Accommodation across borders

The study in a sentence

When talking to speakers from different social groups (who speak different varieties), a speaker may accommodate to their speech. 

This involves reacting to their social characteristics and altering the frequency with which she produces linguistic forms that index those respective groups.

The question

Everyone changes the way they talk to some extent when they talk to different people. 

Changing the words you use with different social groups is one fairly obvious way in which we change our language in response to who we’re talking to, but people change their speech in response to others in more subtle ways as well. 

In its extreme, accommodation can be found in a complete change of dialect (or even language) depending on who they’re speaking to. 

Key concept

Accommodation is the process by which speakers shift their style, lexical choices, pronunciation, etc. in response to the speech of their interlocutor. 

Whether conscious or not, accommodation of particular linguistic features is motivated by social relations and attitudes

How does a speaker accommodate to speakers with different social groups who speak different language varieties?

What kinds of linguistic forms show accommodation?

Flags of England and Scotland


The authors analysed the speech of a Scottish English speaker who conducted sociolinguistic interviews along the Scottish–English border; this is a significant linguistic boundary between the vastly different varieties of Scottish English and (northern) English English. 

In their investigation, the authors selected a range of phonological, discoursal and lexical features. 

Use of f(r)ae by speaker (black) with different interlocutors (white) (O: older; Y: younger; E: Eyemouth; C: Carlisle)

The Answer (1)

The interviewer accommodated to the speech of her interviewees by responding to their social characteristics: national identity (Scottish/English) and age (older/younger).

Thus, the interviewer's pattern of accommodation is strongly influenced by the perceived social categories of the informants, which are indexed by the forms in question.

Use of "Scottish" variants by speaker (black) with different interlocutors (white) in stable (left) vs unstable (right) forms (O: older; Y: younger; E: Eyemouth; C: Carlisle)

The Answer (2)

The speaker did not exhibit accommodation in all linguistic features, but the selection of features that show accommodation is not random. The authors found that the main factor behind whether a feature is accommodated to is its stability in the community:

Contrary to previous suggestions by other linguists investigating dialect contact, it does not seem to matter whether the linguistic variable is a phonological, discoursal or lexical one.

Classroom activities

Lead in task

Exploring how a speaker accommodates to other social groups in their lexical choice of greetings

Extension task

Recognising features of accommodation in natural speech and exploring its relevant context and motivations

More like this

Some more teaching ideas on this topic area

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

accommodation > IMD

Meet the authors

Dom Watt & Carmen Llamas

Dom and Carmen teach modules on sociolinguistics and phonetics, including Language & Identity and Forensic Linguistics

Read the paper

Watt, D., Llamas, C., & Johnson, D.E.. (2010). Levels of linguistic accommodation across a national border. Journal of English Linguistics, 38(3), 270–289.