Why Foreign Accents Are So Attractive (But Some Totally Aren't)

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couple at a meal attracted to each other because of their accents

As if dating shows couldn't get any worse, back in 2009, there was a new addition to the primetime lineup called Dating in the Dark. Maybe you've heard about it. Three men and three women court each other in a pitch-black room to find out if love is, in fact, blind.

While I'm not racing to the next casting call, I do think I've figured out what my secret weapon would be: an accent.

Who, I wonder, has never melted like chocolate in a warm hand at the sound of an exotic voice? Give me a nice Scottish brogue and those lights would never have to come on.

There is something about the lilt and drawl, the strange clipped consonants and elongated vowels tumbling out of a man's mouth, that makes my heart pitter patter a little bit faster and my otherwise stringent standards slacken. I blame a tryst with a London waiter during a semester abroad solely on his devilishly alluring Aussie accent.

Why are accents so attractive?

Why is it that some accents attract us, while others grate like nails on a chalkboard? There must be some science to it — timbre and tone, resonance and fricatives, vowel shifts and dropped syllables.

But truth be told, there’s not — at least research has found no physiological reason why one accent is more pleasing to the human ear than another. Our inclinations toward certain accents, rather, are psychological and cultural, says Susan Tamasi, a sociolinguist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

"It all has to do with aesthetics," says Tamasi. "There is nothing linguistically sound about saying one accent is more pleasing than another."

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A preference — or a response to an accent, like say, being turned on—arises from the positive or negative associations we have formed with a certain accent or dialect. (Accent refers to the way words are pronounced; dialect refers to speech patterns and constructions.)

Maybe you had a college professor from New England, and since then, a Yankee accent suggests a smoldering hot intelligence. Or you weren't a fan of George Bush and now you can't bear to listen to anyone with a Texas twang.

Some of these perceptions are widely held. In England, the RP accent (Received Pronunciation, or "the Queen's English") is associated with the upper crust and the wealth of the British school system. It's why many foreigners attribute British speakers, deserving or not, with intelligence and prestige.

On the other end of the spectrum might be Southern American English. As a Southerner myself, my accent sometimes makes non-Southerners assume, at different times, my naivety, ignorance, or trustworthiness—all stereotypical characteristics of the uneducated hillbilly or overprotected Southern belle. Of course, that's not always bad. I know exactly when to turn the accent on in order to turn someone on.

Irish Guys Should Thank Colin Farrell

The media, in all its forms, plays a large role in creating these accent associations.

How many Scottish guys saw an increase in action after the movie Braveheart came out? And even more so now that Outlander captured our hearts? South Africans, you can thank Leonardo DiCaprio for Blood Diamond. Spaniards, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz will gladly accept your gratitude for making Spain even sexier.

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Germans, you can thank Heidi Klum's stunning face and figure for putting Germany on the map for something other than luxury cars. Bostonians, Matt Damon is accepting thank you notes for Good Will Hunting. Matthew McConaughey… well, he didn't even have to talk to give Southern men a good name.

It's not all Hollywood's doing, however. Politics also play a role.

Tamasi notes that Americans favor the accents of European Spanish (Spainish?), but not Latin American accents, perhaps because of friction over immigration. Likewise, Middle Eastern accents have fallen out of favor in the U.S., just as the popularity of the French accent waxes and wanes as our nation's relationship with that country changes.

A lot of it, Tamasi confirms, also has to do with exoticism.

We're intrigued by that which is different from ourselves, charmed by the unfamiliar. A romp with someone with an accent feels like taking a walk on the wild side — a mini-vacation without having to leave our bedroom. It's different and it's exciting. It's not the boy next door — his accent tells you that much.

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