Americans: Intolerant of Regional Accents?

A Map of General American English

The region where dialects are closest to "General American" (Wikimedia, based on William Labov)

I often assume that the British are more accent-conscious than we Americans are. Let me put that more bluntly: I assume the British are more accent-intolerant than we are.

There is a good bit of evidence to support this. Brits have made accent mockery an art form. Whereas in America, we refer to “Southern Accents” or “New York Accents,” the British have a special taxonomy for this kind of thing. You don’t speak with a “Liverpool Accent” or a “Birmingham Accent” or a “Newcastle Accent;” you speak “Scouse,” “Brummie” or “Geordie.” And those terms are often unflattering.

Being a Yank, I have always thought this to be a relic of Britain’s class system. All those Victorian aristocrats sneering at Dickensian workhouses, those DH Lawrence novels about ladies seduced by coal miners. We have no history of this in the US, right? We find Southerners charming! The Bronx accent is rugged but treasured!

But it was reported this week that British singer Cheryl Cole was told to “lose the accent” in order to appear as a judge on the American version of the BBC’s X-Factor. Now Cole is from Newcastle, a city with perhaps the trickiest dialect to understand in the English-speaking world. But this accent is just as difficult to scrutinize by Brits as Americans. So what’s with the “lose the accent” memo?

Perhaps this speaks to a dirty secret: for all our friendliness, we Americans may actually be less tolerant of regional dialects than the British are. Given, we don’t mock you mean-spiritedly because of your accent. We just politely ask you to “tone it down.”

What leads me to this conclusion is our media. In the UK, TV shows boast a variety of regional accents. EastEnders, Coronation Street, and Queer as Folk all feature characters with stigmatized accents, yet these programs have enjoyed wild popularity. There are TV hosts with Northern accents, celebrities with West Country brogues, and when Irish or Scottish characters appear in British films, other characters rarely comment on their dialect.

In the US, on the other hand, it seems that 99% of the actors on TV talk with the same dialect. All newscasters talk the same. All commercial voiceovers sound the same. There is a relentless, maddening sameness that pervades the speech of anybody in the public eye. Indeed, there is little “regional” media presence. There are no soap operas set in small towns in the American South. There are no TV crime dramas set in Boston with authentic accents. We seem to have made a collective decision that regionalisms are best left at home.

In short, I suspect that Americans are developing ideas about what consitutes “Standard English,” while Brits, conversely, are starting to shake off these notions. (This change may have begun years ago: when I was a child, I remember my grandmother, a fan of BBC radio, noting that news reporters spoke like “Cockneys” these days.) America and the UK seem to be going in opposite directions. British accents are becoming more similar to one another while, paradoxically, the British public is tolerating regionalisms more. Meanwhile, American accents are becoming more fractured, while we cling more and more to “standard American English.”

But maybe I’m generalizing. Do you think we’re less accepting of accents that we used to be? Or more?

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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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25 Responses to Americans: Intolerant of Regional Accents?

  1. Jen Kirby says:

    I am entertained by the idea that Americans teach British actors how to speak with a British accent. I assume the rumour is true, as I hear frequently hear one universal accent that I find totally unrecognisable as British, coming from actors playing “British” characters on American TV programs.

  2. Anna says:

    It’s always seemed to me that most Americans are not even aware of the existence of regional accents, much less able to judge them, aside from the broad stereotypical accents in TV and movies that tend more to signify character traits than place of origin.

  3. Erica Walch says:

    I think that British English accents are also homogenizing and (at least in the Kent/Sussex/Essex — southern bits outside of Dorset) taking on some distinctly American features (see /r/). The people I hear on the BBC et al. sound quite different to me than their counterparts of 20 years ago. I think there’s a bit of a vowel shift happening, too.

