science of us

Linguists Explain Meghan Markle’s Apparent New British Accent

Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

So, does Meghan Markle have a new British accent or not? On the one hand, it certainly sounds that way in this clip that’s been making the rounds:

Then again, plenty of commenters have insisted that they don’t hear it. As people who unfortunately do not have unfettered access to Meghan Markle saying things, then, we may have to live with the fact that a short video clip isn’t enough evidence to say one way or the other whether she really does sound newly British.

But a better question might be: Could she have an accent this quickly?

Well, yes and no. Mostly no: No matter how long you spend in a new place, you’re never going to fully absorb the way they speak. “It can take years to become completely conversant in all features of a given speech variety, and most people, especially as adults, will never attain native-level fluency,” says Jevon Heath, a visiting lecturer in linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh.

That being said, though, it takes surprisingly little time for someone to begin picking up certain elements of a new accent and incorporating them into the one they already have. Linguists call this phenomenon “accommodation” or “convergence,” and it can happen with both words, such as regional slang, and sounds, Heath explains. With the latter, it’s called “phonetic accommodation” or “phonetic convergence,” and it tends to happen unconsciously, the same way someone from the Northeast might naturally pick up y’all after moving to Texas. The “semester abroad” accent is one example of the phenomenon happening relatively quickly; the “married a prince, moved across the ocean, and now spend most days surrounded by his posh royal relatives with nary an American in sight” accent may be another.

And to be fair, sometimes these new accents really are an affected attempt to sound different — but not as often as we typically think, says Jennifer Nycz, an assistant professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. “We value authenticity, and are suspicious of those who seem like they’re trying to be something they’re not,” she says. “But much of the accent shifting we do is not necessarily intentional, at least not on any conscious level.”

Our tendency to assume otherwise — that something is an affectation, rather than a real instance of convergence — stems in part from our confusion in categorizing people who speak in a sort of linguistic no-man’s land, straddling two accents rather than clearly adhering to just one. If someone speaks mostly, but not entirely, in an accent we know, “we may perceive them as an inauthentic speaker of that variety, rather than an authentic speaker of an unfamiliar variety,” Heath explains.

Compounding this suspicion is the fact that convergence can also happen on multiple levels, for a sort of mix-and-match accent effect. For example, Markle’s vowels might still sound American, but the lilt of the sentence might be less so. (Listen, for example, to the way she says “Oh, did you?” at the 14-second mark.) “Intonation patterns — the specific ‘melodies’ people use when making statements or asking questions — are often among the first aspects of accent that get picked up,” Nycz says.

And a geographic move isn’t the only thing that can necessitate a change in inflection. “All of us subtly shift our accents and ways of speaking depending on who we are talking to all the time — think about how you speak when you’re at home with your family versus at work,” Nycz says. It’s a phenomenon better known as code-switching: In ways both subtle and not so subtle, consciously or unconsciously, we tend to tweak the way we communicate depending on whom we’re with. “Generally, people talk like the people they talk to.” And if those people change, well, so does your speech.

Which, actually, comes in handy in multiple ways. One 2010 study found that imitating the accent of whoever you’re speaking to may help you better understand what they’re saying. It can also foster feelings of closeness, Nycz says: “By adjusting my speech to sound more like yours, I’m demonstrating that I want to reduce the social distance between us.” Tough to do, when you’re a newly minted duchess on a road trip with the queen, but every little bit helps.

Linguists Explain Meghan Markle’s New British Accent