There’s a fascinating article in the Telegraph.co.uk about humans subconsciously imitating other people’s accents. According to Prof. Lawrence Rosenblum of the University of California, Riverside, people consistently imitate the speech patterns of total strangers as a means to ‘affiliate and empathize’ with other people. Rosenblum claims this “unintentional imitation could serve as social glue”.
Interesting. Is the reason we imitate another person’s accent really to show empathy? Maybe not. I think our desire to imitate another’s accent is far more basic than that. Language evolved to solve a social problem: how to collaborate in order to reach a shared objective. In our line of work, we see this day in and day out. People take pronunciation courses so they can be better understood by their clients and colleagues. They know their message is important and want to make sure others receive it. This is what effective communication is all about.
Pronunciation is about clear communication. It’s as important as grammar and vocabulary. Think of the following situation: It’s 15,000 years ago and a group of Cro-Magnon hunters are planning their next move. The leader says to his pals, “You guys wait ON THE SIDE of the cave, spears at the ready, and I’ll get the bear to wake up and see what’s going on.” Now let’s add an accent to the mix. Think if his buddies had heard “You guys wait on the INSIDE of the cave and I’ll get the bear to wake up and see what’s going on”. I’d imagine the results wouldn’t be as satisfying.
Not withstanding the role of empathy in the “human condition”, I believe accents are all about understanding and being understood. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all really want?