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Tim Visser – Has his accent changed?


The Dutch rugby player Tim Visser has just been announced as part of the Scottish rugby squad for their summer tour against Australia, Samoa and Fiji. This has been heralded as a great boon for Scotland as they look to arrest a losing streak of seven loses on the trot, and Visser’s try scoring potency is hoped to carry over onto the international stage. Of course, Visser being eligible to play for Scotland has only been possible due to the IRB’s residency rules which allow an internationally uncapped player to play for any country where they satisfy a three year residency rule.

Visser joined Edinburgh in June 2009, so in June 2012 he becomes eligible to play for Scotland since he hasn’t played for any other union at international level. Unfortunately, he’ll miss the Australia game (where we’ll be humped anyway), but he’ll make it to the Samoa and Fiji games, so we’ll get to see what he’s made of on the international stage.

Anyway, when I listened to an interview last week where he talked about being selected as part of the Scotland squad, and I was struck by how, well, Scottish he sounded, which was surprising because… he’s Dutch. Of course, I’ve got no idea what his target variety was when he was learning English, or even how long he’s been speaking English, so to check whether he’s always spoken with a ‘Scottish’ accent, I looked around for earlier interviews and found this one from when he moved to Edinburgh from Newcastle Falcons.

Now, the subject of how far people can change their accent in adulthood has long been contested within sociolinguistics, but it seems that while a speaker might not be able to pass as a ‘native’, they can adjust certain elements (this is nicely demonstrated in Jonathan Harrington’s research on the Queen). Generally speaking, it sounds to me as though Visser’s accent has changed across the two time periods, where he sounds more ‘English’ in 2009 and more ‘Scottish’ in 2012 (points below discuss Visser in 2009)

  • His DRESS vowel is a bit more fronted (for the word Edinburgh, F2 was 1600Hz in 2009 and 1560Hz in 2012).
  • His TRAP/BATH/PALM set is more fronted and lowered (his F1/F2 values for can in 2009 came out at 820Hz and 1440hz while for dad they came out at 709Hz and 1395Hz. Of course, following phonetic context of nasal versus plosive will likely play a part here).
  • And his FACE vowel is more diphthongal.
  • Curiously, his FOOT vowel is merged with GOOSE (in fact, it’s really rounded and fronted which is more like Scottish English).
  • There are a few features he’s not acquired completely in either period, including the devoicing of normally voiced fricatives and plosives (in words like was and squad).

I should add the caveat that one measurement per vowel is really not a good way to make claims about whether someone’s accent is changing or not and is not recommended practice, but there’s not really that much data to go on and unfortunately there’s no reading lists of him in 2009 and 2012, but it sounds to my ear that something there.

What’s also interesting is thinking about whether Visser’s accent has changed purely through prolonged contact with other Scottish English speakers (they do exist in Edinburgh, or so I’ve been told), or whether he now identifies with Scotland more because he’s now Scottish-qualified and that’s supposed to bring with it an element of sporting pride, or if it’s some sort of combination of these. My own take on it is that despite Visser qualifying for Scotland, he wouldn’t view himself as a Scotsman, so the ‘identifying with Scotland’ angle carries a bit less weight, suggesting that any changes are predicated on acquisition of Scottish English features through contact, rather than through any sort of identity politics, perhaps lending more weight to Trudgill’s point that ‘identity doesn’t matter‘.

The Social Linguist

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  1. festeringhillock
    May 23, 2012 at 8:42 am

    This is similar to Steve McClaren’s “dutch” accent after he moved to manage a Dutch football team, after managing England:

    (Incidentally, one of the comments on that video says that McClaren adopted Tyneside features when managing Middlesborough – he’s from Yorkshire, originally – although I don’t know how much truth there is in that)

    But the problem with the hypothesis that favours contact over identity is that, in the case of Visser and McClaren, they have only been living in Scotland and Holland, respectively, for a few years (the McClaren interview was in the same year he moved to Holland from the UK!). Yet there are plenty of people who move to another area, and have lived in that area for a much longer period that Visser and McClaren, but whose accent doesn’t noticeably change. This seems to suggest that “identity” is at least as important as “contact”, at least with regards to how people view the ‘new’ accent. Perhaps those two terms suggest a too ‘black and white’ picture anyway, given that we might want to introduce a “cognitive” explanation.

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