Can we still feel Scottish if we lose our accent?
This was the question Inès Brulard and Philip Carr wanted to investigate when looking at the changing speech patterns of Scottish politicians in Westminster. They argue that it is important to distinguish between conscious changes people make to their pronunciation, which may be connected to their sense of identity, and unconscious changes, which are different.
Looking, in particular, at the speech of Scottish politicians in the House of Commons in Westminster and in BBC interviews, Brulard and Carr investigated phonetic features including rhoticity (whether a person pronounces the ‘r’ in a word like first, as in Standard Scottish English but not in RP) and several vowel pronunciations. They found that Scottish politicians varied widely in their use of SSE and adopted RP features. For example, the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, exhibited no RP-like features in his analysed speech, leading a spokesperson for the party to describe him as “the authentic voice of Scotland, wi’ a guid Scots tongue in his heid’. On the other hand, fellow Scotsman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a member of the Conservative Party, exhibited stronger RP influences, but he stated later ‘I have never been conscious of having changed my accent’. So, how important is our sense of identity in this type of personal language change?
Brulard and Carr note that there are times when we can consciously change how we speak. One way of doing this would be through elocution lessons, when people might consciously try to move away from a perceived lower class manner of speaking to one that is viewed as being more upper class. However, this type of conscious act can’t explain all types of change. Frequently, people unconsciously accommodate to the speech of others, making their own pronunciation more similar to theirs without realising that they are doing so.
Considering research relating to the neurological investigation of language, Brulard and Carr note the distinction between procedural learning and memory (‘knowing how’) and declarative learning and memory (‘knowing that’). Procedural learning would be the establishment of particular habits associated with Scottish speech (such as how to make a particular vowel sound, or pronouncing the ‘r’ in words like first). Our feelings of identity, they suggest, rely on declarative memory or learning. This is the sense of consciously learning, for example, that one is Scottish or remembering certain events which relate to one’s Scottish childhood. Thus, when a child realises that they are speaking with a Scottish accent, they are putting a label of identity to a particular procedure (e.g. “I say it like this because I am Scottish”). It is this kind of conscious knowledge, they argue, that can feed into our sense of identity.
Following this, they tentatively propose that linguistic accommodation which is consciously driven (such as through elocution lessons or linguistic training) is done without activating a person’s sense of identity, whether this is national, regional, social or personal identity. Unconscious accommodation, on the other hand, does not necessarily affect our sense of identity.
This has implications for our general understanding of unconscious linguistic knowledge though, as Brulard and Carr show, this is a complex phenomenon to analyse.
It is not clear why some speakers should accommodate their linguistic behaviour more than others. This research suggests, though, that politicians like Sir Malcolm Rifkind who seem to have accommodated to RP without being aware that they have done so have not necessarily compromised their sense of being Scottish.
Brulard, Inès and Carr, Philip (2013) Variability, unconscious accent adaption and sense of identity: the case of RP influences on speakers of Standard Scottish English; Language Sciences 39: 151-155
This summary was written by Jenny Amos