    In addition to not having media exposure to different regional American accents, we in the US also don’t really travel that much (and for many, that travel is to places scrubbed clean of any regional features), so we don’t have a lot of live exposure to different regional or international accented speech, and thus we have more difficulty processing accents (as do young children, who typically only hear the speech of a very small circle of people — a big problem for pediatricians trying to speak directly to their patients).

    I think Cheryl Cole’s minders were trying to help her out — the target viewers (maybe I’m making a vast generalization here, but I bet people who will faithfully watch X Factor and will really really want to hear everything the judges have to say) wouldn’t be able to understand her and would be unsatisfied customers, just like all the people who hang up on call center employees whom they cannot understand.

    • trawicks says:

      @ Erica,

      After listening to a recording of Ms. Cole, I think you’re right. She’s not tremendously difficult to understand, but the Geordie accent is strange enough that I can see American TV producers (not renowned for their tolerance of superficial differences) finding it jarring.

    • Anna says:

      I think we also aren’t conditioned to notice and identify them in the way that UKers seem to be. Until I moved away from my place of birth in my mid-twenties, I was not even aware that we (southern Wisconsinites) had accents, but it became very obvious the first time I came back for a visit. On the other hand, people in most other parts of the country assume we talk like the characters in Fargo.

    • dw says:

      Erica:

      Are you saying that English English is becoming rhotic?

      That would be contrary to all the evidence I am aware of, which is that the pockets of rhoticity in the south and west are gradually receding.

  4. John Cowan says:

    I think Anna is right: accents are mostly out of conscious focus in America, except in the South where people are very accent-conscious, typically either proud of their own accents or despising them. Labov said that one of the great things about working with NVCS speakers is that they have no clue how different their accents are, so you hear a “pure” accent unadulterated by (self-)prescriptivism.

    I agree that the deracinated Californian used in the media gets rather boring, but how many Easterners are even aware of the cot-caught and Mary-marry-merry mergers that they hear on TV but lack themselves?

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    I’ve always had a hunch about the awareness of accent/dialect differences between the US and UK; it’s partly geography. The UK is a small country compared to the US. The disparity in dialects in the UK developed over a 1500-year time span during which most people never ventured farther than 20 miles from home. In the US many people also stay close to home, and receive their general impression of American speech from the media, where the emphasis is on homogeneity. Due to my interest in language, coupled with a good bit of travel around the US, I’ve always been aware of the differences. In England, a relatively short trip by train, car or bus brings you to a totally different dialectal substrate.

  6. Greg says:

    I have always thought that the Brits are far more crazy about speakers’ accents than in the US. Generally,American people are less concerned about this issue… well maybe except the Southerners, New Englanders and New Yorkers.

  7. Norene says:

    Chicagoan living in Sheffield UK – I can hear differences in the accents from neighborhood to neighborhood in Chicago. However, when we moved to the East Coast USA – I could tell the difference only more generally. When we moved to England, I found that I could hear the difference only between cities close to where I live (i.e. Manchester, Liverpool, Chesterfield) but to me everyone from Southern England just sound Southern to me. So I think some of it may be familiarity helps you hear the small differences more. I am very familiar with Chicago based accents and can tell the difference of a few miles; I am less familiar with East Coast USA or Northern England so can only give general locations; and I don’t have much time in the Southern parts of England so it all sounds the same.

    I have no idea who is more tolerant – but I think ‘locals’ always think they have more differences than outside ears can hear.

  8. I’d say that those who think Americans — outside of the south — aren’t conscious of regional accents need to spend more time with Americans in their native habitat. Being a Midwesterner from SE Wisconsin means marking the accent from there, differentiating it from the Sheboygan-Fox Cities accent, as well as Chicago accents (plural). Then living in NW Indiana meant a whole different set. There’s also class-accents in the area, and then overlay that with racial/ethnic accents, and you’ve got5 a very interesting mix that people do in fact mark.

    It’s true that newscasters learn to speak a sort of homogenized “Midwestern Standard,” but spend some time in the Midwest with ordinary people, and you’ll find there are indeed a number of regional accents still doing quite well.

