Isolated Staffers in Antarctica Show How New Accents Begin

During months of isolation, staffers at British Antarctic Survey began talking differently
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 2, 2024 3:30 PM CST
Researchers Develop New Accent on Antarctica
Rothera Research Station, in Antarctica.   (Robert Taylor/British Antarctic Survey via AP)

Together through extreme isolation for months on end, wintering researchers in Antarctica develop close relationships—and, as one study found, a new way of talking, too. The BBC reports that over six months, staff members at British Antarctic Survey's (BAS) Rothera Research Station slowly began to pronounce certain words differently, in a common accent that became more pronounced the longer they were secluded together. According to IFLScience, the continent has no permanent residents, but research outposts there rotate scientists and support staff throughout the year. While up to 5,000 people may be working on Antarctica at a given time, the number dwindles to about 1,000 during harsh winter months. This particular community dwindled to 26 people.

Phonetics researchers at Germany's Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich wanted to see how language morphed when winter's ice drove them closer. "They say it is quicker to get to someone on the International Space Station than it is to medically evacuate someone from Antarctica in the winter," said Marlon Clark of BAS, per the BBC. He helped coordinate the study, in which 11 "winterers" at BAS recorded themselves saying 29 different words, like "coffee," "feud," "food," and "airflow." About every six weeks, they would record the words again. The mix of people participating—eight British people with varying northern and southern accents, a German, an American, and one Icelandic person—slowly began to form four vowel sounds differently.

"Six months isn't very long, so we saw very, very small changes. But we found some of the vowels had shifted," said Jonathan Harrington, one of the study's authors. Observing how an accent was able to form gave them better understanding of how one could begin to develop during longer periods of isolation, like the American accent after the Mayflower's trip to North America. Prior to the experiment, the researchers used computational modeling to analyze the participants and predict how their accent might develop. While the new accent was subtle, it was measured acoustically and fell in line with what the model predicted. "We'd expect the same thing to happen if astronauts ever went on a mission to Mars," Harrington said, per IFLScience, adding that in its extreme remoteness, a new language could even evolve. (More Antarctica stories.)

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