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.