What makes certain accents sexy and others harsh?
“The RINE in SPINE fawls MINELY on tha PLINE!” In the song “The Rain in Spain” from the musical My Fair Lady, phonetics professor Henry Higgins (‘enry ‘iggins) pleads with Eliza Doolittle to say “Ay not I, O not Ow.” By the end of the song Eliza’s “AY-ing” and “O-ing” and pronouncing all her H’s. The guttersnipe is on her way to becoming a fair lady.
What is it that makes Eliza’s native cockney accent sound harsh and her newly-acquired standard English accent (called Received Pronunciation) sound lovely and genteel?
The study of accents reveals that sounds themselves don’t possess inherent beauty or ugliness; rather how one perceives accents largely depends on social and cultural associations. The same message is either good or bad, pretty or ugly, depending on how the message is packaged and whose ears are receiving it. My Fair Lady demonstrates this with different regional varieties of native English, but the same principles apply when looking at English spoken by a nonnative speaker, with a French, German, or Chinese accent, for example.
What is an accent?
An accent is basically the way a person shapes her mouth, moves her lips, and flaps her tongue while forming words; so it’s how a person speaks. Everyone has an accent, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. If you speak, you have an accent.
A ton of social information is wrapped up in the way a person pronounces her words—and the way the listener perceives them. Among other things, accents give away information about age, social status, ethnicity, and whether or not the language is the speaker’s native tongue.
Do we prefer our own accent over others?
Being able to hear differences in accents might be biological. Babies as young as five months can tell the difference! Scientists discovered that infants pay more attention to people speaking in their native accents than those speaking in a foreign accent. Kids are more likely to accept toys from native speakers and to befriend other children who speak in the same way they do.
This makes sense, from an evolutionary standpoint, given that the babe is being socialized to join a community of like-speaking people who share values and can communicate with each other. This also means, though, that from a really early age, people develop what’s called own-accent bias, or (in terms of the wee baby), a preference for the accent that’s used by all the others in the environment.
That also means accents distinguish who’s in the in-group and who’s in the out-group. Depending on how the out-group accents are treated by the in-group, this can have a number of effects—from viewing an out-group (or foreign accent) as exotic and alluring to perceiving it as ugly or inferior.
How do language sounds affect accent perception?
When it comes to languages in general, the sounds of any language aren’t inherently sexy or stupid. According to linguist Guy Deutscher, author of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, some sounds might be perceived as harsh or weird simply because they are unfamiliar. Moreover, languages using rarer sounds are “more likely to be perceived as less alluring” to those who aren’t accustomed to hearing them.
In an interview with The Guardian, phonetics and speech expert Dr. Patti Adank suggested “languages such as Thai or Mandarin can sound harsh because they are using tonal distinctions. It sounds very unnatural and unexpected” to English speakers.
Dr. Lisa Davidson explained to the Huffington Post “when people talk about ‘harsh-sounding’ languages, they’re usually referring to languages that have sounds made in the back of the vocal tract.” These sounds are known as uvulars and pharyngeals, and they are made by contracting the tongue against the back of the throat. To English speakers, German—a very uvular language—is notorious for sounding rough or “like gagging” because of these unfamiliar throat sounds.
But French, widely perceived as beautiful, is also a uvular language! How can the same sound be harsh in German and beautiful in French?
Accents and stereotypes
According to sociolinguists, the appeal of a certain language or accent depends on the ways people categorize the language speakers. People often use an accent to group speakers into categories based on a general set of attitudes and behaviors that they think represent those speakers (and more broadly, the countries they come from). In other words, people think certain accents sound attractive because of stereotypes. And, of course, stereotypes depend on the culture doing the stereotyping.
So, the sexiest accents are totally subjective?
When you take a look at Western online polls about “the sexiest” accents in the world, the results usually show the accents of Western languages front and center (because in the scheme of things, those are more familiar and have more prestige . . . for Westerners). It might also have something to do with the history of colonization of the rest by the West.
