​We Asked Scientists If ‘Drunk Accents’ Are Actually a Thing

Science suggests you're just drunk.

by Sierra Bein
Sep 26 2016, 2:47pm

Where it begins. Photo via Flickr user Jessica Spengler

Ever since I started university, people have told me I sound funny when I drink. When I'm sober, I have a normal Toronto accent (it's Tuh-raw-no). But not long into a night of barhopping or sneakily drinking beers in late night classes, some of my friends claim to hear an Eastern European accent, though I was mostly told German (I'm German on my father's side). One person even interpreted it as sounding Spanish or Portuguese. All this made a little bit of sense to me, because I come from families who speak both German and a thick Guyanese Patois. I never really questioned it, since I couldn't hear it.

But I'm hardly the only one that gets asked about my accent when drinking.

This seems half-common among my friend group, with a lot of them being told about their "drunk accent" despite having just a boring ole Canadian accent during their times of sobriety. My one friend says that girls hit on him at the bar mostly because they think he's Irish. Which makes me think of the Aussie accent, which is apparently said to be the result of their ancestors being hammered all the time, sending their drunken slurs into the future of the Australian modern language. There has to be something to drinking and accents, right?

So I used my journalism skills and decided to put my anecdotal evidence to the test of science, and asked experts if it is actually possible to get an accent when you're drunk. I spoke with some speech scientists and linguistics experts, who all said basically the same thing: research so far shows that it would be nearly impossible to gain an accent from drinking, but you're more likely to be able to imitate accents better. So no, you don't "acquire" a true accent from being drunk. But it might explain why you start sounding like your grandmother from Newfoundland, your friend who says "appy" instead of appetizer from West Van, or some northern Ontario hockey bro who drops "give'r" into casual conversation. You might even start speaking with more features of your first language.

"When people change their speech it is not because they are doing it voluntarily, or because they're learning this, it is a natural consequence of the effects of alcohol on the motor system," says David Pisoni, from the Speech Research Laboratory in Indiana University. "I would say that's sort of imaginary or false attribution."

As for the stories about being able to talk like your family, or go back to your mother tongue—that makes a little more sense. Pisoni said your first language has more neural circuits and are more broadly distributed over multiple parts of your brain, this makes your first language strongly cemented in you.

On top of that, when you're drunk, you tend to go to a comfortable place in your mind, and relax. Which could mean that you use a more varied speech or even use vocabulary that you might not otherwise use in the real, sober world.

"It's the same thing in terms of cursing, people will start cursing in their first language. In fact after people have a stroke, they very often lose their second language but hold on to aspects of their first language, their native language," said Pisoni.

Research about "drunk accents" doesn't really exist out there—but research has been done on what humans sound like when they drink. Our volume changes, our pitch varies way more, and we can't help but slur our words. We tend to mess up our "s" and "sh" sounds as well as our Rs and Ls. These minor speech impediments are what could be mistaken for accents depending on the individual.

"I think David [Pisoni] is probably right, that there's some kind of change that these people are experiencing in their speech and they're attributing it to an accent," said Cynthia Clopper, an associate professor who is an expert in phonetics at Ohio State University's Linguistic department.

Clopper says that once you're past the age of 12, your accent is hard to change, and it doesn't make sense that you would suddenly be able to change it when you drink. But if you've had exposure to multiple accents—like in my family—you might be able to mimic it easier when you're intoxicated.

Not only do we not get true accents when we drink, we're probably also stereotyping accents.

"The Irish one for example, if you put him and an Irish person next to each other you could probably tell them apart. So one thing that's important to bear in mind, [we] are pretty bad at saying what accent someone has. We can say 'oh, that person has an accent' or 'they don't talk like me' but we're really bad at identifying what that accent is."

And just to totally kill the idea of being able to adopt an accent when you're drunk, Clopper sent me off with a story to answer the question.

She told me about something called Foreign Accent Syndrome. Apparently there were claims that people who had brain damage after a stroke were suddenly speaking with a foreign accent, which she compares to the drunk accent.

"People got very excited about this and were like 'well, how can they have a foreign accent? That's crazy!' It turns out that in fact, the features that these people were producing, maybe some of them [sound] like foreign accented speech, but some of them don't, so it wasn't like all of a sudden they became Spanish accented speakers of English. It's just properties of their speech changed that were perceived as being foreign."

Anyway, to answer the question about getting an accent when you're drunk—you probably don't get a real accent. You're probably just talking like a drunk person.

Follow Sierra Bein on Twitter.

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