The distinctiveness of the accent heard in a place reflects that place’s isolation. It’s probably no coincidence that, as almost every place in the world has become less isolated, accents have become less distinctive. In these days of vanishing forms of regional speech, if you wanted to hear a new one coming into being, you’d have to go to the ends of the Earth — or one specific end of the Earth, anyway, as demonstrated not long ago by researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Taking and analyzing recordings made over the course of one winter, they discovered that a new accent has begun to take shape in English as spoken in Antarctica.
“Antarctica has no native population or permanent residents, but it does have a transitory community of scientists and support staff who live there for part of the year on a rotational basis,” writes Tom Hale at IFL Science. “In the summer months, there are typically around 5,000 people living in Antarctica, but that drops to just 1,000 in the winter.” It was from this group of the Antarctic “over-winterers” — and in particular, from those working on the British Antarctic Survey — that the linguistic researchers recruited their subjects, eight of whom were from England, one from the United States, one from Germany, and one from Iceland.
“The findings revealed subtle but measurable changes in the speech of the overwintering staff during their time in Antarctica,” writes Mental Floss’ Brett Reynolds. “One change was convergence, where individuals in a close-knit group unconsciously begin to adopt similar speech characteristics. In this case, that meant convergence of /u/ (the ‘oo’ in goose), /ju/ (the ‘you’ in few), /ou/ (the ‘oh’ in goat), and /ɪ:/ (the ‘ee’ in the last syllable in happy).” Apart from that phenomenon, the researchers also noticed another change in the /ou/ of goat: “the over-winterers began to pronounce it more toward the front of their mouths than toward the back. (British pronunciations are already typically fronter than American /ou/.)”
Even if you got into a conversation with a scientist just back from a long winter in Antarctica, you probably wouldn’t notice any of this. But the fact that the differences between the series of recordings taken at six-week intervals during the winter show measurable changes in pronunciation when compared to control recordings taken back in the United Kingdom suggests that the isolation of Antarctica really does encourage the formation of a new accent. Given a sufficiently long time span, an accent naturally becomes a dialect, and eventually a separate language. Perhaps, even in our age of much-lamented loss of linguistic diversity, some of us can look forward to having Antarctic-speaking descendants.
via Mental Floss
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.