Television often gets blamed for the ‘demise’ of the English accent, with people complaining that there is a distinct Americanisation of accents thanks to programmes like Friends or The OC (or whatever the young kids are watching these days!) , or everyone sounds like they are in an East-End soap opera.
While studying for my Masters, I investigated this idea as a factor that affects language change, and found from an assessment of the accents of Scottish school children by Jane Stuart-Smith that TV was a potential but, at that point, unlikely factor. Unlikely due to the lack of interaction with the television but potential because the more traditional models weren’t fully explaining the changes that had occurred.
Traditional models of Language Change require regular interaction with individuals of a different accent, whereby one of the two people adopts elements of the other’s accent. This often happens if one person is either more socially attractive (richer, more popular) or in a position of authority or celebrity (a boss, a teacher). This model of language change is called diffusion.
However, Jane Stuart-Smith at the University of Glasgow has been working with Professor Barrie Gunter, at the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester to study this further. They have found that merely watching a programme passively isn’t enough to cause a change in accent to occur. But actively getting emotionally involved with the characters and forming an attachment or affiliation to them can have an impact on choices of pronunciation. An impact, but not as strong as if individuals were interacting on a face-to-face level.
Yet TV is still a relatively new media when considered to the time-span in which language change can occur. Whereas nearly every home these days has a TV in it (or a means by which to watch TV programmes), it was only 60 odd years ago that TVs became so popular (accelerated in the UK by the Queen’s Coronation). Studies on how TV impacts language change have been in place for significantly less time.
The way we watch television is changing, though. Just 5 or so years ago, we watched what we were given, we had no control over the hours at which we watched programmes, unless we recorded them in some way, and social media wasn’t used anywhere near enough in live broadcasts as it is today (the scrolling Twitter-feeds along the bottom of some programmes like X-Factor or when they announced the new Doctor Who earlier in the year, for example). We now have TV on Demand through the magic of the Interweb; Facebook groups for fans; Twitter Feeds not only tweeting TV Shows directly, but allowing for a rolling commentary while a programme is broadcast; we can pause live telly, and restart it when we like. As I type I’m watching the glorious Malcolm Tucker ‘eff and jeff’ his way through The Thick Of It on Netflix, and even he has had an impact on our choices of language (note, not necessarily our choices of accent) with his unforgettable insults.
My point is that TV is changing towards a more interactive medium, which could potentially make it a stronger contender in the factors affecting language change. Which means this debate could run and run….