What size population is needed to maintain an accent?
September 3, 2012 3:36 AM   Subscribe

What size population do you need to maintain an accent?

English is spoken with a wide variety of accents (other languages too I understand, but let's just stick to English). And various accents stay fairly consistent over time. So big a population of people do you need to maintain the accent? Anyone got any examples of accents in English that reflect a very small population? And what about the other end - at what point do people think a very large population is likely to split into separate discernable accents? Or am I talking crap?
posted by jjderooy to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the answer, but I don't think population size alone is sufficient information to give an answer - you also need to look at the amount of cross contact between groups, at least.
posted by jacalata at 3:44 AM on September 3, 2012

posted by XMLicious at 3:46 AM on September 3, 2012

The answer could technically be 2. Couldn't it?
posted by postergeist at 4:06 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It has little to do with population size and everything to do with contact with other populations. One of the smallest clearly identifiable dialects of English is Ocracoke, which currently has less than a 1,000 speakers but is more threatened by increased contact with tourists than it is by the small size of the population.
posted by drlith at 4:29 AM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not about population size, but contact and communication. Most likely the smallest "accent" (well, dialect or more) of English is Pitkern.
posted by Jehan at 5:11 AM on September 3, 2012

I live abroad, and my kids talk English pretty much exclusively with me. They have my accent.

An interesting question might be how long does an accent take to evolve naturally and what the influences are (tv? Other languages' sounds). Could be interesting to look at how the Queen of England's accent has evolved since she was crowned. Youtube could help with that.

Just another thought. I remember a comedian making fun of England's accents, saying that the west country Bristol, Devon etc sound like yokel farmers with very rounded open-mouthed vowels then you move across through to London and it's got more tightly clipped vowels of the city dwellers, then in the East Country of Suffolk, you're back to the Yokel farmer accents. Urbanites have traditionally been more concerned with education and image, so how one talks is important, whereas for the rural populations, perfect pronunciation has not been a selection factor and so accents have evolved.

Also, I heard that accents mostly sound different because of the vowel sounds. There are only a few vowel sounds and if one starts to be used differently, all the others have to shift to take its place or there would be confusion. Eg in New Zealand the E sound in Bed is pronounced I like Bid. Then the I's sound has to shift to U the Hit is pronounced Hut etc. (NZers do correct me if I'm wrong)
posted by guy72277 at 5:30 AM on September 3, 2012

There are only about 700 people on Tangier's Island, VA yet they still maintain very distinct, almost Elizabethan accent.
posted by COD at 6:49 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a distinct accent in one town in my part of NJ that has to be less than 500 people, but is well known and carries on. I really don't think you'd require many people at all, and I'm not even sure contact is a determining factor, otherwise it wouldn't have lasted so long in such a densely populated, diverse region. I think it just requires tightly-knit communities/families.
posted by Miko at 7:19 AM on September 3, 2012

I am a linguist. The island I work on has an English-speaking population of 54 with a distinct accent (and non-phonetic dialectal features too). I'm sure you can go much lower than that too. One of the men on the island grew up in New Zealand in a family that originally came from the island and only consisted of about six or seven people living together. He had elements of the island's accent before he moved back to the island, although he also had elements of a New Zealand accent (some vowels one and some the other). So his family was kind of maintaining the accent.
posted by lollusc at 8:05 PM on September 3, 2012

Could be interesting to look at how the Queen of England's accent has evolved since she was crowned

This study has been done, but I don't have the reference off-hand.
posted by lollusc at 8:06 PM on September 3, 2012

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