Can we ‘save’ regional accents?

taken from http://altus.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/KingCanute.jpgHere’s a good question that someone posted to Reddit, Is there a way/method of preserving regional accents?”.

Now there’s a question to make a sociolinguist fidget!

Firstly, what makes it so important to save?  Or rather, what is it you are saving it from?  You see, despite our hankering for all things vintage, language is constantly changing.  Have a think about the words you and your friends used 10 years ago.  20 years ago even.  I bet they’re not the same.  Slang terms in particular have a tendency to change with fashions (for example, I rarely say ‘pants’ any more to describe something as being bad, and I definitely haven’t said ‘bad’ to describe anything as good since forever).  Regional accents and dialects work in much the same way.

There are subtle differences in the changes of accents that creep in over a number of years and go almost unnoticed.  I was recently fortunate enough to have a listen to some recorded interviews made in Taunton and Yeovil in the late 1970s / early 1980s (held in the British Library).  The interviews were with men in their 50s and 60s talking about folk dances.  It was fascinating stuff.  But some of the vowels were ever so slightly different from how one might hear them pronounced in those towns today.  It’s possible, if the interviewees are still alive, that they might even pronounce them differently themselves these days too.

Which brings me to my first point.  It might not be the regional accents that are changing.  It might be the speakers themselves.  This could be through a phenomenon known as ‘age-grading’ whereby a speaker can change the way they speak throughout the course of their lives because of different influences.  It might not be in a major way.  It could just be because they have retired, and don’t feel the need to talk in a certain manner any longer to communicate with colleagues, or maintain a standard within the office.  Or they have changed their speech due to other external influences.  Consider the Queen (if you will).  If you listen to any of her speeches from the mid-50s, and then listen to a speech she’s made in the past 10 years, her accent has changed dramatically.  She’s still what most would consider to be ‘posh’, but the accent she used in her youth is almost comical today.

Secondly, I would argue that regional accents are regional accents precisely because changes have occurred.  Trying to preserve an accent is like King Canute trying to hold back the tide.  It’s going to move slowly and eventually engulf you.  And as any sociolinguist would tell you, there are so many moving parts and factors that can make an accent particular to a region change that it would be like trying to spin plates.

I could continue to bring in more and more discussion about what could possibly influence an accent change, and more an more reasons as to why it is incredibly unlikely that an accent can be conserved.

Despite the best efforts of tourist boards wanting to sell a few mugs or t-shirts emblazoned with kitsch local phrases, the only real way to preserve a regional accent is to record it, and store the tape (or mpeg) somewhere safe.

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