Pittsburgh, 1920 (Public Domain/Wikimedia)
I’m hesitant to respond to Gawker‘s “Ugliest Accent” tournament. For those who haven’t read it, the piece is a “March-Madness-style” competition to determine America’s “ugliest” regional English. (Pittsburg was crowned the winner last week.) I’m clearly no fan, but Josef Fruehwald offers great critiques at Slate and his blog, so I won’t spend much time picking apart the piece itself.
What concerns me more than the Gawker gag, though, is its feedback: the way even critical follow-ups treat it as the loving parody it so clearly isn’t, the comments in Fruehwald’s Slate piece that ignore his point and continue with the accent-hating, and the way even people with hometown pride give it an implicit thumbs up. Most folks, even progressives, consider accent prejudice okay. I’m not blameless. I hear these sentiments all the time, and admit they don’t feel as bad as racism, homophobia or other taboo prejudices.
But what I feel is wrong. The fallacy here is assuming prejudices–racism, classism, xenophobia–fit in neat little boxes, some politer than others. In reality, linguistic prejudice is very much intrinsic to the prejudices we abhor. Whether through African-American English‘s centuries-long use as “evidence” of racist pseudo-biology or British linguo-cultural class warfare, language informs bigoted mindsets of all kinds. You can’t extract accent discrimination from its classist, racist, and xenophobic underpinnings. This becomes apparent if we substitute language for, say, one’s appearance (no more arbitrary a target, in my opinion). If I said something bizarre like “I hate the way Irish people look” it would be hard to take this as an incidental, surface-level observation.
When we hear certain accents, assumptions pop into our heads about the speakers’ lives, where they live, what they read, their education level, and their politics. It’s human. And for those who recognize these impulses as irrational, maybe they’re harmless. But if you can imagine even a slightly less principled person than yourself using such impressions to judge someone’s guilt, employment suitability, loan worthiness, or custody arrangement–almost certainly frequent occurrences–you should never participate in accent prejudice. Why do we view as harmless generalizations that can cause such real damage?
Some of it, I suspect, is that we see language as a choice. And yes, language can be a choice. I choose to speak the accent I grew up with most of the time, even though I could talk like David Cameron for the rest of my days. I don’t speak like David Cameron because to do so would prompt concern for my mental health.
But the fact that I speak like a middle-class American instead of the British PM proves my point. To the extent that we choose to speak the way we do, we typically do so for practical reasons. A college professor wants to communicate with people he encounters on a daily basis and convey a linguistic identity. A dock worker from a working-class community desires the same. Like the prof, he seeks to communicate with co-workers and neighbors as effectively and honestly as possible. Why are the professor’s choices understandable but the stevedore’s choices worthy of mockery?
It’s also worth noting that language can be less a choice than we assume. Lynne Murphy demonstrated the curious semi-consciousness of speech acts a few years ago in an interview with PRI’s Patrick Cox:
Murphy: I mean, as I’m talking to you, I can hear a half-dozen things I’m doing that I wouldn’t have done before I moved to the U.K.
Cox: Oh, well tell me a couple of them.
Murphy: Well, I just said attuned [ətʲund], so I put a little on-glide, a “yeh,” at the beginning of my “u,” instead of saying attuned [ətund]. And I hear myself doing these things and not in some sense trying to do them, but as soon as I hear them I notice them.
If someone’s language shifts so noticeably without even trying, why assign conscious intentions to people simply speaking the accent they actually grew up with? For those of us who speak “standard” accents, I feel we buy into a comforting myth: because I choose to speak General American English I choose to play the part of a productive American, and someone who chooses otherwise has chosen a feckless existence for himself.
Justifying accent prejudice as criticism or mockery of people’s conscious behavior ignores both the practical reasons for language choices and the ways that language often isn’t a choice at all. But as long as we think “he’s just trying to talk that way” or believe that choosing to talk “middle-class” serves some dubious public good, this discrimination will continue to seem acceptable.
[Author’s note: I’ve regretfully disabled the comments on this post. This piece has attracted a large amount of vitriol (far worse, believe me, than the negative comments that have made it through). Sadly, I just don’t have the time to moderate.]