Does Climate Affect Accent?

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I have one last point to make about the accents in Fargo.

After that film was released, I remember its dialect coach being interviewed on a glib entertainment news show (a la Access Hollywood). As I recall, she mentioned instructing the actors to “tighten their jaws.” In her mind, Minnesota’s bitterly cold winter impacts the physiology of how people speak there.

Now, as a New Englander, I can relate to the feeling of facial tightness that accompanies sub-zero temperatures. But I think people make dubious correlations in terms of accents and climate. To take a contrasting example, many people suggest that American Southern accents are “slower” because of how hot it is in that region. And while I understand this line of thinking, I feel it’s ignorant of more obvious causes.

For example, the Southern states’ late industrialization when compared with the North might be to blame for the region’s “langurous” speech (it is posited that urban accents are faster than rural ones). Assuming, of course, that Southern accents could be proven “slower” in the first place.

And in terms of Minnesotan accents being “tight jawed,” I think that’s indicative of another fallacy: just because you live somewhere cold, doesn’t mean you’re going to be more exposed to the cold. I’m more affected by freezing temps in New York City than the technically harsher climate that I grew up in.  I don’t have the luxury of avoiding the elements.  Why would you be less susceptible to the “tight jaw” effect in NYC than in a small Minnesota town, where your means of transit is a well-heated car?

There is also the little problem of precedence. It is hard to find similar cold-hot, fast-slow, “tight”-“loose” correlations within dialects of languages beyond English. For example, Puerto Rico is about as sweltering as it gets in North America, yet the Puerto Rican dialect doesn’t strike me as slower than the Spanish of Northern Spain. Quite the opposite, in fact. If heat makes you slow down your speech, wouldn’t we find more evidence of this outside English?

If climate impacts accent in any way, then, I feel it would be a result of weather-influenced behavior rather than the weather itself. For example, people in very cold climates might be expected to spend more time indoors than those who live in, say, San Diego. The amount of time spent indoors vs. out could definitely impact one’s idiolect.

I haven’t read much about this in scholarly work, outside of an impressionistic remark here or there.  Anyone know of research done on this kind of thing? (Doesn’t have to be strictly English-centric).

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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18 Responses to Does Climate Affect Accent?

  1. Chris says:

    I couldn’t help but think about this last week because I was in hot, dry Arizona and went for a run. The cottonmouth almost choked me. If it could be shown that certain speech sounds require larger than average amounts of moisture to produce reliably (glottal fricative???), it could follow that people in hot, dry climates avoid those sounds. I doubt this would affect short term language, though. I’m thinking of the evolution of a language’s phonemic inventory over generations.

    • trawicks says:

      You’d probably have to look to “indigenous” people for examples of climate affecting language, since they’re more exposed to the outdoors. I think the basic problem here is that humans have adapted to AVOID the elements rather than face them!

  2. Mona Loy says:

    wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwhaat?

  3. Nick says:

    The reason Australians don’t open our mouths when we speak is so the flies can’t get in.

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    Cubans are said to speak very fast, whereas Mexicans are said to speak slow. But Cuba’s latitude puts right about in the the equivalent of the middle of Mexico. Perhaps talking speeds up when you move further east;)

    • trawicks says:

      I’d suggest it might be attributable to the urban/rural divide (Mexico, despite having one of the largest cities on earth, strikes me as having more of a rural population than Cuba). But to be honest, I don’t know enough about the demographics of either country to say for sure.

  5. Tom V says:

    A similar explanation was given in the early 19th century for the High German sound shift (cf. English “book”, [standard] German “buch”). People living at higher altitudes (Swiss German has gone furthest in this direction) supposedly changed stops to spirants to save breath.

    • trawicks says:

      Quite a fascinating theory. Although you can find a similar process underway in Liverpool English, which definitely isn’t in any kind of “highlands!”

