, one of the biggest factors that affects who we know and who we can talk to is geography.
One of the earliest kinds of sociolinguistics was dialectology: trying to map out all of the regional variations of a given language. While dialectologists were historically focused on regional variations, a dialect is any variety of a language associated with a group of people. Early dialectologists traveled around by car or bicycle with a notebook or a tape recorder, interviewing locals and recording how they spoke.
As technology evolved, they also started using telephone calls and then internet surveys and social media data. They found that generally speaking, the longer a group of people has been living somewhere and speaking the same language, the more dense the linguistic variation in that area. There are a few specific languages that have stayed relatively stable in places like Switzerland and Papua New Guinea. So we see lots of variation in a pretty small area: between individual villages.
In contrast, languages like Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish and BANZL have spread over wider geographic areas because of more recent colonization. So we see variation between larger, more spread out regions, like the city or country level.
Even within a geographic region, other factors influence how we speak. For example, we tend to spend more time with people close to our own age than 30 years younger or older than us, which is why linguists find that people of different ages talk differently. Other demographic factors also influence who people hang out with and sound like — things like education, class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
Traditionally speaking, sociolinguists have studied these demographics as a way of getting insight into how different people talk. Sure enough, they do find linguistic varieties associated with all of these demographics. Now that social media lets us more easily graph out people’s social connections, though, linguists have found that our individual networks play a big role in our language choices beyond demographic categorization.
Sociolinguists have also found that the more closely we identify with a group, the more likely we are to speak like members of that group. People who express more rootedness in their local community tend to speak with more features of Appalachian English. But because people often change the way they talk depending on who they’re talking to, sociolinguists trying to study linguistic variety can run into the observer’s paradox. That’s when the very act of participating in a study makes people talk differently,because “university research” is a formal social context with a very different atmosphere than, say, talking to your friend on Twitter.