Say what you want about Lindsay Lohan, but there’s no denying her particular talent for making bizarre headlines. Example: This week, the internet predictably lost its mind when video surfaced of the star gabbing in a head-scratch-worthy new accent with a reporter at the opening of her nightclub in Greece. What’s really hilarious about this instance is that it was her manner of speech, rather than what she was actually saying — something about how partying can bring us all together, and how she wants Lohan (her new nightclub) to remind people to welcome Syrian refugees — that garnered so much attention. Oh, LiLo.
“[My new accent] is a mixture of most of the languages I can understand or am trying to learn,” Lohan explained to the Daily Mail a few days later. She says she’s learning or is fluent in a total of six languages, including Turkish, French, and Russian. She’s also been living in London for the past two years, outside her usual American milieu. But that accent, which she’s jokingly named "Lilohan," still seems like way too big of a change to be real. Many of us have our doubts.
As annoying as this change may seem, it turns out there's a pretty solid and totally normal explanation for why Lohan might be doing this — and in fact, it's something everyone does to some extent. It all starts with why we care so much about speaking patterns in the first place. According to Sali Tagliamonte, PhD, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, how we speak says everything about who we are and where we belong. When that changes suddenly (or appears to change suddenly), it naturally throws us for a loop. “We all have a particular way of speaking that comes down to where we live and where we came from and what our background is,” Dr. Tagliamonte says. Speech patterns give us clues about where someone grew up, about social class, sexuality, education level, and many other ways we want to know how to categorize people. It's more important than you might think, sociologically, to get an accent right. Humans are social animals, after all, and having the right accent says you’re one of the gang. This is why xenophobes get so bent out of shape over immigrants’ speech. It’s also why we judge people who seem to be performing their accent, such as politicians who suddenly develop a folksy twang or celebrities who affect posh European mannerisms. When we develop our first accents (usually by imprinting on our earliest caregivers), we’re trying to fit in as a matter of group identification, and it’s truly not unusual for this to change over time depending on whom we’re with. “There is a general tendency in language to approximate the localities or the social networks that you want to be a part of,” Dr. Tagliamonte says, “and if those social networks are diverse and you pick and choose from the various different ones, your performative accent, the one you use when you're in an interview or when you're not with your friends and family, may very well be a mix.” Translation: Whatever Lohan is doing, you do it, too — though, okay, maybe to a lesser degree. It’s not always a conscious decision, either — again, think of how you picked up your original language patterns. You can work to change how you speak, such as switching up your vocabulary (“lorry” for “truck,” for example), but you also assimilate the speech of those you’re hanging out with, often without even noticing it. Linguists call this socially mediated alignment. “When we talk to people, we're doing more than just communicating,” Dr. Tagliamonte explains. “We're also showing our allegiances and our alliances and wanting to be part of the group and wanting to engage in jocular communication with our peers. The more people are together, the more they're going to sound like each other, the more that they're going to use the same words as each other.” So, if our peers come from all over the world, our own accents can get a little garbled. Dr. Tagliamonte is researching how accents mix in a small town in rural Ontario, for instance; the local population descended from immigrants who spoke a broad array of Scottish, Irish, and English dialects, and the town’s unique accent can seem like a tangled mishmash of all of those. “These are things that happen in language when you have people of different origins coming together in one place,” she says. “Or if you have a single individual who travels all over the place and picks up words and phrases and pronunciations from other places.” So yeah, Lohan may really just be a sponge when it comes to language, as she says — though maybe this is a sign she’s been away from home for too long. Dr. Tagliamonte says that even with extreme accent changes, it’s possible to get “yours” back. Sometimes all it takes is a visit to your hometown. Either way, you do you, Lindsay. In the meantime, we'll try to keep in mind that there's more to your accent — and, apparently, to clubbing — than it may seem.