How scientists in Antarctica developed an accent – 03/25/2024 – Science

How scientists in Antarctica developed an accent – 03/25/2024 – Science


The farewell couldn’t be colder. Balls of snow streaked across the sky towards the RSS Ernest Shackleton as it headed away from the dock.

The ship began its journey across the stormy Antarctic glacial ocean, leaving 26 brave souls on a snow-locked island on the frozen tip of the Antarctic peninsula.

People waving to the ship in the harbor watched their only concrete link to the rest of the world slip through the freezing water. Six months of winter awaited them, completely isolated on the coldest continent on the planet.

“They say it’s faster to put someone on the International Space Station than to evacuate someone from Antarctica for a medical emergency in the winter,” says Marlon Clark.

He is part of a group of 26 people, including international researchers and support staff, who were left in March 2018 at the British Antarctic Service’s Rothera Research Station, on Adelaide Island — west of the Antarctic peninsula.

Antarctica is the least inhabited continent on the planet. There is no permanent human population there. There are only a few bases and research stations spread across its 14 million square kilometers of frozen land.

“In other words, you are isolated,” explains Clark. “There are many mysteries and traditions about ‘winter in Antarctica’. The strongest feeling was the expectation, as well as the realization: ‘OK, this is real, I’m going to be here for a long, long time’.”

In the 26 weeks of harsh weather and near-permanent darkness that followed, Clark and his colleagues worked, ate and socialized at Rothera Station with very little contact with their homes. Satellite telephone connections are expensive and therefore scarce.

They only relied on each other for company and some entertainment at the base. Therefore, the “winterers”, as they are known, talked —a lot— among themselves.

“We would talk to each other while we worked, on breaks, playing pool or in our rooms,” says Clark. He helped coordinate the Winterers’ recording collection.

“We got to know each other’s stories very quickly. There was a lot of talk about the weather — these crazy winds we had, the frozen sea, the icebergs, the clouds. We became very comfortable with each other.”

The common language at the base was English, peppered with slang typical of research stations in Antarctica, as we will see later.

And, in the midst of all these conversations, something surprising happened: their accents began to change.

Clark and his colleagues didn’t notice the change. All they knew was that they were participating in an unusual experiment, tracking their own voices over time.

This was done through ten-minute recordings every few weeks. They sat in front of a microphone and repeated the same 29 words that appeared on the computer screen.

Food. Coffee. Hide. Air flow. Most of the words (in English) were in common use during the day and contained vowel sounds known to sound different in different accents of the English language.

The recordings were sent to a team of phonetics researchers at the Ludwig-Maximilians University, in Munich, Germany. During the analysis, they discovered that the pronunciation of some of the words had changed very slightly.

Researchers were observing the birth of a new accent.

The Antarctic experiment provided insight into something that has happened countless times throughout human history. Groups of people became isolated from others, which led to their accents, dialects and even languages ​​becoming different from each other.

On a larger scale, the researchers say the experiment may provide insight into why British and American English are so different.

“We wanted to reproduce, as much as possible, what happened when the Mayflower ship sailed to North America and the people on board were isolated for a period of time,” explains professor of phonetics and speech processing Jonathan Harrington, from the University of California. Ludwig-Maximilians.

“Six months is not a long time, so we observed very, very small changes. But we discovered that some of the vowels had changed”, continues the professor.

One of these changes was the “ou” sound in English words like “flow” and in “sew” (sew), to the front of the vocal tract.

The researchers also observed that some of the winterers began to pronounce three other vowels in the same way.

The reason for the change reveals a possible basic mechanism for acquiring accents throughout life.

“When we talk to each other, we memorize that line,” Harrington explains. “That, then, has an influence on our own speech production.”

In fact, we transmit and infect each other with pronunciations whenever we interact with others. And, over time, if we have regular and prolonged contact with someone, we can begin to absorb their sounds.

There are no permanent human settlements in Antarctica — only research stations that house visiting researchers and staff.

Among people who live in isolated communities — such as a village in a remote valley or a settlement on the other side of the ocean — this can lead to accent change, as peculiarities or false perceptions of speech become exaggerated.

But this may take time. After all, accents are produced by extremely precise control of the vocal organs to produce sound changes, such as the nasal vowels that characterize certain accents, such as American English.

During the 2018 Antarctic winter, there was another factor at play: the diversity of winterers’ origins.

Among the people who stayed at Rothera Station that winter were two Americans, an Icelandic mechanic, some Germans, Scots and a Welsh speaker.

“The British bases in Antarctica are quite unique when it comes to receptiveness,” explains Clark. “So you end up having a real melting pot, with people from different backgrounds.” Clark helped coordinate the Winterers’ recording collection.

