What a study of reality TV show 'Big Brother' revealed about changing accents
Jackie Dunham, CTVNews.ca
Published Friday, September 1, 2017 11:02AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 1, 2017 1:37PM EDT
Isolated for more than three months, recorded constantly, and with no one to talk to but their fellow contestants, the reality TV show “Big Brother U.K.” has provided researchers with the perfect setting to study how accents can change based on social interactions.
The new study, published in the scholarly journal Language by academics from McGill University, University of Chicago and University of Vienna, reveals that accents can vary greatly in daily conversations and not as much over time between individuals in the same closed environment for a medium length of time.
Much of the research out there that focuses on accent changes is limited to shorter time spans, such as a conversation, or longer periods, such as when someone lives in a new country for an extended period of time, the study said.
The “reality” of accent changes
In order to determine the slight changes in someone’s speech over a medium period of a few months, researchers looked to the popular reality TV show “Big Brother UK” for answers. In the series, contestants are closed off from the outside world in a house where they can only interact with each other as they vie to stay there for as many weeks as they can to win a cash prize at the end.
Because they are so insulated, the show gave the academics a “natural environment” to examine how social interactions alone can impact accents without any outside influence or distractions.
For the study, the authors transcribed 14.5 hours of recorded interviews with 12 of the competitors from the show’s 9th season in 2008 when they were in the show’s isolated “Diary Room.”
Using machine learning and speech recognition technology to aid their manual transcriptions, the linguists noted five variable aspects of a speaker’s accent and compared them to how long the person had been in the house. The technology allowed them to construct larger datasets than what is typically used in linguistic experiments.
Their findings suggest that adults’ accents can fluctuate quite a bit during daily interactions as speakers tend to mimic or imitate their conversation partners. However, when it came to longer-term change in accents over weeks and months, the results were less concrete.
Morgan Sonderegger, one of the study’s co-authors and an assistant professor of linguistics at McGill University, told CTV News Channel that they were surprised there wasn’t more long-term change in the contestants’ accents by the end of the show.
“People shift a lot from day to day in how they talk and that’s probably as a result of conversations with each other,” Sonderegger said on Friday. “You probably bounce around depending on who you’re talking to but that doesn’t often add up to longer-term change.”
The degree of variation in speech over the course of the test period was highly individual. Despite interacting with the same housemates away for the outside world for three months, the contestants didn’t all end up sounding the same.
Accents over time
The study’s authors said their results align with other research that suggests that language plasticity is common in adults in daily conversations or in the short term but that accents remain relatively constant over a longer course of time.
Of course, there are exceptions to that general conclusion and some accents can change more dramatically than others over a longer length of time.
“There are big differences between people in terms of how flexible their accents are over time. So we can think of people as sort of ‘changers’ and ‘non-changers’ in a sense,” Sonderegger said.
Take American pop-star Madonna for example. The famous musician has been ridiculed for years for assuming a “faux” British accent while she was living in the U.K.
Or former Hollywood “It” girl Lindsay Lohan, who debuted a mysterious new accent while she spoke to reporters in Greece in November 2016. The unidentifiable blend of American and Mediterranean with maybe some Eastern European in the mix had everyone scratching their heads. In explanation, she told the Daily Mail that it was simply a “mixture” of most of the languages she understood or was trying to learn at the time.
Whether genuine or forced, research suggests that accents and their fluidity over time is often dependent on the individual and difficult to study.