Why do we have accents?

[1] In every country, we can distinguish people from where they originate judging from their accents. Question is, how do we?

When you enter a country and traverse each of its four corners, you will discover a variation in terms of accents amongst the townspeople. Indeed, this can be through the simple explanation of diversity in geographical location or region, through history as of immigration, integration or assimilation or the modification of the language itself phonetically to suit the local tongue. In order to depict these points, I will use: 1) Old, Medieval and Colonial French, 2) Afrikaans and Dutch. I would like to highlight I am not linguist expert, I will use a historical angle to analyse, so if I make any faults – comments are more than welcomed below.


But firstly, it is important to grasp the notion of what is a dialect and language. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word dialect where one focuses the language on a specific area or social group. [2] Expanding on that, we have the word language, which despite slight complexities because of its vagueness, can be defined as a system of a communication used by a particular country or community. [3] These definitions are fundamental, because they help us understand the grandeur of the language starts as a nucleus within the word dialect. To explain this further, it is important consider why exactly do we have these accents, as these definitions all conjure each other. Frankly speaking, an accent is defined as pronouncing a language, through various influences. How, where and when we learnt these languages greatly affected the way we say words. This is a ceaseless process that depends on our life experiences: with whom we live with as we constantly migrate throughout history, and the social groups either from a particular community or geographical location. [4] Now that we have comprehended these ideas and definitions, I will continue the analysis through the observation of French and Dutch languages.


1) Variations of French

[5] France divided into two main languages – Langue d’Oïl and Langue d’Oc. 

1.1) Old French/Medieval French 

Since the Romans conquered Gaul, France separated itself into two principal languages – Langue d’Oc and Langue d’Oïl. This separates France into two sections – drawing a line from Bordeaux to Grenoble. With its neighbouring countries, these Romantic languages were sub-divided into three umbrella groups. The Oc as Provençal, Oïl as in Northern French and Si with Italian. [6]


In fact, all these were different ways of saying the word yes. Perhaps because it was one of the quickest ways to differentiate the three apart, no one really knows. With Provençal, Oc refers oui or yes in French as o. [6, 7] We would say this person from Provence speaks the language of yes or lengua d’o from the country of yes or pais d’o. As for Oïl, this is a word that has evolved through time. The word was initially o-il, the same way as oui, c’est cela or yes, it is. Later, the people from Northern France would pronounce the word as Ou-il, until there became a silent l making it as oui in contemporary French. [6, 7, 8] Now you know when you buy the famous wines, eh!


1.2) Colonial French 

Other major derivative of French are African French and Québecois. Within African French, the most significant of them being in countries like Morocco or Congo, there are borrowed words from the Maghreb and African languages and phonetic sounds, where you would hear accentuated words with the heavier r sounds and adopted African words. For example, you would say merci mingi – a melange of merci or thanks and mingi – very much in Lingala, an Congolese tribal language. [9] Conversely, with Québecois French – whenever a native French person tries to impersonate a Québecois, the first thing they would tend to say is tabernacle. This type of French originates from the north and north-western areas of France, of which speak Norman and Patois. [9] As of heavy British rule, there are also some borrowings from the English language. Judging from certain words, I feel Québecois French is a lot more old-fashioned. For example, the word abrier means to cover, rather than metropolitan French couvrir. Here we have a general term of abri or shelter, so to cover something is to be sheltered. Or indeed, un char in Québecois French means car, whereas contemporary French means a chariot. Beautiful that. [10, 11]


2) Variations of Dutch

2.1) Dutch 

During the mid 5th to 12th centuries, Dutch had developed from many influences across its neighbours. For example, concerning Old Dutch, it branched off from Old Frankish, Old East Low Franconian and Germanic roots – therefore close to German, Flemish and English. [12] As the language developed, it started to use some phonetic sounds like “k”, “v”, “w” and “j” and tended to use compounded words rather than separating them. Dutch then developed with a Wallonian or a French-influenced Brussels Dutch through the medieval and modern times, as of the economic prowess the Brussels immigrants brought with them. [12]


2.2) Afrikaans 

Since discovering and settling in the Cape during 1652 primarily by Jan van Riebeeck, the modern Afrikaaner was invented from a blend of many influences. There were three main derivatives of the Afrikaans, the Cape, Orange River and Eastern Border. As you can tell from these names, they were divided in terms of geographical region in South Africa. As the Cape was a colony ideally midway between Europe and the East Indies, there were many influences from other colonial powers like the Portuguese and British languages. [13] In Cape, there were many Malay slaves, thus some Portuguese influences in colloquial language. As for Orange River, there were many native African tribal influences from Griquakwal and Namakwaland. Thirdly, there was the Eastern Border, where many colonists migrated from the Cape towards Natal. Moreover, the retired Dutch and German officers who settled in South Africa became known as the Free Burghers or independent farmers – had the biggest influences in the Afrikaans language. [13] There were the French Protestants or Huguenots who also successfully immigrated to South Africa, as a consequence of the religious friction back in France, under the legalisation of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). They helped to alter the pronunciations and spellings of certain words. This was significant, as the authors J. A. Heese and C. Pama in their book Afrikaners, analysed that these nationalities constituted the Afrikaans language in terms of percentage: Dutch (34, 8%), Germans (33, 7%), French (13, 2%), People of colour (7%), British (5, 2%), Unknown origin (3, 5%) and Other Europeans (2, 6%). [14] 

I am not an expert in Dutch nor Afrikaans, but I thought I could use these examples to illustrate how many social groups throughout history can affect a language. Those of you who are Dutch, you can compare Dutch and Afrikaans with these sites. For an outsider, I feel Dutch is a lighter version of German, with a lot of correlation as a whole with English. Anyway, here are the links for Dutch and Afrikaans tutorial – tell me what you think: 1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRmkEn7f54U and 2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ij6uz8ag3jA.


Effectively, we cannot have a stagnate accent – they frequently change as we immigrate, as we try to add our own more familiar phonetic sounds and spellings to words to help accommodate the adopted mother tongue. These also depend on the neighbouring countries or geographical location in general – as in the case of French, as there are variations that are similar to Belgium, Italy, Spanish and German, as they are all neighbouring countries. These older versions of the languages do change throughout history, as forms of colonisation and assimilation occur – for example in the case of Dutch and Afrikaans. There were Dutch, German and French independent farmers and religious groups who all left their mark in the language. Moreover, accents change according to social classes as well, where with middle and modern Dutch, you had a lot more Belgians from the Wallonia area, giving the language a French twist phonetically and in vocabulary. Right, that is a wrap from me, and I hope you enjoyed my article. Take care! 🙂



[1] http://peterlevitan.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/People-Talking-Profile-Image.jpg

[2] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dialect

[3] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/language

[4] http://linguistlist.org/ask-ling/accent.cfm

[5] http://villageampus83.blog.lemonde.fr/files/2007/10/oc-oil.1192104173.gif

[6] http://www.lexilogos.com/etymologie_oil_oc.htm

[7] http://www.medieval-spell.com/Langue-d-Oc.html

[8] http://www.orbilat.com/Languages/French/French.html

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_French

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_French

[11] http://french.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=french&cdn=education&tm=3&f=22&tt=14&bt=3&bts=34&zu=http%3A//www.republiquelibre.org/cousture/EXPRES.HTM

[12] http://www.foreigntranslations.com/languages/dutch-translation/dutch-language-history/

[13] http://www.essortment.com/history-afrikaans-language-south-africa-33507.html

[14] http://www.sahistory.org.za/people-south-africa/afrikaans


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