By September 20, 2014 4 Comments Read More →

“I don’t have an accent!”

language-books-on-shelf--007I often have difficulty being understood when I say “water” in my Australian accent. The word comes out sounding like wau-ta or wau-duh. So, in order to be understood, I usually put on my best American accent and pronounce my “r”. This morning, this approach didn’t fool the barista, so I had to repeat myself twice before finally resorting to saying, “H20…”  Then the penny dropped. (Although this tactic has failed upon occasion too…)

“Ah! You mean ‘Water!'” she realized. “You have an accent.”

“You do too!” I replied, although she looked rather perplexed, which suggested to me that she was probably thinking, “You’re the one with the accent. Not me…”

When we’re surrounded by a particular accent, it can be easy to perceive any accent different to yours as an “accent”, but to see your own accent somehow as the “norm.” I used to teach at San Francisco State University, and during a class discussion about accents one of my students insisted, “I don’t have an accent!” Some of her classmates agreed – believing that Texans and New Yorkers are the ones with accents. I assured them that they too have accents, and that they’re the ones that “have accents” according to Texans and New Yorkers…

To many people, an accent is something they don’t think they have. People from other states or other countries are the ones with accents. An accent is something laden with stereotypes, like a “dopey” Southern accent or a “gnarly” accent spoken by a SoCal surfer. Alternatively, an accent is seen as something foreign and exotic, like a “sexy” French accent, or a “laid-back” Aussie accent.

(It’s important for me to mention here that in linguistics, accent denotes pronunciation only, while dialect refers to both grammar and vocabulary, but not accent.)

It’s difficult to recognize another accent and dialect if you’re not attuned to hearing it. I often find in Thai, Korean, Japanese, and other Asian restaurants in the States that people are attuned to hear American English and can understand my husband clearly, but they can have difficulty understanding my Aussie English.Last week a friend-of-a-friend complimented me on my good command of English…

Woman 1: You speak such good English!
Woman 2: They speak English in Australia!

MV5BMTI0NDcyNzc1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjM4MzkxMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_ It’s confusing when someone obviously speaks the same language as you, but throws in an unfamiliar-
sounding word here and there. It takes exposure to become familiar with different dialects and accents. Australians are raised with television from the United States, New Zealand, England, Ireland, and other English-speaking countries, so we’re familiar with the different dialect and accent varieties of English.

However, Americans are often inundated with home-grown TV programs, aside from the occasional episode of Doctor Who. With Americans having a little exposure to British English, I am often mistaken for being British.

But this exposure is limited. For decades, television shows popular in other countries have been remade
specifically for American audiences. Shows such as The Office, Kath & KimThree’s Company (Man About the House in the UK), and Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son in the UK) are revamped for American TV with American accents, dialects, and humor.


The misconception that there is an “unaccented” form of speaking isn’t limited to English. My brother used to travel for work between England and Germany, and so he took some language lessons. One day his teacher told him:

“You speak perfect German without an accent!” she gushed. “You sound like you’re from Hannover!”

Obviously, Hannovarians have an accent, and that’s how we can tell they are (probably) from Hannover. An accent is like a linguistic fingerprint that can reveal information about our past and present. Forensic phoneticians analyze accents and can trace a person’s linguistic background with an astonishing degree of accuracy.

So, the next time someone implies that they don’t have an accent you can set them straight. We all have an accent!





Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

4 Comments on "“I don’t have an accent!”"

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  1. Jadehawk says:

    Ha. As someone whose family actually lives in/around Hannover and Braunschweig (which is close to Hannover but is the “home” of the specific accent in question), I can tell you that the folks there speak with a local accent as well; the only part of it that I tend to notice is that “k” ends up pronounced like “ch” a lot.

    Anyway, point being, “Hochdeutsch” isn’t even one accent, it’s several very similar ones.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    he only part of it that I tend to notice is that “k” ends up pronounced like “ch” a lot

    …You mean g, not k, right?

    “Hochdeutsch” isn’t even one accent, it’s several very similar ones.

    Or not so similar ones, once you leave the northern half of Germany. 🙂

  3. Ty Powell says:

    I had a similar experience on first going to England for an interview at Cambridge University. I was asked by another applicant I had befriended: “What accent is that of yours?”
    “I come from north Wales”, I said, “and what accent is yours?”
    He replied with a genuine tone of surprise: “I don’t have an accent”.
    You may have difficulty convincing many English private-school pupils and BBC television presenters (often the same thing) that they have an accent. But of course you are correct in your article. Accents are relative. Whoever you are, you have an accent (when in someone else’s patch) and you do not have an accent (when in your own patch).

  4. hally says:

    Something I hate is how some people weaponise accent. I grew up speaking RP and changed it because it’s so unpopular (and literally nobody else speaks it). I’ve never had problems in Europe but in Asia (because so many people lie about being native) they like to play accent detectives (but it’s actually malicious).. Yes, even people who are unable to string two English words together will tell you “no, you sound from X”. After 8 years of this cr*p I’m literally in therapy about this, so regretting travelling at all and get anxiety fits over it… Accent is identity, if you keep repeating I’m not something it ends up damaging my cultural identity. Also, part of the problem is racism because I’m mixed white with Brazilian/Japanese.. Ahh.. I’ve even contemplated quitting speaking in English altogether..

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