What is an accent? I assume that the best definition from dictionary.com are the ones numbered 8 and 9:
a mode of pronunciation, as pitch or tone, emphasis pattern,or intonation, characteristic of or peculiar to the speech of aparticular person, group, or locality: French accent; Southernaccent. Compare tone ( def. 5 ) .
such a mode of pronunciation recognized as being of foreign origin: He still speaks with an accent.
Just like the popular idiom about one man’s meat (food) being another man’s poison, how I speak a language would sound perfectly normal to me, but could sound heavily accented to you. In my book, there is no right or wrong accent; at best, you could be termed as having an accent if yours was different from the role you were applying for. For instance, if a speaker who speaks English without an accent in the USA were to try for the role of a BBC newscaster, he or she would definitely be termed as possessing an accent.
That said, if you live in a certain area and are used to listening to people talking a particular language – say English, because it is quite prevalent in the world – you will probably have a good idea of what the average accent is. And that is what you would use as a benchmark to tell whether a specific speaker does or does not possess an accent. In other words, whether or not a person possesses an accent is determined by two factors – the person and the ambience.
Now why am I bringing all of this up? Well, a few months ago, some friends showed me this clip of Sofia Vergara (who I had never heard of before) talking about her aaaksent (3:00 minute mark onwards). Well, she would not have one, as long as she stays in Colombia or visits, for instance, Spain 😉
I had a similar personal experience. But before I describe that, I need to refer to an old post I had written to show that since when I could differentiate between accents, it has been a hobby of mine to see if I could place a speaker (as in, where he or she is from) based solely on his or her accent. In other words, which part of the world would that person have to be placed in such that he or she would appear to have no accent!
So here it was, a month or so ago, that I was at a local school carnival talking with another parent volunteer. Something was not right in her English. I could not put my finger on it, but it definitely did not sound accent-free. In fact, it sounded out-of-USAish. Coupled with the fact that she definitely looked Oriental, I asked her where she was from. Upon hearing that she was born and brought up in CA by her parents in Southeast Asia, I unwittingly exclaimed: “Oh, so that is where you got your accent from!”
The next few minutes were spent by the two of us discussing whether she had an accent (my point of view) or not (her point of view). Ultimately, we had to agree to disagree … and I conceded that she might just have a CA accent, which was different from the local (Floridian) accent.
This morning, I got to thinking about the incident. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that I have a personal benchmark of an average USA accent. Most of the USA born folks that I meet will likely fall close to this average or a standard deviation off it (if you know what I mean). It is when folks start deviating further than that, that my ears perk up and I try to figure out where the speaker is from!
Similarly, I bet that each locality has its own average accent and a point past which you would be labelled as having an accent, and this would be true about not just English, but most languages. But one thing I am pretty sure, if your parents (and other folks you closely associate with in your childhood) are not native English speakers – or are not close enough in accent to the locality or country you are born and brought up in – you will inadvertently pick up an accent that ties you to where they are from (or where their accents are from).