Harrington and his colleagues used computer models to predict how winterers might influence each other in this melting pot.

The models used recordings made before the Winters’ trip to simulate what might happen to their accents as they spent more time together. His predictions were unquestionably accurate, even when the effects were exaggerated compared to what happened in real life.

The winterers themselves would not have noticed what happened over time. But analysis of the sounds showed changes in acoustic waves.

“It was very subtle — you can’t hear the changes,” according to Harrington. But Clark says that the way of speaking of some of the people who spent that winter at the base underwent much more significant changes.

“One of my friends spoke Welsh as his first language and had a really strong accent when he spoke English,” he says. “By the end of our time there, his accent had become more like a Liverpool accent. [na Inglaterra].”

The Welsh friend was not included in the language study. But one German woman’s accent became more similar to a native English speaker as she practiced with the people around her, according to Harrington and her colleagues in the study.

New accents in London and Berlin

This mix of people from different cultural backgrounds, languages ​​and accents is not just a feature of distant research stations. It can also be found, on a much larger scale, in modern cities.

And research indicates that these large multicultural cities produce their own accents and dialects, much like the linguistic microcosm of Antarctica.

One example is the development, in southeast England, of Multicultural London English (MLE) — a dialect that began to emerge in the 1980s in areas of the British capital with high levels of immigration.

It is believed to have emerged in the region of London known as the East End (the so-called East End Cockney) and to have mixed, initially with Jamaican Patoá and, later, with other of the approximately 300 languages ​​spoken in the capital.

One of the influences was the large number of people learning English as a second language in London, according to English professor Eivind Nessa Torgersen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Torgersen studied MLE with her colleagues Jenny Cheshire and Susan Fox at Queen Mary University of London.

“Several MLE speakers have other languages ​​as their first language and grow up speaking English and a home language,” he explains. “An example is the use of ‘wasn’t’ [‘não era’] into ‘I wasn’t, we weren’t, they weren’t’.”

Older speakers in London and younger speakers elsewhere in southeast England often use “weren’t” (“were not/were”), according to Torgersen.

“We observed similar developments in other very large cities in Europe with high levels of migration”, according to the professor. He cites, as examples, a new type of German in Berlin and a new Swedish dialect in Stockholm.

“This contact between multicultural varieties has several similar characteristics: contact between languages ​​and dialects, second language learning, borrowing words from other languages. What makes MLE different from other multicultural varieties, at least until recently, is that we don’t find many words borrowed from other languages.”

For Torgersen, this may have been, in part, because much of the migration to London comes from Commonwealth countries, where people speak a variation of the English language.

How to say ‘beautiful day’ in Antarctica

In the case of Antarctica, residents of British bases are not just subtly changing their accents. They are also developing a kind of Antarctic research slang — a whimsical set of words that have little meaning in the outside world.

What may seem surprising is that some of these words have nothing to do with science or Antarctica.

“There’s a strange and different vernacular that people develop when they come here,” says Clark.

“If it’s a nice day, you have a ‘dingle day’ or, if you go to pick up the trash, you’re doing a ‘fuck plod’. You get used to it quickly and it becomes very normal.”

Even so, Antarctica is still far from the type of divergence of accents that occurred after the colonization of North America, Australia and New Zealand, for example.

“For accents to develop to the point where they’re observable really takes a generation,” explains Harrington.

“Children are great imitators, so the process of memorizing someone else’s speech is amplified in children. If winterers had children, like the Mayflower colonists when they went to America, the accent would become more stable.”

But the British Antarctic Service is unlikely to encourage a sudden wave of pregnancies in one of the world’s most inhospitable places, as it has at other bases on the icy continent.

But this possibility would certainly offer other topics for winterers to talk about, besides the weather.

Learn to talk like a winterer

Residents of British research stations in Antarctica developed their own expressions to designate certain daily activities. Some of these expressions have their origins in military terms, while others appeared as a joke or by chance.

Here are some English expressions you can try to adopt:

“Fod plod”: pick up the trash. “Fod” is an abbreviation for “foreign object debris”.

“Dingle day”: day with clear, blue skies.

“Gash”: washing, cleaning and taking care of trash tasks.

“Smoko”: stop for tea or coffee.

“Fid”: British Antarctic Service employee who is “down south”.

“Doo”: skiing or snow biking.

“Firkle”: to search something or cause trouble.

“Gonk”: sleep.

“Fox hat” (“fox hat”): the base’s night cinema.

Read the original version of this report (in English) on the BBC Future website.


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