I try to promote acceptance of diversity in dialects and accents. In the real world, however, things are not so fair. Numerous dialects of English are stigmatized: many people, even educated people, harbor the belief that some accents are “uneducated,” “ugly” or betray some kind of character flaw. Why is this?
the five most common reasons why some dialects are stigmatized (and why others aren’t).
Poverty. Cockney, working-class Dublin, Appalachian, African-American Vernacular English: all of these dialects are associated with the often impoverished people who speak them. At the risk of sounding political, I believe people make a false association between poverty and the superficial attributes of the poor. If a poor person dresses a certain way, we assume that their dress contributes to them being poor. If poor people live in a certain neighborhood, we assume living in that neighborhood makes you poor. This is no different with language. When poor people speak a certain way, we think this “improper” way of talking makes them poor. The result is that this accent or dialect becomes stigmatized. And a vicious cycle begins.
Regional/Cultural/Ethnic Animosity. Some Americans believe New Yorkers to be aggressive, money-hungry, and rude. Some Britons think people from Birmingham are loutish, violent and uneducated. In both cases, there is a cultural prejudice that exists about people from a certain place. And examples of how racism and bigotry affect our perception of dialects are too numerous to mention. These attitudes extend to how people speak. We associate our prejudices with accents.
Divergence from prestige dialects. The flip side of these two points is that dialects are often judged on how closesly (or unclosely) they resemble “prestige” dialects. Few Britons speak Received Pronunciation anymore, but I still think British dialects are judged based on their proximity to that accent. The same holds true for General American English and the “neutral” accents that have emerged in the past fifty years in Ireland, Australia and South Africa.
Nasality. Detroit. Liverpool. Long Island. What do these seemingly different English accents have in common? All are stigmatized. All are “nasal” in quality. I have long puzzled over why the most nasal dialects of English tend to be the most disliked. But we find this again and again throughout the English speaking world. People complain about an accent being too “whiny.” My theory is that people who speak with nasal accents, by engaging their nasal resonators, speak a bit more loudly than speakers of other dialects. Their voices are often more easily heard. English-speaking culture, wherever it is found, is more puritanical than other cultures. We don’t like to be interrupted, don’t like hearing other people talking, don’t like communicating over crowds. Hence we don’t like the more “forceful” (read as “nasal”) dialects.
Non-standard Grammar. The idea of “standard” English Grammar is an abstraction. Dialects preserve, to different degrees, their grammatical legacies. In a world that sees non-standard grammar as inferior, however, dialects that don’t conform to this standard are usually judged as “bad English.”
What are your reasons for liking or disliking a particular accent?