Opinion: while it is impossible to speak without an accent, it is something which is ultimately controlled by ourselves.

Despite the fact that many people believe they do not speak with an accent, the reality is that it is impossible to speak without an accent. Our accent is the result of a number of factors, but it is principally dependent on how, where, when and under what circumstances you acquired your first language. Speech patterns develop very early in life, with some research suggesting the acquisition of this element of one’s first language actually begins in the womb.

One of the most interesting aspects of our accent is that it is ultimately controlled by ourselves. There are numerous factors, some which we are consciously aware of and others that we are not, that impact on the way we produce our accent. On a daily basis, we play with our accent depending on where and with whom we are talking.

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, a report on how American actors are trained to do Irish accents

All accents carry value, a concept referred to academic literature on languages as linguistic capital, that is the idea that some languages/dialects or accents are considered to be more valuable than others. For example, speakers of certain accents can be considered to belong to different social classes. In almost every country, there is a national understanding of accents that imbue characteristics of low or high prestige social classes.

For an island which is geographically very small, Ireland has an incredibly diverse accent culture, which is part due to our very complicated relationship with the English language. While we acknowledge and use the writing system of standard British English, the spoken distinctiveness of Irish-English has always focused on the filtering of its clear diction and pronunciation through the prism of the Irish language.

Key accent features that mark us as speakers of Irish English that can be linked to the sound system of the Irish English include the reducing of the "th" sounds to "t" in words such as three, which is often pronounced as "tree". While the clear influence of the Irish language may have changed to the degree to which these factors are present over time, it is remains a key accent feature to the present day. 

Accent is a key maker of your identity and one would expect language play amongst the sector of the population who is seeking out and trying on new identities.

In local terms, key accent and dialect features are hugely important, something which the Together for Yes campaign has highlighted through their creation of badges in regional variations of yes e.g. Limerick together for Yurt, Cork together for Yeah, like.

Equally, in the context of the rapid global spread of the English language and the rise in the influence of American media on the spoken characteristics of Irish English, it is not uncommon for media discourse to lament the rise in American-sounds in the speech of young Irish adolescents. It is unquestionable that core aspects of a media-based American accent are evident amongst this sector of our population.

From RTÉ Radio One's Mooney Goes Wild, Professor Jeffrey Kallen, Head of Linguistics and Phonetics at Trinity College Dublin, on how Irish teens appear to be picking up their accent from American TV shows

For example, there is a wide flattening of the "t" sound where words like "party" get to pronounced as "pardy" and an increased use of "up-talk", an accent feature where a pattern of rising intonation (as if someone is asking a question) is evident. While, some people may find these features irritating, the fact is that is perfectly normal language behaviour for young adolescents. Accent is first and foremost a key maker of your identity and one would expect language play amongst the sector of the population who is seeking out and trying on new identities.

As human beings we are obsessed with labels and putting people into boxes and accent is one of the key tools we use to judge others

Ultimately, what is most divisive about accents is their ideological character. As human beings we are obsessed with labels and putting people into boxes and accent is one of the key tools we use to judge others. This can be for both comic effect and for something much more sinister. It is here that the media plays a key role. It is through media representation that we learn about what labels a voice from a certain context should carry.

During the Celtic Tiger years, an audibly distinct Irish accent was heard on mainstream media and in the middle class areas of Dublin city, namely Dublin 4 or D4. The accent which has subsequently been referred to as "Dortspeak" was all about being upwardly mobile and the need for an accent that immediately let a speaker of the accent become associated with ideas of wealth, cosmopolitanism and "new" Irish.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, a discussion on the D4 accent with Michael Fortune, folklore expert and film-maker, and Vera Regan, Professor of Socio Linguistics at UCD

The D4 accent subsequently became a source of ridicule, particularly in the Ross O’Carroll Kelly series of novels, but this did not give rise to a more favourable perception of the capital city's other main accent, the inner-city northside accent. This accent is one that is associated in the media with criminal activity, not least because of the exaggerated use of the accent in RTE’s hugely successful crime drama Love/Hate.  

An individual’s accent tells you nothing other than where they are from and it is certainly not a factor you should use to make judgements on their character

RTE’s responsibility as the national broadcaster is to ensure we receive media content in all voices present in the society. While the broadcaster has made considerable effort to do so in the last number of years with, for example, the hiring of regional news correspondents, it is still the case that the key news bulletins are presented by anchors using what my colleague, Professor Helen Kelly Holmes, describes as "the new Irish media voice", one which is recognisably Irish, drawing largely on the key accent features of Dublin, but lacking on real distinctive local flavour of the presenters themselves.

In studying accents, I am not concerned with whether sounds of one accent are more beautiful or more correct than another, rather with the social consequences of the perception of one accent as being more valuable than another. The UK based project on Accentism, the form of racism inflicted on people because of the way they speak, is certainly something we see happening in the context in Ireland and a form of racism we should try to erase. An individual’s accent tells you nothing other than where they are from and it is certainly not a factor you should use to make judgements on their character.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