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Evolution's Impact: The origin of accents

This is the first article in a new series titled "Evolution's Impact".

The series will spotlight "a-ha!" moments of mine.  Moments when I suddenly became aware of something interesting that others don't seem to be aware of!  In hindsight, you may feel that my views are common sense, but I suspect that you will find that I'm the first person you've encountered who's made the point that I make!

The series will examine specific human behaviors and attempt to determine the evolutionary reasons leading to the creation (or evolution) of that specific human behavior.

The series will examine
interesting evolutionary roots of behavior.  It will not focus on more obvious roots, such as the evolution of opposable thumbs in response to the need to grasp objects with one's hand!

Today's article will focus on human accents.  Accents, as in the way a given language sounds different when spoken in different regions.

What are the evolutionary roots that led to accents being developed?

This is my theory:

Before cars were developed (and perhaps before other methods of transportation, such as ships, were developed), people traveled much less often than they do today (and when they did travel, not as far).  This is obvious not only because of the lack of speedy transportation available at the time, but because people tended to have larger families, with many children.  Having many children (and having
any children at all) meant that parents felt more obligated to stay with their family in order to shelter, protect and provide for their children.  In those days, you couldn't work out of town and Fedex money to your family!  Also, farms were very common back then.  Daily harvesting wouldn't have allowed for much traveling at all, unless it was out of season.

Because people tended not to travel as much, you ended up with many settlements of different groups of people located in multiple locations within a country.

However, travel was not
impossible.  One could travel by horse, for example, or walking.

Now think of the community and its relationship with crime.  I would say that a member of a community is more likely to be robbed by someone from outside their community than by another member of their community, for several reasons: 1) the shame and economic hardship it could bring on the criminal and his family; after all, in relatively small communities there are stronger social links.  2) People often associate with their in-group more than they do an out-group.  They have incentives to help other members of their community.  3) It's easier to commit a crime against a total stranger rather than someone whom you are more likely to know

Also, consider that in those days, committing violence with the aim to steal resources may have been considered more acceptable, and been more common, than it is today. Look at how common wars were back then.  You also had colonialism and slavery.

How could people living in larger communities be sure that the people they meet are indeed members of their community and not outsiders that may rob or kill them? After all, people living in different communities often
look very similar to each other!

The answer is simple:  people living in different regions would develop speech accents!  People from different communities were immediately able to spot the outsiders.

I also argue that people's faces have evolved over time in such a manner to allow differentiation between members of different communities.  I've noticed that when I compare members of the same race who live in different cities, there are subtle facial differences to be found,
even between residents of neighboring cities.  My ability to predict a stranger's city of birth (or at least narrow down the choices) has made more than one person feel uncomfortable with me!

But back to accents.

If accents developed according to an evolutionary advantage of identifying the region that someone was born in, you would think that, in order to be most effective, accents would develop for 100% of the people born in a given region, correct?  Well, that seems to be the case, as far as I know!  I don't know of any cases whereby a newborn developed an accent that didn't match the prevailing accent in their region.

Now think about this:  you often hear about how slow evolution can progress.  There are plenty of examples of children who possess traits that aren't visibly evident in their parents.  Children have eyes that are colored different than their parents' eyes.  Tall children are often born to two short parents (this wouldn't be the most common scenario, but it occurs often enough that you can recount such instances).  Smart children are born to two parents of average intelligence.  The list goes on and on.

Although genes do pass down from parents to children, it would seem that, for some reason, the visible traits exhibited by the parents don't always pass down to their children.

But for some reason,
as far as I know, a child always has the accent that their parent does! (Assuming, of course, that they were both born in the same region). (There is just one possible exception that I'm aware of, some type of disorder that results in people switching accents in adulthood, if I remember correctly, and that wouldn't even be considered an exception if it occurs in adulthood and not before speech begins).

This is strongly suggestive of the following:  evolution considered an accent to be extremely important; so important that every single person in a region develops that trait!

And how about the fact that it takes a long time for people to lose their accent once they move to a new region?  It often takes years for people's accent to be lost (or almost completely diminished!)

At the same time, one that has resided in a new community for a lengthy period of time is now more likely to be loyal to their new community (this is evidenced by the fact that they have resided there for so long!)  Evolution has provided a way for these people to be recognized as in-group members; their accent diminishes, or is completely eliminated.  And for the people that have only a trace of their accent audible, that's an evolutionary sign too:  a sign that someone was
once a member of another community, but has been a member of the current community for a very long period of time.

I'd be interested in learning how far back in history one can find records that attest to the existence of accents.  Readers, please let me know!

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