As the newest royal, Meghan Markle’s every move is ripe for analysis. Whether it’s tracing her shifting style or studying her facial exercises, Brits and Americans alike seem captivated by her very existence. So it’s no wonder that when a video surfaced of the Duchess of Sussex introducing herself to fans this week, the internet went wild with a new theory: She now has a British accent.
Twitter wasn’t the only place where the accent-conclusion was drawn. Reporters from the U.S. to Romania wrote pieces agreeing. But has the 36-year-old really adopted a British accent already? According to a leading linguistics expert Dennis Preston, the answer is unequivocally: No. Preston, a regents professor of linguistics at Oklahoma State University, is equipped with the skills to detect even minor shifts in someone’s accent. In this video, he says, there isn’t one.
“I did a very careful listen, paying specific attention to her vowels, a big giveaway with British accents, as well as the intonation. I just didn’t find anything resembling a British accent,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There’s nothing there.”
If Meghan had adopted the accent in the few months she’s been living in England, Preston says it wouldn’t just be crazy — it would be near miraculous. “Us linguists would be flocking there to study her as a strange phenomenon,” he says. “These changes won’t happen overnight, and in the terms of language history, overnight is how long it’s been.”
While the public can debate what they hear in the videos of Meghan, linguistics is a science, meaning if Preston doesn’t hear a British accent, there isn’t one. So, if Meghan is still speaking like an American, why does it sound to so many like she isn’t? The answer, Preston says, has more to do with what we’re thinking than what we’re hearing. “She married an Englishman, she lives in England, she’s hanging with the queen, and people think ‘gosh, she must be doing something with her language,'” Preston tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s your brain playing a trick on you.”
Preston says the reasoning boils down to biology. “People speak quickly and we don’t have time to decode each sound, so the brain tells us what to hear,” he says. “Essentially, our brain gets in the way of our ear. So we hear what we expect to hear, rather than what we actually do.”
The concept is one that Preston and other linguists have studied at length, uncovering a wealth of evidence that perceptions and attitudes can literally shape what we hear. In an email to Yahoo Lifestyle, another expert in linguistics Bill Kretzschmar (a professor from the University of Georgia), echoes Preston’s sentiment. “People may think Ms. Markle sounds British because she has moved [to England], not because she really does sound British,” says Kretzschmar.
This, of course, isn’t to suggest that Meghan won’t eventually take on some degree of a British accent. Both Kretzschmar and Preston point out that adopting an accent over time (keyword: time) is a common occurrence, one that often relates to empathy. “All of us human speakers ‘accommodate’ to each other — that is, we tend to talk more like the people we are talking to,” says Kretzschmar. “Some people are better at accommodation that others, and Ms. Markle may be one of them.”
Preston says it’s impossible to know whether that will happen. “The degree to which Meghan is going to accommodate [her accent] is absolutely unpredictable. We don’t know what value she’ll place on it, and that can affect the subconscious shift,” he says. “She might feel like sounding British will make her seem like a phony, for example, so she may make an effort to stay away from it.”
If Meghan does start speaking with a British accent, Preston says it will happen slowly. Until then, anyone longing for Meghan to retain her Americanness can breathe easy. She’s not totally British — yet.
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