Scientists, isolated in Antarctic lab for months, began to develop their own accent

Getty Images: Rothera Research Station, aerial view. (British Antarctic Survey)

Eleven scientists spent six months in Antarctica in a lab isolated from civilization and they began to develop their own accent, a recent study found.  

While the differences in their accents weren’t significantly noticeable upon hearing them, the way they pronounced some words began to change. 

The scientists stayed at the Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island, which is located just west of the Antarctic Peninsula. That’s pretty isolated. 

Through that isolation, the scientists, also known as "winterers" due to the fact that they were living in harsh winter conditions, had no one to socialize with apart from themselves and other researchers already at the station. 

The study, which was published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and funded by the European Research Council of the European Union, found that there were significant acoustic changes in the scientists’ speech over the course of their stay which were measurable, Jonathan Harrington, professor of phonetics and speech processing at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, told FOX TV Stations. Harrington was also the lead author of the study. 

Food, tofu, sew, code

"We recorded a set of words from the winterers before they went to Antarctica and above all before they knew each other. Then we re-recorded them saying the same words in Antarctica on 2-3 occasions," Harrington said. 

Some of the words they had to say were: feed, seed, keyed, heed, coffee, messy, jockey, flow, airflow, sew, torso, code, disco, hoed, backhoe, feud, curfew, queued, rescue, hewed, food, tofu, sued, cooed, and who’d. 

"These words were chosen because past research from different dialects has shown that the vowels in the above words often change over time. Our analysis was of these underlined vowels," Harrington explained. "When the recording was finished, one of the scientists in Antarctica transferred electronically the recordings back to our lab for analysis." 

The changes that were more prominent were how the group pronounced words with "ou" sounds, according to the study. 

Harrington also noted that before the experiment began, they were actually able to predict the direction of accent development using a computational model. 

"This result shows, therefore, that the initial stages of accent development are to a certain extent predictable, given a knowledge of the accent characteristics of the individuals that formed part of the mixture," he said. 

Isolated in Antarctica

Researchers wanted to mimic the conditions of isolation when small groups of people with different backgrounds colonize new lands. The premise was to observe them as they worked together and "survived" a new environment. 

Harrington likened the isolation of the scientists in Antarctica to the Mayflower in America or new settlements in New Zealand during the 19th century. 

"The purpose was to test the hypothesis that when individuals are isolated together in close contact with each other and work together for a common purpose (to survive and establish a new colony in the case of the Mayflower, to do science and to get through a winter in Antarctica), then they will begin to develop signs of a common spoken accent that, although not noticeable by listeners, is nevertheless acoustically detectable," Harrington said.  

As people spend time together and speak to one another, they begin to imitate speech patterns which will in turn, influence their own speech, Harrington said. 

This happens especially in isolated communities. But large changes in accents would not be noticeable until generations later, Harrington said. 

"For example, if you read a list of words, then listen to another speaker saying the words, and then re-read the same words, the reread words are often acoustically a bit more like those of the person you listened to. Therefore, individuals isolated together in a community should begin to imitate each other even if they are not aware of it - and over time these mutual imitations accumulate into a new accent that is characteristic of the community," he continued. 

For example, Estuary English was a new accent developed in the 1980s in southeast England which is a mixture of the standard English accent and London Cockney English, Harrington explained. 

"This accent arose because of the blurring of boundaries between the social classes that took place especially in the south of England in the 1960s and 1970s," Harrington said. 

Harrington even posited that if humans make it to the moon or Mars and colonize, a new accent will surely develop over generations. 

This story was reported from Los Angeles.