The emergence of a rare accent may seem trivial, but it shines an interesting light on their instrumental use
Whether an accent is stressed or suppressed, intentionally, or otherwise, it is an undeniable signal of identity. By their very nature, accents operate as subconscious, almost autonomous beacons of perception.
Even those who pride themselves on reserving judgements will involuntarily process the minor presumptions that are associated to social categories, accomplishments and education that have influenced how a person is speaking. Now factor in the words being spoken, the context of the environment and the unique boundaries and exposures of each listener’s own personal background. There’s a lot going on. Accents are like meta-labels and they are prone to unwittingly conjuring a multitude of stereotypical and misguided assumptions. This is what makes rarer accents of the world’s most common languages so peculiar, and the Antarctic accent is no exception.
How does an Antarctic Accent even exist?
Yep, we'll use any excuse to post pictures of Penguins.
Antarctica is a freezing, inhospitable wasteland that has never had an indigenous population. So, one might wonder how the legitimate formation of an Antarctic accent is even possible. The answer is, of course, the 66 remote science bases of which 37 are occupied all year round. This equates to an international melting pot of 4,000 science operatives through the summer months and about 1,000 over winter. The Rothera and Halley bases in Antarctica, operated by the British Antarctic Survey, were the first to recognise the emergence of an ‘Antarctic accent’.
Both sites are run all year round and have around 200 inhabitants between them in the Summertime. In the long eight months of Antarctic winter, approximately 30 to 45 people are responsible for keeping the stations functioning. Antarctica’s hostile weather conditions make it completely inaccessible during winter, so staff are isolated from the rest of the world. And curiously, these scientists noted a change in how they speak.
In 2019, a fascinating study in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America looked at how vocal phonetics of the scientists changed over the Antarctic winter. The study measured their vocal characteristics before and then during their visit. The linguists recorded the scientists' voices speaking at regular intervals, and they compared the results to a computational model used to predict changes in their accents. They found that the scientists showed similar incremental shifts in how they speak were aligning with the predictions of the computation model of the emerging Antarctic accent's attributes.
What are the Antarctic accent's characteristics?
The linguists in that study found that the proximity of the scientists from different nationalities developed into a distinct shared accent. Unsurprisingly, the Antarctic accent is a mix from different regions of the world. Each scientist's vocal characteristics were contributing to its development. As the different scientists began speaking similarly to one another, each also began to lose some of their native characteristics and particularly, vowel sound changes. Over the duration, all of the scientists showed progressive differences in speech, continuously supporting the development of a new shared accent.
The attributes of this new accent begin with the vowel length increasing by up to 30 milliseconds. The most pronounced change was in the 'oo' sound in words liked cooed. The Antarctic accent shifts where in the mouth the 'oo' sound is produced. For most of the study's participants, the 'oo' sound changed from being made at the back of the mouth, moving in the middle to near-back direction. This process is known as vowel fronting.
So, how is any of this relevant?
In the context of voice-over (because this is what we do!) the subtle, foundational influences and characteristics of rare accents reveal broad and important principles about the casting of voice actors for a project. Identifying and selecting an accent, whether unusual or common, should always be a tactical process. For instance, here are four classic accent stereotypes that could either work for you or against you:
– A distinct local accent evoking an instant sense of familiarity and accessibility.
– A cultivated, upper-class accent provoking a notion of prestige and wealth.
– A markedly foreign often conjuring an impression of honesty and independence.
– An unusual accent that is difficult to recognise, delivering a sense of mystery and intrigue.
The key point is this. Every accent triggers typecast associations and a listener will either become curious or jarred when they hear one that doesn’t sound common to that locale or environment.
So, producers and casting directors beware: you might forgive yourself for cutting corners with your accent selections but your audience won’t. Budgetary limitations, time constraints or even a lack of genuine interest can lead to thoughtless accent selections that are wholly out of context.
Retuning to the Antarctic accent, there are obvious limitations to its use outside of well, Antarctica.
However, the foundational influences behind the Antarctic accent are not dissimilar to other nomadic, world-traveller accents and these are becoming increasingly sought after. Here at Voquent, we work with thousands of projects each year and Transatlantic English, Euro-Neutral English and International English are all popular choices for a wide range of mediums. From global TV commercials to character voices in futuristic video games.
In the creative industry, the emergence of rare and unique accents doesn’t represent a shift in demand from traditional, local dialects. But, it does suggest that accents almost have a life of their own and there is perhaps a future that awaits us where geographic origins will have a very different influence on how we are perceived.
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