    • TT says:

      Does that really save any breath though? Because even for stops, the breath still comes out of the lungs, right? It’s just that it gets “stopped”, hence the name for that type of consonant.

      • trawicks says:

        My guess is this is an urban legend. Sort of like the old story about how the Castilian Spanish “th” sound came about because some king had a speech impediment.

        • dw says:

          Hmmm. Given that most Castilian Spanish speakers with /θ/ (for orthographic C, Z) also have /s/ (for orthographic S), that urban legend wasn’t really thought through very well 🙂

        • trawicks says:

          Yes, not a theory shared by the majority of historical linguists 😉

  6. Cclinton says:

    Why would heat make someone’s speech slower? Heat makes molecules move and vibrate faster!

    So maybe in the south the vowels shook so hard they broke?

  7. Pingback: 5 reads about Accents | How Things Evolved

  8. elham says:

    hi
    I am elham . I com from IRAN, SHIRAZ. I wanted your help. I am a M.A student of linguistic and I wanted to know this “is the climate affect on the speech of the people ? or not? I know it is possible, because in north of my country the weather is cold and rainy and their people they are cold in their relationship and their consonant and vowels that they use are very especial , and the people in the sort are very good in their relationship and they use approximant … if you could help me to understand more. thanks

  9. go for aesthetic appeal says:

    i came across a forum

    [www.antimoon.com]

    with the following:

    “There was a French linguist in the late 18th century, just before the revolution, who proposed that human languages were influenced by climate. I forget his name. He has had no successors that I know of since then but this does not necessarily mean that he was wrong.

    There has been a slightly stronger theory in history, largely advanced by Australian historian Gordon Childe (1892-1957) in the 1930’s that climate has influenced human history a great deal accounting for the rises and falls of many civilizations including Egypt, Rome, monastic Ireland and the Pueblos and Mayans. In the case of languages, more research simply needs to be done.”

    “I tend to think that one thing which influcences accents is a general tendency towards producing utterances with the least possible effort (as perceived by a certain group of speakers), or the elimination of sound clusters which are perceived as hard to pronounce…” – thats to do with being energy efficient and aesthetically appealing to the hearing sense.

    it seems very logical to me if climate affects accent. climate shapes our enviroment and we are a product of our enviroment.

    i think accent carries the aesthetic appeal of a speech to our ears just like the face of a person to our eyes. we can often quite intuitively tell one face being more appealing than another but the reasoning behind such an intuitive judgement could be quite beyond grasp. science is yet to find the key to unlock the door of understanding beauty but with or without science we have always been intuitively attracted to beauty. human’s obessession with beauty happen across all culture, be it very primitive or very sophisticated. given such phenomenon, its only logical to assume some important survival value attaching to beauty. english has a saying: ” beauty is only skin deep”. it could be wrong. i think beauty or aesthetic appeal is probably like the light house to guide human’s evolution. as resources are becoming more and more limited, the more energy efficient survival mechanism should prevail in the course of evulution. with respect to that, it seems logical to assume a relation between aesthetic appeal and energy efficiency. energy efficent = intelligent/ wise. an evolutionary psychologist in london school of economic (Satoshi Kanazawa) had published research papers on the positive relation between intelligence and physical attractiveness but some of his papers seem to have caused controversy as they ultimately lead to suggest racial differences. in colder places, the pressure for being energy efficient should be greater. if my thinking is on the right track, then the aesthetic appeal of the relevant culture should be greater than that in warm places. people and language are the carriers of culture. ppl’s look and language’s accent convey the aesthetic appeal of the culture.

    i have listened to different english accents on utube. i find some more agreeable than others. for example, scottish accent seems kind of cute but italian, indian or cantonese accent is less to my taste.

    in china, southern accent is generally viewed as less pleasant to ears. the official language standard is based on the northern dialect. based on what i have read, the french and german standard is also based on the northern accent.

    again, based on what i have read, study on accent is the new front of linguistics.