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.