Tuesday, July 17, 2018
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Language experts weigh in: Has Meghan Markle copped a British accent?

A viral Twitter video from the June visit of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (Meghan Markle in your Twitter feed), to chat with the crowds in Chester has the interwebs debating. Has she picked up a slight British accent?

"Allo princess" mocked a headline from the U.K’.s Guardian, while a linguist on Yahoo News argued that anyone hearing a veddy, veddy British lilt is experiencing a "trick of the brain."

Luckily, we have Camilla Vasquez, Ph.D. She’s a Fulbright scholar and professor at the University of South Florida’s vaunted department of applied linguistics, with a current area of research that includes how people talk about language, and accent-related issues.

"It’s unlikely that she would acquire an entire accent very quickly," Vasquez observes.

But ask the larger question: What is an accent?

"It’s a collection of lots and lots of tiny little sounds and language features that we produce," she says. "So over time it’s pretty normal if you are immersed in an environment where people speak a certain way that you would adopt some of those characteristics of the speech of the local community."

When the California-born duchess sounded eerily like Bridget Jones when she said, "Thank yeeew" to a well-wisher, eyebrows went up.

And when she said, "Oh, did you?" when a person in the crowd told her they used to watch Suits, Londoners said that sounded like their slang.

And when she added, "Yes, we all had a great day, I think. The sun was shining for us," she sounded just so royal and fancy.

The professor isn’t buying it. Poppycock, as the British might say.

"Just like they are commenting if she is crossing her legs or not, or holding her husband’s hand in public, the language is also a feature they can comment on because it says something about her social identity, so it becomes the locus for this discussion. I think most would say no, not yet, but probably over time, she may, and that’s normal."

But maybe the argle-bargle says more about us.

Dennis Preston, a professor of linguistics at Oklahoma State University, told Yahoo News that not only has Meghan not ditched her California twang, but it would be a linguistic phenomenon if she had.

Preston’s explanation: "It’s your brain playing a trick on you."

She married an Englishman, she lives in England and she’s hanging with the queen. The context gets in our way, he says.

"People speak quickly and we don’t have time to decode each sound, so the brain tells us what to hear," he said. "Essentially, our brain gets in the way of our ear. So we hear what we expect to hear, rather than what we actually do."

Vasquez has another theory, one she is careful to stress is pure speculation. Don’t forget that the duchess is an actor.

"As a performer, you are used to using your voice as a tool to create different identities so you might be even more attuned and more sensitive to picking up those different nuances than you or I would be."

Like all of us, Vasquez admits:

"That’s just my own pet hypothesis."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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