Amy Briscoe, The Independent
Harry Styles perplexed fans during a recent interview with Zane Lowe as he spoke with an odd mix of an Australian and American accent, with a British twang thrown in for good measure. “I cannot stomach the change in his lovely northern accent,” one listener mourned.
Harry may not realise it, but he is at the helm of a big language shift influenced by our digital world. Fellow bandmate Liam Payne also sparked controversy earlier this year, flitting from Irish, Midlands to American at this year’s Oscars ceremony.
They are not alone, as other celebrities have had their transatlantic tones scrutinised in the past. Singer Joss Stone was critiqued for her transatlantic twang back in 2008. Millie Bobby Brown, of Stranger Things fame, also speaks with a blend of American and British accents, despite growing up in Dorset in the south of England. I know, I couldn’t believe she wasn’t American either.
Languages change and evolve throughout our lives. During conversations, we naturally pick up other people’s accents. This is an unconscious process that occurs when we are conversing with people who speak in a different variety.
Sometimes we shift our language as we perceive they may be using a more prestigious variety. This is called the “chameleon effect”.
Language is entwined in identity after all. If you appear like your conversational partner, you are more likely to be liked. People are so in tune with these subtle linguistic signals that they don’t even register them. Linguist David Crystal said that if you like someone you talk like them — maybe Harry Styles wanted Zane Lowe to like him?
If we recorded ourselves every day, we would find our language use and accent altering too. We are all guilty. I have found myself increasingly using American words, grammar and vocabulary; my partner repeatedly calls me out for saying “schedule” with a hard k rather than with a softer sh sound.
The advent of the internet, the influence of streaming channels and the omnipresence of American culture have had a huge impact. We often think of American influence as a new phenomenon, but it first started over a hundred years ago. A transatlantic accent is a mixed form of British and American speech, consciously adopted and used by the upper-class American elite in the 1920s. It was widespread during the golden age of Hollywood with stars such as Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant speaking the prestigious vernacular.
A century later a whole new generation has revived the transatlantic accent in a brave new digital world. The TikTok drawl has been featured as a narrator’s voice across social media platforms, led by influencers who speak to the camera and broadcast in forward-facing videos.
TikTok is particularly influential on our language because we listen to people on it, not just read their thoughts on a screen, as we do on Twitter and Facebook, creating a sense of intimacy and trust. It is the digital equivalent of a conversation. We are so receptive to it because that is how we learned language way before the dawn of the internet, through seeing and hearing all at once.
Digital platforms like TikTok are also powerful as they enable us to get a glimpse into communities and types of speech and language that would have been impossible to access earlier. They have become a playground for our speech, where people experiment with the way they sound, using voice changes and music clips, in the same way they use filters to appear a certain way.
In turn, these platforms give users a space to carve out their own identities. It is one of the things that make us human. Young people have always brought about language change through popular culture, long before TikTok — from the transatlantic accents of Hollywood talkie films to Cher Horowitz in Clueless, who popularised the “Valley Girl” accent in the Nineties.
We live our lives enmeshed in digital media. Harry Styles would have been part of the first generation to experience their entire lives online, and in the real world, simultaneously. Is it any wonder that these two worlds have enmeshed, and it is affecting the way we speak?
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