Let’s start this article with an anecdote: Josh Thomas.
It might seem a bit odd to kick off a discussion about the Duchess of Sussex by looking at the life of a 31-year-old Aussie comedian, but stay with me.
I would forgive you for thinking Josh grew up in Europe. Given the comic’s slightly British, slightly Welsh accent, that’s probably what most people believe. Only that’s not the case at all.
Despite sounding like he grew up across the world, Josh was born in Melbourne and raised in Brisbane, rendering his accent something of a quirky mystery.
My sister Claire and I saw Josh in a Melbourne Comedy Festival show about five years ago, where he explained the strange reality: he had only travelled around Europe for a handful of months and, almost overnight, adopted his unique and endearing twang. It’s stuck ever since.
I remember returning to our speech pathologist mother at the end of the night who assured us that, yes, accents can be very fickle things.
Which makes it rather irksome that so many people are giving Meghan Markle a tough time this weekend, after a video circulated on Twitter showing her greeting fans with a slight British accent.
Despite only moving to live with her now-husband Harry in November last year, it’s apparent that Meghan sounds rather different from what she did in her Suits days.
Check out her new accent below:
Commentary around Meghan’s new accent has been rather nasty – and the acidic comments will not be repeated here – but it does raise the question: Why are some people’s accents so malleable when others’ are impenetrable?
Here are some of the potential explanations:
1. The chameleon effect
Those whose accents change quickly may simply be ‘unintentionally mirroring’ the very people they seek to make comfortable.
Subconsciously mimicking someone’s behaviour – whether it be body language, an accent, or slang – is embedded in the human brain’s “mirror neurons“, which work to make sure our interactions ‘fit in’ with the context we’re in.
We all have mirror neurons, and, even if you don’t notice it, the way you speak and behave will likely be different depending on the cultural and social setting.
While some consider a wandering accent a sign of being disingenuine, it’s actually the opposite.
According to this article in The Telegraph, 2010, it’s a sign of genuine kindness:
Scientists from the University of California, Riverside, found the subconscious copying of an accent comes from an inbuilt urge of the brain to “empathise and affiliate”.
… “Whether we are hearing or lip-reading speech articulations, a talker’s speaking style has subtle influences on our own manner of speaking,” Prof Rosenblum said.
“This unintentional imitation could serve as social glue, helping us to affiliate and empathise with each other.”
3. She’s particularly musical
Now, this one is pure speculation, but it is possible that Meghan’s accent has changed because her brain’s “musicality” is higher than the average person’s.
You might have noticed musicians like Rihanna and Madonna have ever-changing accents depending on the country they’re interviewed in, or fellow singers they appear alongside, and that is believed to boil down to the skill-set a musician masters, and how this overlaps with speech. Studies show musicians are mostly adept language learners, and this could indeed extend to their tendency to mirror the inflections and lilts of those who surround them.
Whether or not this applies to Meghan is unclear; while she shone in high school musicals, it’s tenuous to suggest she is a musical genius or particularly musically gifted.
No matter the reason, next time you giggle at someone’s flip-flopping accent, remember: They’re probably just really kind, trying to make you feel comfortable, or a borderline musical genius.