Guest blogger: Accent and pronunciation

By Ricard Giner
Has anyone noticed that people confuse "accent" with "pronunciation" or am I alone in thinking that there is a meaningful distinction? I will explain. Often people say, of a person who is not a native speaker of, for example, French, that they have a "good French accent" when they are perceived to be speaking the language well. This common response confuses and conflates two very distinct phenomena, which for practical purposes are best labelled differently. The most promising candidates are "accent" and "pronunciation".
What these people mean when they say this is that the person in question has a good French pronunciation. A "good French accent" is what you’d get if a person was good at speaking with French vocal mannerisms when speaking in a language other than French. It’s something an actor would be doing, for example. My point is that there are two linguistic phenomena: one occurs when the specific inflections and audible idiosyncrasies that are specific to a language are being vocalised during the speaking of that language – I call this pronunciation, and this may be good or bad, right or wrong, or belong to some regional variation or dialect. The other, which I call accent, occurs when the specific inflections and audible idiosyncrasies that are specific to a language are being vocalised during the speaking of another language. So someone speaks English with a French accent, or French with an English accent. But someone doesn’t speak French with a French accent or English with an English accent.
Unfortunately this is made more complicated by the fact that they can of course speak those languages with regional accents of that language, which appears to contradict my point that pronunciation is associated with the same language and accent with another language. It seems that the line can be drawn with dialects, when pronunciation can become accent. Perhaps in this case, when a sufficient amount of verbal material is pronounced differently, you get an accent. But this aside on regionalisms makes no difference to the central point that accent and pronunciation have significantly different meanings in the context of complete linguistic otherness.
To increase the problem yet further, this irritation I have with people who don’t seem to make the distinction isn’t helped by the etymology of the words. The first appearance of "accent" (taken from this excellent etymology website) in the English language seems to date back to 1538, meaning "particular mode of pronunciation", ultimately from the Latin accentus – "song added to speech", from ad- "to" + cantus "a singing," pp. of canere "to sing". And for pronunciation , which dates back to 1430 in English, we have the definition "mode in which a word is pronounced". So no real help there then.
My purpose here is twofold: (1) to introduce a pragmatic reason for a substantial semantic distinction between "accent" and "pronunciation, and (2) to see what other people think.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:11+00:00 April 29th, 2005|Guests, Technical corner|7 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. céline April 29, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Phil on the French side gives Jodie Foster as an example of a non-French speaker who has “a good French accent”. Would you not agree that an anglophone speaking French could be said to have a good French accent as well as pronunciation if she, say, pouted and shrugged a lot, and used lots of “oh la la” type expressions (I know these are stereotypical mannerisms, I’m just trying to make a point)? In other words, is it imposible to see accomplished speakers of a language other than their mother tongue develop such an intimacy with their second language that they actually do speak it with a perfect accent as well as pronunciation?

  2. Ricard April 29, 2005 at 6:21 pm

    I disagree, Céline. That person does not have a “good French accent”. They pronounce French very well. Or even perfectly. Quite simply that is sufficient. The physical mannerisms and so on are an unrelated matter. To say they have a good accent *as well as* a good pronunciation suggests that accent is something different in the context of the speaking of another language. It is not, so it is redundant to say so. It is something different in the context only of the same language, as I have argued. But I do fear that I have turned a personal irritation into a pedantic debate that will make no difference to what people say, believe or suspect. What do other people think?

  3. language hat April 29, 2005 at 6:28 pm

    I’m afraid your fears are justified. Regardless of your personal preferences, people will go on using “accent” in the way you dislike, and because they do, that is the meaning of the word in English; you can either accept it or tilt at windmills, but you can’t change it. It’s like deciding you think “dog” should only be used to refer to small dogs, with “hound” being used for larger ones. Whatever the merits of the case, it’s not going to happen.
    And what exactly is the problem with the word “accent” being used in both cases? I don’t see any possibility for confusion; the context will make the sense clear.

  4. Korina May 3, 2005 at 10:02 am

    This is really interesting since I also perceived that there exists a difference between accent and pronounciation but could never exactly tell what the difference was.
    The Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD), which I happened to have at hand :), says: “accent: a particular mode of pronounciation, esp. one associated with a particular region or group (Liverpool accent, German accent, upper class accent).” This implies that native speakers of a language can also speak a certain accent, i.e. someone from Britain would have a British accent as opposed to some one from the US who would have an American accent. And than we have speakers of foreign languages who are often recognized by their French, German etc. accents.
    According to the COD, pronounciation is defined as “the way in which a word is pronounced, esp. with reference to a standard OR a person’s way of pronouncing words etc.” So what’s the difference? I think the key word is “standard” – according to conventions, dictionaries etc. a word is pronounced in a certain way. All deviations from this standard pronounciation are called accents, which tell us where a person is from (the key words for the definition of accent would thus be “regional variation”).
    Could this be “a pragmatic reason for a substantial semantic distinction”?

  5. gisela May 6, 2005 at 4:35 pm

    . . . And then there is the brogue.
    In this larger context I would like to add the observation that in Europe the idea of “region” and “distinct regional culture” is related to the awareness of accent. And this idea of a strong regional identity is gathering momentum – not in the way of some sort of neo-provincialism – but in a sense that each region is outward-bound business- and tourist-wise.
    Best regards

  6. Ricard May 8, 2005 at 10:30 am

    I suppose I must reply to language hat. I agree that “it’s not going to happen”. However I am not tilting at windmills, I am no fool. language hat appears to defend the well-known position that meaning is use (“because they do, that is the meaning of the word”). At least Since Aristotle the meaning of meaning has been endlessly debated and it has not been, and will never be resolved. So appealing to the blunt assumption that meaning is use does not justify the claim that it’s not going to happen. Use is not synonymous with meaning, although it is extremely influential. I’m surprised that someone of language hat’s erudition and experience would just assume this position to be the case. If language hat had irrefutably established that meaning was use language hat would be famous. I agree, however, that the accent/pronunciation distinction will collapse, and probably because of relentless (mis)use. But that has nothing to do with the meaning of the words.

  7. jim May 9, 2005 at 3:50 pm

    Well, I do think pronunciation and accent can be usefully distinguished – I’m just not sure that this is the best way to do it. I am tempted to say that an accent is best conceived of as a specific set of pronuciations associated with some group of speakers based on some fact about them: their geographic origin, their social class, their religion (it happens, look at Northern Ireland). On this account a pronunciation is a particular articulation of some set of phonemes or language specific sounds. This means that one can indeed as a foreigner have a good French accent, meaning just that you have mastered a particular set of pronuncations – you articulate them well. It raises the question of whether this would be true of someone who had a hotchpotch accent (I have one English friend who has a Parisian (uvular) R but southern tone patterns (characteristic Provencal sing-song). The pronunciations as such are fine but they are a mixed bag. It leaves it open for us to say of someone “they have a strong French accent when speaking English” to make Ricard’s perfectly sensible distinction. This is more or less how linguists use accent – except that in the United States they sometimes conflate it with dialect where English linguists would allow that two people might speak the same dialect with different accents.
    I speak French in two accents: one approximates northern standard French, Parisien if you will and I do it well enough but I can hear the differences from a native. The other is the very localised accent of my mother’s family’s home in the Roussillon, in the mountains: I do that one better than some people my age from our village who have been trained away from it very successfully by their schooling. In neither case by the way does my accent give me away: it’s always some lexical or idiomatic problem that clues people that I’m not really French.

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