Speech carries accent information relevant to determining the speaker's linguistic and social background. A series of web-based experiments demonstrate that accent cues can modulate access to word meaning. In Experiments 1–3, British participants were more likely to retrieve the American dominant meaning (e.g., hat meaning of “bonnet”) in a word association task if they heard the words in an American than a British accent. In addition, results from a speeded semantic decision task (Experiment 4) and sentence comprehension task (Experiment 5) confirm that accent modulates on-line meaning retrieval such that comprehension of ambiguous words is easier when the relevant word meaning is dominant in the speaker's dialect. Critically, neutral-accent speech items, created by morphing British- and American-accented recordings, were interpreted in a similar way to accented words when embedded in a context of accented words (Experiment 2). This finding indicates that listeners do not use accent to guide meaning retrieval on a word-by-word basis; instead they use accent information to determine the dialectic identity of a speaker and then use their experience of that dialect to guide meaning access for all words spoken by that person. These results motivate a speaker-model account of spoken word recognition in which comprehenders determine key characteristics of their interlocutor and use this knowledge to guide word meaning access.
Cai, Z. G., Gilbert, R. A., Davis, M. H., Gaskell, M. G., Farrar, L., Adler, S., & Rodd, J. M. (2017). Accent modulates access to word meaning: Evidence for a speaker-model account of spoken word recognition. Cognitive Psychology, 98, 73–101. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2017.08.003