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Beauty is in the ear of the beholder: the role of accent in mate choice

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

Many forms of communication rely on learned signals1. In animals, learned signals can include courtship displays and dominance and submission behaviours2, 3. In humans, language is comprised of learned signals. Learned signals and responses to learned signals can diverge among populations over time, sometimes with profound effects3, 4. For example, diverging song dialects among bird populations can lead to reproductive isolation and possibly speciation5. In humans, learned accents can play roles in mate choice and other social interactions6-8. Differences in accents and how accents are perceived can lead to positive or negative perceptions of the speaker, and the stigmatisation of accents can underpin or reinforce social and economic inequality7, 9. Understanding how individuals evaluate learned signals like accents can help us to understand the roles of social and sexual selection in biological evolution, and to explain and address social inequity in humans.

In biology, there are conflicting theories about how learned signals should affect mate choice. Signals like accents that indicate local origin may indicate that the signaller is well-adapted to the local environment. If this is true, then individuals with local accents may offer good genes or high-quality parental care to their offspring, and so be favoured as mates10, 11. On the other hand, individuals with the same accent as the chooser may be more closely related, and choosers might prefer mates with dissimilar accents in order to avoid inbreeding12. Signals might also be valued for their intrinsic qualities. For example, a complex or difficult-to-produce signal may indicate that the signaller has high intelligence or high fitness in any environment, and so would be a good mate11, 13. Finally, how accents are evaluated might depend on whether one is choosing a short-term or long-term partner. Theory predicts that short-term partners should be valued mostly for the genes they contribute to their offspring, but long-term partners should be valued both for their genes and for the parental care they provide14. Thus, long-term and short-term partners may be evaluated according to different, or even conflicting, criteria14.

In sociolinguistics, it is well-known that accents affect how speakers are perceived and treated15, but how accents are evaluated is an open question. The specific features of accents (e.g., the presence or absence of particular phonemes) may convey meanings that influence listener perceptions16, but which accent features shape listener perceptions and how is not well understood.

This project will address human responses to accents focusing on questions of import to both biologists and sociologists. Some possible questions include: Do listeners prefer mates with accents similar to their own? Do listeners prefer mates with accents that are (or that they perceive to be) more geographically proximate to their own? Which features of accents positively or negatively affect mate preference? What attributes that listeners infer from accents (e.g., trustworthiness, social dominance, economic class, intelligence, prestige, friendliness, education) are most important in mate choice? With guidance from the multi-disciplinary team of advisors, the student on this project will take the lead role in choosing the specific questions and approaches that most appeal to them. Data collection may take place in the lab or using novel online tools, and empirical work may be augmented by computational and statistical models. We are particularly keen to recruit a student with a strong quantitative background. Biologists or linguists would be well suited to the position, and we would eagerly consider students from fields including mathematics, physics or computer science.


1Shettleworth SJ (2001) Anim Behav 61:277-286. 2Janik VM et al. (2000) Anim Behav 60:1-11. 3Verzijden MN et al. (2012) Trends Ecol Evol 27:511-519. 4Gilman RT et al. (2015) Evolution 69:3004-3012. 5Danner JE et al. (2011) Am Nat 178:53-63. 6Coupland N et al. (2007) J Socioling 11:74-93. 7Hansen K et al. (2017) Exp Psychol 64:27-36. 8Tsurutani C (2012) J Multiling Multicul 33:587-601. 9Baratta A (2016) Pragmat Soc 7:291-319. 10Veen T et al. (2015) J Evol Biol 28:1804-1815. 11Puurtinen M et al. (2009) Am Nat 174:741-752. 12Duthie AB et al. (2016) Am Nat 188:651-667. 13Chaffee DW, Griffin H, Gilman RT (2013) Evolution 67:3588-3599. 14Invernizzi E, Gilman RT (2015) Curr Zool 61:1043-1061. 15Baratta A (2018) Accent and Teacher Identity in Britain: Linguistic Favouritism and Imposed Identities. London: Bloomsbury. 16Eckert P (2008) J Socioling 12:453-476.

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