What’s in an Accent?

The linguistics behind why we sometimes can’t hear what’s right in front of us.

IMG 0149 illustration accents code switch immigrants speech
(Tiny Thunder for The Juggernaut)

Vrinda Jagota


October 5, 2023


7 min

In the mid-2000s, Brown kids would throw around one punchline in conversation like a hacky sack: “Somebody gonna get-a hurt…real bad.” Canadian comedian Russell Peters says it tauntingly in a bit about what his father said right before he hit him for misbehaving. The joke poked fun at his white friends speaking rudely to their families with no repercussions, but also helped Peters process unsavory childhood experiences. But the segment, like much of Peters’s comedy about his Indian family, essentially caricatured his father’s way of speaking and asked us all to laugh at it.

Hearing Peters and his peers mock their parents even influenced me as a child to adopt a regrettable, thick accent when talking about anything my parents did or said. It frustrated my mother to no end. “If you’re going to do an accent,” she exclaimed once, “at least do an accurate version.” It was a revelatory moment because, as I listened to the way she spoke, I realized I couldn’t perceive an accent at all. It made my bit feel unnecessary — a performance of a difference I couldn’t even perceive. 

Accent is one of the most immediate markers of how and where we were raised, as well as who we aspire to be. Children usually adapt not to the mannerisms of their parents, but to those of their peers, namely the kids with whom they go to school. This means that children of immigrants generally speak differently than their parents. Interestingly, even after this linguistic divergence occurs, a tie to our parents’ way of speaking remains — whether in code-switching to take theirs on or in not hearing it at all. And scientists believe there’s more to the phenomenon than what meets the ear.

Join today to read the full story.


Already a subscriber? Log in