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 by 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.

  • Most people would not address their grandmother with Yo!, or their boss with Hullo sweetie-pie, or their close friends with Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

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.

  • They may change their pronunciation a little (or a lot), or increase or decrease the frequency with which they use certain keywords. This process is called accommodation.

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

  • For most people the effect is more subtle, and they usually don’t even know they’re doing it.

Key concept

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

  • Accommodation is a common feature of spoken communication, which is sometimes conscious, but is often quite subtle and below the level of consciousness (i.e., speakers are not aware they are doing it).
  • Accommodation is generally not a wholesale shift in accent or speaking style (that would be parody), but rather occurs feature by feature.

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

  • Positive social relations or a desire for belonging may prompt a shift toward the speech of the interlocutor, while a desire to create social distance may be reflected in a shift away from the interlocutor's speech.

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

Methods

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 particular, the Eyemouth variety is rich in Scottish features, while Carlisle speakers use considerably more northern English features.

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

  • They looked at how the interviewer accommodated her speech to older and younger speakers from the two localities that she interviewed, by comparing the distribution of variants in her speech with the patterns in the communities.
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).

  • With traditional variants that are on their way out, she showed convergence with the community patterns, using them generally more with older speakers than with younger speakers.
  • With forms that are typically perceived as Scottish and traditional, such as f(r)ae as from, she made use of them far more frequently when speaking with older Eyemouth informants than with other speakers, to the extent that she overshot the actual high/low usage by the corresponding groups.

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:

  • Accommodation is unlikely for forms that are stable and near-categorical, such as coda-r (presence of /r/ in car in Scottish English vs absence in English English), where the speaker maintained a high percentage of realised coda-r regardless of her interlocutor.
  • Accommodation is much more likely for variables that are undergoing change, such as the (stereotypically) traditional Scottish use of ken to mean know, which appears to be dying out in the younger generation. In this case, the speaker frequently used ken with older Eyemouth informants, but not at all with younger Eyemouth speakers or Carlisle speakers.

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

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

accommodation > IMD

Meet the authors

Dom Watt & Carmen Llamas

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.