Illustration by Nisala Saheed

Fluid accents, fluid identity

Accents are a huge part of identity, especially at NYU Abu Dhabi, where everybody has different native languages and linguistic backgrounds.

Nov 5, 2016

Accents are a huge part of an individual’s identity, especially at a university like NYU Abu Dhabi, where everybody has different native languages and linguistic backgrounds. In such cosmopolitan places, accents can become an integral part of one’s self-perception and presentation. Over time and interlingual friendships, these accents can alter too, leading one to question the identity of the speaker and what it means to have a certain accent.
However, when thinking of accents, one needs to consider what an accent means and what it can convey to the listener. Nationality? Culture? Life story? Personality?
At NYUAD, everybody has a different story regarding their accents. Whether their accents have become stronger, weaker, malleable, not transformed at all or completely changed as a result of being here, there is a story behind everybody’s accent. Interacting with so many different accents at once tends to mess up the way we speak and articulate.
Some NYUAD students experience what can be called a fluid accent, an accent that changes depending on the other party in the conversation. Fluid accents complicate one’s sense of self — it doesn’t seem as if one belongs to one certain language variation, but is a flexible entity of the language. Nonetheless, such accents may allow the people one talks to to feel more at home. Spanish-speaking sophomore Miren Aguirre Salazar believes that depending on who she speaks with, her accent in Spanish changes.
“When I Skype with my family I speak very Spanish Spanish … but then when I, for example, talk to a Mexican in Spanish, I suddenly switch and start saying things that I wouldn’t say in what I would call authentic Spanish Spanish,” she said.
For Salazar, the accent switches only happens when she talks to Latin Americans.
“I don’t know how to control it or stop it, [and] not necessarily that I want to. So it’s mainly just confusing,” said Salazar.
Certain accents can create a distinct identity for the speaker upon first impression. Freshman Jack Adeney believes that this is the effect his British accent has.
“The major response is that people often tend to be intimidated. I guess it’s quite a harsh accent, so they find it quite surprising and are maybe taken aback by it,” he explained.
However, according to Adeney, after the first impression people tend to get over the accent very quickly. Such an example shows that accents do tend to play a role in shaping people’s initial perceptions.
At a U.S. American institution like NYUAD that has many U.S. American students or U.S.-American-educated students and professors, the U.S. American accent tends to dominate. This means that many students get a U.S. American accent even though they might have no direct connection to the country. The U.S. Americanization of accents at NYUAD tends to occur often and many students complain that their accent has completely shifted to the U.S. American side since coming here.
Sophomore Erik Olson explains that his accent seems U.S. American, although the U.S. Americans don’t see him as speaking like them.
“Some people tell me that I have a super [U.S.] American accent; others, usually [U.S.] Americans, tell me that I talk strangely. So I think more than anything becoming [U.S.] Americanized has just confused me,” Olson said.
Stereotypes associate accents with certain indicators of personality. British English tends to be associated with intelligence, education and nobility, whereas Australian accents are often associated with comradery and a relaxed attitude. This shows that accents involve preconceptions about character traits that are affiliated with certain languages.
“Despite my accent’s tendency to inhibit some interactions, I have come to appreciate its uniqueness and how it can draw us Kiwi expats together,” said sophomore Tayla McHardie, who speaks with a New Zealand accent.
Accents can, by turns, be weird, difficult to understand, attractive and inhibitory. However, all accents contribute to the distinctive character of one’s personality — no person, with or without their fluid accents, has the same way of speaking. An accent can be a powerful factor in personal development and characterization.
Nela Noll is a staff writer. Email her at
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