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Changing Accents

January 9, 2008

A listener asks: How far apart do people have to live in order to have different accents?


Tomato versus tomahto. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Regional dialects can sound as different as foreign languages. Listener Ryan Willis of Florissant, Missouri wrote to ask how far apart people need to live in order to have different accents. Well, University of Pennsylvania linguist Bill Labov says it’s not a matter of distance.

BILL LABOV (University of Pennsylvania):
Language change is moving the dialects of America in different directions, and where that happens is very much like a fault line in geology.

Dialects might be separated by only a river, or a city block. Your dialect is largely dependent on what people are speaking around you when you’re young. But, contrary to popular belief, radio and television has very little influence on how we speak. If you have a science question, call us at 1-800-whyisit. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.