People have all sorts of reasons for hiding their accents. Maybe they’re avoiding a collection agency on the phone. Maybe they’re running from a murky past or into a new life as a secret agent. Most likely they’re auditioning at a cable news network, where it behooves everyone to look and sound like the attractive robots that will eventually replace humans. Either way, we all have our reasons for burying those twangs and lilts and lingering vowel sounds deep inside.
But you know who doesn’t care about that? Alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t care if you prefer to sound like you’re British when you’re really from Michigan (ahem, Madonna). Booze doesn’t care if Jenna Maroney doesn’t want anyone to know of her deep swamp Floridian past. Sure, we use booze to be “better,” socially amplified versions of ourselves, which lasts a solid hour and a half or so before crippling social anxiety sets back in (the jerk). But one delusion alcohol is never a party to: accent defiance. In fact, a study by Cleveland State University says just the opposite happens. The drunker we get, the more our real accents come out.
It may be surprising, considering how easy it is (for some of us) to fake accents and do amazing Christopher Walken impressions. But our “real” accents live pretty deep inside; a previous study found that by 10 months, babies don’t respond to sounds that are outside their mother’s regional dialect. Even if the child goes on to adopt an entirely new way of speaking, that original accent remains, a dormant volcano of regional pronunciations just waiting for you to take that third shot of tequila.
Why does booze unlock the accent vault? It has to do with the same mechanisms that find us slurring after three (or seven) beers. “The brain loses its ability to control speech and accent,” according to the study. “The more alcohol a person consumes, the more difficult it becomes for the brain to control the way one pronounces words.” Slurring happens because “it’s harder to maintain the motor coordination and control needed for effective fine motor execution needed for speech production,” explains Cleveland State’s Dr. Amee Shah.
Shah works in the Research Laboratory in Speech Acoustics & Perception at the university and has some experience with the phenomenon of accent emergence, although not on account of a wild night out with university colleagues. “As an Indian speaker,” he says, “I have managed to modify my Indian accent on my own, but when I’m tired or my lips are freezing in the outside air in winter, I find it harder to pronounce the sound ‘v’ as in ‘Victor,’ as the easiest thing for my muscles and thinking is to purse the lips and say ‘w.’ He adds: “My Indian accent comes out faintly and surprises people.”
Clearly it isn’t just booze, but anything that requires cognitive re-prioritizing that could lead to your accent peaking its way out (e.g., when Kenneth the Page gets upset and he can’t get to talking nuh-uh). “Anything more than the simple gets affected,” says Shah. “We just don’t have enough cognitive resources available for it.” Which is why your drunk friend suddenly sounds like he’s from Texas, or Reese Witherspoon sounds a bit less legally blonde and a bit (just a bit) more intoxicatedly southern when she gets pulled over.
In a fun little twist, a recent opinion piece by speech lecturer Dean Frenkel at Victoria University in Australia hypothesizes that the Australian accent we know and love (thanks largely to Outback Steakhouse commercials and the seemingly unstoppable dominance of Australian actors) is quite possibly the product of drunkenness. Frenkel thinks the twangy, twisted Aussie accent isn’t just the byproduct of European settlers’ accents mixing with Aboriginal language and pronunciation, but the fact that “our forefathers regularly got drunk together.” He suggests that “through their frequent interactions [they] unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns.”
Does that mean if you’re Aussie and your “drunken accent” comes out, nobody will notice the difference?