Accents are sexy. Plain and simple. But here’s the million-dollar question: why? The study of accents reveals that sounds themselves don’t possess inherent beauty or ugliness; rather how one perceives accents largely depends on social and cultural associations. The same message is either good or bad, pretty or ugly, depending on how the message is packaged and whose ears are receiving it. Never was this better demonstrated in the Audrey Hepburn film My Fair Lady – Eliza’s native cockney accent is presented as harsh and cumbersome, whilst her newly-acquired standard English accent (Received Pronunciation) is seen (or heard) to be lovely and genteel. Classism at work right there. When we talk about harsh-sounding languages, we’re usually referring to languages that make sounds in the back of the vocal tract. These sounds are known as uvulars and pharyngeals – we are getting technical now – and they are made by contracting the tongue against the back of the throat (very sexy). To a lot of English speakers, German—a very uvular language—is notorious for sounding rough, harsh or generally unpleasant (I’m getting a little carried away – what would my German girlfriend say?) because of these unfamiliar throat sounds. However, take note dear readers, French, which is widely perceived as seriously sexy, is also a uvular language (mind blown)! How can the same sound be harsh in German and beautiful in French?!
The appeal of a certain accent depends entirely on the way people categorize the speakers from certain countries. We will often use an accent to group speakers into categories based on a general set of attitudes and behaviours that we think represent those speakers and, in turn, the countries they come from. In other words, people think certain accents sound attractive because of stereotypes – and stereotypes depend on the culture doing the stereotyping.
When you take a look at Western online polls about “the sexiest” accents in the world, the results usually show the accents of Western countries because these are the accents that resonate in popular culture; they are familiar and have more prestige…for Westerners. This will largely be to do with Western influence dating back to colonial times. It’s the West against the Rest. Meaning that discrimination is rife and that within sexy accents hierarchies exist. When a majority agree on a particular stereotype of the “other” community—and on what counts as attractive or non-attractive accents—it can lead to accent discrimination. And to think I started with the tagline “Accents are Sexy”.
Remember this, whether you melt to the lilt of Colin Farrell’s Irish accent or the vibrancy of Marion Cotillard’s French accent be aware that our accent biases might also unintentionally put others at a disadvantage. In a globalized world, it is important now more than ever to become familiar with and practice listening to a diversity of speakers so that what you hear is the content, not the accent – or to simply discover new accents and, in turn, new levels of sexiness.