It starts subtle. After a few beers, a “y’all” slides into a sentence. Then, after the whiskey, the I’s get long and A’s get harmonic. Soon enough, G has gone missing and you sound like a guest star on The Andy Griffith Show. This is what happens when Kristin Forsberg — resident of Washington D.C., native of Knoxville — goes to the bar. She can’t hear it herself, but other people invariably point it out.
“It happens almost every time,” Forsberg tells Inverse. “My friends will be like, ‘We can’t understand Kristin anymore.’ There’s the long I’s and the ‘Where d’y’all want to go tonight?’ I never speak like that when I’m sober.”
It’s a phenomenon that most Americans hear and plenty of Americans experience first hand. And more than just anecdotal evidence backs this up. A 2001 study found that intoxication changes the way people speak and specifically affects primary motor speech, the pitch of the voice, speaking speed, and number of speech errors. What this means is that, if you’re suppressing an accent, your brain isn’t going to be able to keep up the charade post-alcohol.
In a 2013 study, Amee Shah of Cleveland State University’s Research Laboratory in Speech Acoustics & Perception came to a similar conclusion: We just don’t have enough cognitive resources left to keep up a non-regional accent after we drink.
“We slur our words and it’s hard to maintain the motor coordination and control needed for effective fine motor execution needed in speech,” Shah told NBC news.
Speaking with an accent is certainly a cognitive effort. In a different 2013 study, researchers asked people to speak with a fake accent (most went with Elvis or Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations). They had the subject say a few phrases while connected to a fMRI scanner. The researchers found that when people put on an accent the brain’s left anterior insula and the inferior frontal gyrus lit up. This was a sign that speaking this way was a deliberate attempt at a new vocal identity, putting a strain on a brain that can’t be upheld when you’re inebriated.
People suppress their accents all the time. Think of Stephen Colbert, who decided to hold back his South Carolina twang when he realized that some people stereotype sounding southern with being less intelligent. Studies have found that children as young as nine think northerners sound smart, while southerners sound nice. These are, of course, stereotypes — but it doesn’t mean that a new acquaintance or a hiring manager isn’t going to critique you for it. Accents wield considerable influence over social judgements; acting as social cues to someone’s identity. Because we’re a judgmental sort, consciously or not, we tend to use them as a litmus test to whether we’ll get along with someone new.
Then again — you may not be holding back an accent on purpose.
“That’s what I find confusing — because, I feel like I don’t really have an accent,” Forsberg says. “My mom is from the south — she has a very thick southern accent — and my dad is from New Jersey. I feel like I never really had a thick accent growing up. Sure there are a few words I’ll say, like ‘ya’ll’ throughout the day normally — but I don’t think my accent is super noticeable until the beers have come out.”
But it’s Forsberg’s mom that likely has the largest influence over whether she has a natural, regional accent at all. In a 2009 study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers found that human fetuses, by the last trimester, could memorize auditory stimuli from the outside world — with a particular sensitivity to music and language. The fetuses particularly responded to the pitch changes and emotional intonations of their mothers. When they were born — the subjects were 30 German babies and 30 French babies — their cries had the rising melody contours of the accents of their mothers.
These accents aren’t just a supplementary part of our identity. While you can shake it off, it’s extremely rare, if not impossible, for an accent to disappear entirely. This is because the brain has trouble developing an unconscious understanding of new sounds — and why it could take someone 40 years in a new country to lose their accent.