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Why Do We Change the Way We Speak Depending on Whom We’re Speaking to?

In a recent BBC article, subtle changes in Meghan Markle’s accent following her marriage to Prince Harry were brought into question. The Duchess of Sussex hails from California, but linguistics experts have noted that, recently, she has begun slipping in and out of more British inflections, pronunciations, and expressions. Marisa Brook, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, even suggested that Markle has “developed a style that sounds very English-aristocratic for interacting with the public.”

Markle’s not the only one whose changing speech patterns have come under scrutiny. Since switching from a spotlight garnered via sensational wealth and reality TV into political life, Ivanka Trump has been cited for enunciating her words more, hardening the ‘T’ sounds that often get rolled over in American English (think of the ‘T’s’ at the end of the word ‘that’ or ‘thought’ – they are usually softened to sound more like ‘d’s’), and for almost completely relinquishing the use of contractions.

And then there’s Lindsay Lohan, whose penchant for accent switching has left a lot of her fans scratching their heads. Though she says her new sound is a mixture of all the different languages she claims to understand or be learning – English, French, Russian, Italian, Arabic, and Turkish – experts say that these languages do not have the vowel characteristics that Lohan has been putting on, and that the accent is more likely an affect of Lohan’s own making.

So, what’s going on here? Though Lohan’s colorful barrage of strange inflections and pronunciations may not compare to Markle occasionally pushing a vowel sound further back in her mouth than a typical American might, all of the changes above appear to stem from a similar linguistic phenomenon, which is one that everybody partakes in to varying degrees. It’s called accommodation, and it is the practice of adapting one’s speech – either consciously or unconsciously – depending on whom one is speaking with.

Convergence Versus Divergence

Linguistic accommodation can be broken down into two categories – convergence and divergence. As the names suggest, convergence entails changing one’s speech – including pronunciation, pause and utterance lengths, and vocal intensities – to match, or converge, with the speech of another. Oftentimes, convergence is motivated by a desire to reduce social differences.

A simple example of convergence can be seen in the way that young people speak to the elderly. They tend to avoid using slang or speak more slowly and draw upon different cultural references than they would use amongst peers of their own age. In fact, young people converging toward elderly ways of speaking is so common that when it doesn’t happen, it can strike us as outlandish.

The second form of accommodation is divergence, and again, the definition is pretty self-explanatory. In opposition to convergence, divergence occurs when a speaker accentuates speech differences, often in order to establish dominance or power. A good example of this would be a recent college graduate who becomes a professor and needs to find a way to establish authority in a classroom of students that are around his or her age. One way to do this would be to diverge away from student speech patterns by maintaining formality and resisting mirroring students’ habits of inflection, pause lengths, etc.

Psychological Implications

Convergence and divergence happen in varying degrees almost every time people engage in conversation – think of your friend whose expressions you find yourself adopting when you spend lots of time around them, or how your speech changes when you’re talking to your boss versus your significant other. Everybody participates in accommodation, but the degree to which they do so can provide some interesting psychological insights.

The similarity-attraction theory posits that “the more similar our attitudes and beliefs are to those of others, the more likely it is for them to be attracted to us.” Convergence is thus a mechanism that we naturally use to become more similar to people that we like to make them more attracted to us.

But there is a power dynamic inherent to interpersonal convergence. Convergence has a tendency to veer in the direction of the speech patterns of the interlocutor with the higher status in the situation. This is why, during a job interview, the interviewee is almost always the one making every effort to accommodate and adapt to the way that the interviewer is speaking, rather than vice versa. In general, speakers with a higher need for approval and/or reduced attachment to their cultural or linguistic identity tend to converge more to the people they are speaking to. In contrast, people on the receiving end of a high level of convergence tend to develop greater self-esteem and satisfaction than those who receive very little accommodation.

What Can We Infer About Meghan, Lindsay, and Ivanka?

So, when we look back at Markle’s case, there may be a few different things going on. To begin with, as somebody who is immersed in a different linguistic group than that which she hails from, it follows that as she comes to identify more with that group, she converges to their speech patterns. This is normal for almost anybody who moves to a place where people speak with a different accent or in a different language, though changes in speech take place at differing rates depending on the psychological factors discussed above. In situations where it bodes well to sound British and aristocratic, Markle might – consciously or unconsciously – play up her accent. As linguist Marisa Brook says, “It’s not that she is changing who she is…It’s like she’s changing how she dresses.”

In the cases of Lohan and Trump, similar forces seem to be at work. With Lohan, says socio-linguist Roslyn Burns, the accent may be an attempt “to mark herself as a member of a certain community, be that ‘global citizen,’ ‘non-American English speaker,’ or what have you.” As someone who seems to identify little with her own cultural or linguistic identity, she converges toward the linguistic profiles of others as a means of marking herself as a member of these groups.

And in Trump’s case, the hardening of ‘T’ sounds – which adds a British twang to American English – is usually associated with aristocratic speech, as is the omission of contractions. Trump may be trying to appear more sophisticated and identify with the political class by making these subtle changes.

Ultimately, people tend to judge accommodation based on what they perceive its motives to be. Within the limits of what is deemed to be appropriate (i.e. most people wouldn’t take offense if I adopted a slight British accent after a year in England, but would find it absurd if I started speaking like Kate Winslet after two weeks), convergence tends to be viewed positively, while divergence tends to be viewed negatively. And depending on where we stand in cultural and linguistic relation to public figures and celebrities, we draw our own conclusions about changes we perceive in their speech patterns. But we also play with converging to their speech patterns ourselves (i.e. we all converged a little bit to Drake-speak when we started saying YOLO). Contrary to analysis that says that changing the way we speak situationally makes us fake or disingenuous, accommodation theory tells us that – within reason – this is completely natural.

Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.

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