5 Reasons Why Some Dialects are Unpopular

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?

Below are 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?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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2 Responses to 5 Reasons Why Some Dialects are Unpopular

  1. John Cowan says:

    I would forcefully 🙂 dispute the claim that anglophone culture wherever it is found dislikes interruption and talking over crowds. We New Yorkers, both natives and immigrants, are just as much masters of the conversational impasto as Italians or Ashkenazi Jews, whether we have New York accents or not. (Considering the immigration history of my city, this is not surprising.)

    No, I think you were on the right track before: nasal accents sound like whines, people, even Italians and Ashkenazi Jews, dislike whiners. Even Italian and Ashkenazi whiners.

  2. go for aesthetic appeal says:

    i grew up in countryside without little exposure to mass media. my first exposure to foreigners of african and european origin was thru pictures on a children book. my instant question was why the black kid so dark and ugly? this question somehow had always stayed in the back of my head. at the time of the question, i was merely a kid with little schooling so i dont think it is that much a culturally shaped question of prejudice, rather it reflects a certain degree of truth. i m not the only one with similar question in mind. till this day, much better exposed, i still think europeans are in general better looking than africans, with the understanding that how politically incorrect my statement is. i have tried to look for answer on quora, apparently such topics are not allowed for discussion.

    diversity comes into being bcoz of differences therefore we cherish differences but if differences are to be valued equally, where comes the drive for progression?

    i think some accents and languages/dialects are more pleasant to my ears than others. the ultimate reason that some become more popular than others is becoz they appeal to the aesthetic taste of ppl’s sense more.