Madhu Gopal, of Ilam School, asks :-

Why do each of us have different voices but not different accents?

Laurie Bauer, a Linguist at Victoria University of Wellington, responded.

Actually Madhu, we do all have different accents, but the differences are so small that we do not usually notice them.

If you have brothers or sisters, you will not speak in exactly the same way that they do. When you grow up and have children, they will not speak in exactly the same way that you do. That is how language changes.

If you have a tape-recorder you can find out for yourself that we do not all speak in precisely the same way. If you record several people in your class telling you what they want to do in the next holidays, and then listen for words like going, looking, seeing which end in ing. Sometimes people say ing, sometimes in'. Different people say the same words differently on different occasions. Some people might say ing 96 times out of every hundred such words, others might say ing 34 times out of every hundred words. But there will be differences for each speaker.

What you see with this simple experiment is true for most aspects of the things you say. You can't tell from a single sentence that we all speak differently, but when you listen to a lot of speech, you discover that we do.

Our different voices are caused by the fact that we all have different sized heads, different sized tongues, different sized Adam's apples, vocal chords and so on. Our different accents seem to be caused by the desire to be more like some people and less like others. Why we should have different accents in this way is a question scientists cannot yet answer properly.

In many countries, though not in New Zealand, the accents you hear change gradually from place to place, until, when you get far enough away from home, you can no longer understand people. In New Zealand we can generally understand people easily, whether they come from Kaitaia or Invercargill. That is very helpful in such a small country.