One drink, maybe two, and it’s, “Hi, how are you?” Three drinks or more, and it’s devolved into, “Oh, hey der, yous guys,” or maybe "Hey y'all!" Anyone who’s modified - or lost entirely - their hometown accent over the years knows that after a few drinks, it mysteriously comes back. But why is that?
Even if we don’t realize we’re doing it, adapting or changing the accent we grew up with takes effort, both cognitive power and motor control. You know that when you’re drinking – or tired or sick or very cold, for that matter – it’s harder to make your body move in exactly the way you’d like it to. That applies to our mouths, too, and that starts to show itself in our speech.
“We slur our words, and it’s harder to maintain the motor coordination and control needed for effective fine motor execution needed for speech production,” explains Amee Shah, director of Cleveland State University’s Research Laboratory in Speech Acoustics & Perception. Our brains, of course, are affected, too, when inebriation – or, again, illness or sleepiness or being cold – sets in, which means all of our available brain power is devoted to simply managing the easiest tasks. “Anything more than the simple gets affected, as we just don’t have enough cognitive resources available for it,” Shah explains.
We saw this last month when the dashboard camera footage of Reese Witherspoon’s arrest hit the Internet. The Louisiana native’s Southern twang came out in full force.
Shah hasn't exactly found herself in Witherspoon's situation, but she says when she's tired or cold, she starts to slip back into her Indian accent.
“(A)s an Indian speaker, I have managed to modify my Indian accent on my own, but when I’m tired, or my lips are freezing in the outside air in winter, I find it harder to pronounce the sound ‘v,’as in ‘Victor,’ as the easiest thing for my muscles and thinking is to purse the lips and say ‘w’ – this is a contrast that doesn’t exist in Indian English,” Shah says. “My Indian accent comes out faintly and surprises people!”