By | July 23, 2023
Scientists witnessed the birth of a new accent in Antarctica

Scientists witnessed the first stages of a common accent developing in Antarctica among its ever-changing population of scientists who spend months together at research stations on the isolated continent.

Antarctica has no native population or permanent residents, but it does have a temporary one community of researchers and support staff who live there part of the year on a rotating basis. During the summer months there are usually around 5,000 people live in Antarctica, but that drops to just 1,000 in winter.

While most scientists are there to study things like climate and biodiversity, this extreme habitat has created the perfect petri dish to investigate certain aspects of human behavior, culture, and sociolinguistics.

In 2019, a team from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich studied the phonetic change in accents among 11 “winters” recruited from the British Antarctic Survey. This included eight people born and raised in England (five in the South and three in the North), one person from the Northwestern United States, another from Germany, and finally one Icelandic person.

They recorded their voice at the beginning of study, then did four more re-recordings at roughly six-week intervals. During this time they worked closely together, socialized with each other and had limited contact with the outside world.

During the stay, the researchers noticed significant changes in their accents.

One of the most important changes was how the study group began pronouncing their words with longer vowels. Furthermore, there was evidence of linguistic innovation in the group. Towards the end of their stay in Antarctica, the inhabitants pronounced “ou” sounds – such as those found in the words “flow” and “disco” – from the front of the mouth, as opposed to the back of the throat.

The changes in accent were subtle, but significant enough to be measured acoustically and even predicted by a computational model.

“The Antarctic accent is not really noticeable as such – it would take much longer for it to become so – but it is acoustically measurable.” Jonathan Harringtonstudy author and professor of phonetics and speech processing at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, told IFLScience.

“It’s mostly an amalgamation of some aspects of the hibernation’s spoken accents before they went to Antarctica, along with an innovation,” Harrington added. “It’s much more embryonic [than conventional English accents] given that it had only a short time to develop and also, of course, because it is only distributed among a small group of speakers.”

As this study shows, close contact and isolation create the ideal conditions for a new accent to develop rapidly. The research also suggests that Antarctic hibernators, who all arrived on the continent with their own regional accent, began to closely influence each other’s speech and behavior, whether they knew it or not. It’s actually the same phenomenon that turned the English accent into the American (or Australian, Canadian, etc) one albeit on a much smaller and shorter scale.

It raises the question of what other new accents might emerge in response to people being introduced to new social environments. One scenario is the potential development of a Martian accent.

“The study shows that if you isolate a group of individuals, they will start to show the beginnings of a new spoken accent whose shape depends largely on the accent characteristics of the speakers that went into the mix,” Harrington told IFLScience. “We expect the same thing to happen if astronauts ever went on a mission to Mars.”

If humans manage to travel to the red planet and establish a colony on its dusty surface, their close contact and isolation is likely to foster a new accent very quickly. Over the course of generations, it can be very different from earthbound accents. After centuries, perhaps even a new Martian language could evolve.

[H/T: Human.1011]

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