Accent Angst

“Is she dumb, or does she just sound that way because she’s from Alabama?” This question came from someone we interact with at a business level about someone we know on a personal level. Thankfully my husband was wise enough to not tell me about the interaction – if he had, I would possibly have ended up in police custody. The friend she was talking about is a lovely woman with a Master’s Degree who is unfortunate enough to have a southern accent while living in the Northeast.

What is it about accents? They raise fury and assumptions in people. Just recently I spoke to a woman on the phone about breast cancer. She was irate that “someone with an accent had the audacity to ask ME if I was an American citizen, obviously she isn’t one, otherwise she wouldn’t have an accent”. Wow. While I understand that people, particularly those whose relatives came on the Mayflower, don’t like to be asked about their citizenship, it’s a standard question in my line of work, and if there is one thing we should understand about a nation of immigrants, it’s not about the accent. I can take you to the North End of Boston tomorrow and introduce you to 50 Italian grandmothers who have lived here for years but speak English like they just stepped off the plane from Sicily.

Accents cause angst. In Arizona accent angst has led to a ‘policing’ of accents in the public school system. While defenders of the activity claim it is critical that teachers know English so they can model this for their students, those who filed the complaint with the Federal Department of Education argue that knowing English well, and speaking accent free are two different issues. Checking the English level of a potential employee for a school system that operates in English is valid and can be justified; judging the accent alone cannot. The argument is that an accent is only one variable of many measures that can assess language skill and fluency.

Let’s look at the accent in Massachusetts, and the inability to pronounce the ‘r’ sound. Here, my last name is not Gardner, it’s Gahdnah. Yet, to my knowledge, no accent police are forcing teachers from the area to change the way they speak. Or how about the mayor of the city of Boston – a born and bred native. His accent, thick with years of living in Massachusetts, makes it difficult to understand what he’s saying, yet no one accuses him of not speaking English well (except maybe our family)

At dinner a couple of nights ago we got into a discussion on this topic. My husband, whose relatives are from the south, was raised with the view that those with Massachusetts accents were educated, elitist snobs and didn’t understand the rest of the country. By contrast, many of my husbands’ colleagues hold fast to the view that if you have a southern accent, you don’t have a brain. You are the idiot that is missing from the Texas town. An acquaintance of Cliff’s, a former chaplain from Harvard University, in talking about accents stated “And what’s up with South Carolina? It’s too small to be a country, but too large to be an insane asylum”. True story.

As humans we have an amazing capacity to find differences and exploit them. When we’re little it may be the color of eyes or their body size. As we get older, the measures change to accents or skin color. We become more sophisticated (or not) at hiding our exploitation, but continue with the childish trait of considering “difference to equal inferior”.

Arizona’s law is under examination. A civil rights lawyer has brought the accent policing policy into the courts and it is being scrutinized as various civil rights abuses are uncovered. But the former Harvard chaplain, right here in Cambridge? He just gets to go on making stupid remarks with no court date in sight.

15 thoughts on “Accent Angst

  1. Wow, as part of my post today, I posted a link to a quiz called “Yankee or Dixie” where you pick your responses for how you say certain words and it tells you what part of the US that word or pronunciation is common at and what percentage Yankee or Dixie….of course it was meant to be just a fun quiz, but I got more Yankee than Dixie because of my choices.
    I am a Southern girl, born and raised in Texas my WHOLE life. The part of Texas I lived up until about 12 had more of a national dialect, I think…everyone I was around sounded like the newscasters and weathermen who are trained to have a national accent(not sure the exact word for it, hopefully you get what I am trying to say)…the type of dialect where anyone anywhere that knows English could understand, basically. I have now lived for over 16 years in a city where there are quite a bit of people who talked in more of what tv and movies consider a TEXAS accent….therefore, I don’t hear it in my own voice but when I listen to my voice back, I can hear a Texas accent. BUT just because I may have a Texas accent doesn’t mean I don’t know how to speak clearly and concisely, know proper grammar and am uneducated. I attribute a good education as to how I can pass as a Yankee based on the way I talk…when you ignore the accent, anyways.
    Sorry that this is so long, but I completely agree with your post and think it’s unfair to judge by accents….you just never know.
    As a side note, I am Theatre major so I CAN change my accent if I pay close attention. I did one play with a British accent and out of my cast mates, I was the only one that didn’t have to work really hard to not let the Southern accent slip out. :)

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    1. What a great response. I’m heading to your post right now. Love that you can change your accent! It’s funny – when it comes to theatre we love accents….in real life, not so much.

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  2. And then you add to the mix all those mish kids coming ‘home’ from ‘living abroad’ who have a mishmash and don’t fit in anywhere and who become adept chameleons, changing their accents at will to fit in with whoever they are speaking to. I still start speaking American when I’m talking to an American and my family tell me I already sound like an Aussie after just 4 years. Who cares what accent people have??!

    What really really annoys me is when people become particularly obtuse about understanding someone with a ‘foreign accent’. Perhaps its a particularly British thing. Some friends after a few years of living with my French hubby still spoke to him in a slow loud voice or even worse, address all their conversation to me rather than him.
    grrrr don’t get me started.

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  3. When JFK was President, a friend from Massachusetts said, “It sure is nice to have a President who doesn’t have an accent.” When Jimmy Carter was President, a fellow Georgian said, “It sure is nice to have a President who doesn’t have an accent.” I’ve met some brilliant people (read about others) from Alabama. And, I’ve met some dumber than dumb (read about those also) from our Eastern states. Years ago when my daughter-in-law from Scotland met my mother who had a real Southern drawl, I wondered how they’d understand each other. Afterwards I asked my mother, “Were you able to understand Fiona’s accent?” She replied, “What accent? We had no trouble whatsoever understanding each other.” Communication in whatever accent is described so beautifully by Lois’s comment above. Thanks.

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  4. I love the sound of a southern accent! Actually I have never met (or heard) an accent I didn’t like. Accents are like magic and draw me in for a closer look. Grammar and accents are two completely different things which leaves me wondering about the law in Arizona…and asking myself, “Are they dumb, or is it just because they are legislators in Arizona?”

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  5. Oh My! Most of your posts make me weepy, but this one raised my blood pressure!!
    I have always thought accents were like the threads and colors in the tapestry of language, giving voice to our roots and influences along our way. Glad you shone the spotlight on the absurdity of “accentism.”

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