On these polls, French and Italian vie for the “most attractive” accents, as their countries are stereotypically associated with romance and lovey stuff, like poetry, good food, and fine wine. The tropes of the sexy French coquette (e.g., Brigit Bardot) or zesty Italian bella donna (e.g., Sophia Loren) likely contribute to those accent stereotypes, as well.
So, while French and German accents share uvular sounds, German doesn’t usually appear at the top of the “sexiest” list. And, the reason is likely because of the cultural stereotypes English-speakers have about Germany. They associate German culture with the studiousness and discipline required of scientists (like Einstein) or auto engineers (for German brands like Audi and BMW). Also, it’s hard not to disregard Germany’s tragic history. Maybe if more Heidi Klums and Michael Fassbenders hit the scene, the German accent would be smoking at the top.
Other sexy accents include southern Irish, considered especially pleasing to the ear by people in England and in the UK. Must be that beautiful rolling green countryside.
For American ladies, a British accent is hottest, according to a survey by travel dating website MissTravel.com. This isn’t surprising given its associations with educatedness and posh status. For decades in the Golden Age of Hollywood, actors spoke in an accent that blended the best of both accents (of course this is a biased point of view): the Mid-Atlantic accent, popularized by Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, comprised aspects of Standard American and Standard British to evoke high class and breeding.
On the other hand, ranking lowest on Babbel’s list of sexiest accents in the world are Russian, Dutch, and Turkish. Babbel doesn’t describe poll-takers’ specific reasoning behind these subjectively “less sexy” accents. Instead, it offers the same explanation that sociolinguists suggest drives such judgments: social evaluation of the speaker and not the speech per se. But, for every stereotype of the Russian alcoholic villain and the stoned Dutch guy in clogs, there’s a Milla Jovovich and Michiel Huisman (Danaerys’s hot Dutch lover on Game of Thrones—who’s not blonde and blue-eyed, thus shattering another of our stereotypes about Dutch people).
Are all British accents the same?
Ok, so we know a lot of American females swoon over British blokes. But, when they clicked “British” on MissTravel’s poll, which British accent were they referring to? According to one linguist’s estimate, there are at least 56 different varieties!
A couple interesting studies show just how subjective and culturally/regionally-dependent accent perception is. A British Airways poll questioned American preferences about regional UK accents. The Americans thought the accent from Glasgow was the sexiest, but according to a separate linguistic study, British people think the Glaswegian accent is one of the worst in social attractiveness. In the reverse, British people considered a New York accent sexy, but Americans associated it with “impatience, money, and trouble.”
One person’s trash is another person’s hottest accent, be it broadly generalized accents from one country or another, or regional, even neighborhood, varieties. These examples go to show that accent hierarchies exist only because individuals create them to suit their own totally subjective preferences, based on their stereotypical understandings (or lack thereof) of the cultures associated with those accents.
Can discrimination happen because of accents?
Of course, this means that accent hierarchies do exist. When enough people in an in-group community agree on particular stereotypes of out-group communities—and on what counts as allowable and non-allowable, or attractive or non-attractive accents—it can lead to accent discrimination.
At the end of the day, even though nothing in language is inherently (un)attractive, language is a social institution used by imperfect social beings who bring a lot of judgments to the table, and those judgments create myths about attractiveness. As sociolinguist Dr. Vineeta Chand told The Guardian, “We spend a lot of time in linguistics dispelling myths and the notion of hierarchical languages in terms of attractiveness . . . .” In the scope of research on accents, there are actually fewer rigorous studies on accent attractiveness than one might expect. That’s because, according to Chand, labelling languages as attractive or not is “a dangerous game” that “open[s] a can of worms you don’t really want to encourage.”
So, while it’s fine to drool over Sofia Vergara’s Columbian accent or drip to the floor like butta when Liam Hemsworth opens his mouth, be aware that our language biases might also unintentionally put others at a disadvantage. In a globalized world, it’s important now more than ever to become familiar with and practice listening to a diversity of speakers so that what you hear is the content, not the accent.