  9. Brenda McElyea says:

    Recent American television shows that utilize various accents include Chicago Code and The Big Bang Theory (at least one character). In the past other shows have followed accents for their areas including Dallas and In the Heat of the Night.

  10. chthonicscriptor says:

    I grew up speaking with a southern accent. Until I moved to a part of the U.S. where most people speak General American, I never realized how despised the southern accent is. I was told that people sound “dumb” when they speak with a southern accent. I have a Ph.D. and was a college professor. People would sometimes ask me how I could possibly be a college professor and speak with “THAT southern accent.”

    There are several Scottish actors who I’ve noticed speak with an English accent when acting, but use their Scottish pronunciation when speaking in person.

  11. Bee says:

    “Brits have made accent mockery an art form. […] the British have a special taxonomy for this kind of thing. […] you speak “Scouse,” “Brummie” or “Geordie.” And those terms are often unflattering.”

    As a native of the UK, I just wish to clarify that this assertion is simply untrue. Scouse, Brummie and Geordie (and of course Cockney) are not terms of mockery, if anything they are used affectionately.

  12. Jeff Adams says:

    As a Southerner living in New York, I do occasionally get rude or condescending remarks about the way I speak. In fact I had a roommate who apparently acquired a sense of dialectal superiority growing up in the Northern Chicago suburbs, and would mock me daily despite my requests for her to knock it off.

    On the other hand, when I was at a bar and an Arctic Monkeys song started playing, I remarked that I liked the way Alex Turner said “fink” instead of “think.” A group of English tourists next to me (who, by the way, said their own th’s in the more standard way) overheard my remark and indignantly informed me that that was his accent and I should not ridicule him for it.

  13. Randy says:

    Having now lived in Hazard, Kentucky, for twenty years after moving there from Southern California where I was born in 1955, I have come to appreciate the wide diversity of dialects in the Appalachian Mountains of Southeastern Kentucky. And, yes, to answer your question: I do believe that there is widespread prejudice across America against strong Southern accents. Those who otherwise are proud of the diversity that is supposed to represent America too often turn into the worst kind of snobs when hearing a dialect they associate with rural, uncouth, and illiterate. It’s all very sad and makes me angry.

  14. P S says:

    I am an American from Southern California. Every time I’ve traveled or met people from different parts of the US I have always been astonished by how similar, rather than different, we sound. Regional accents still do exist, but for the most part I feel like people try to tone it down. There definitely IS a heirarchy, with the ‘standard’ heard on TV being on top.

    I really appreciate regional accents and do hope we follow the same direction of the UK and accept and be proud of them.

  15. AUDIO NOIR says:

    as someone who has travelled the states and britain quite extensively i can tell you for absolute certain that british prejudices regarding accent are far more severe amongst the population than it is anywhere in the states. as far as the media regionalisms do seem to be a little more prominent on british t.v. than in the states but i think amongst the general populace accent prejudices in britain are far worse. as for the issue with t.v. i suspect that’s because the american media is far more aware that it’s product is gonna be watched in many different countries and, as such, american actors are far more likely to adopt a more “neutral” speech on camera.

    in fact i would generalize that americans who are aware of different accents in different locales are somewhat baffled by what it is that makes certain accents in britain so widely despised. brummie, scouse and cockney seem to be the most hated and i as a foreigner i still do not understand why when i, in fact, find RP the most annoying. to me it always sounds put on and tends to make the speaker sound stuck up.

    as far as the states east coast accents seem to be thought by outsiders to be rather course and harsh but are not generally hated. southern accents, on the other hand, are most definitely (perhaps unfairly) thought by many to sound dumb and racist and southerners are keenly aware of this fact. i suspect alot of this prejudice stems from the 1960’s (an extremely turbulent time in american history) when southerners were nearly only seen on news reels proudly exclaiming racist ideals and fighting integration tooth and nail although much like modern germans many southerners are, in fact, quite ashamed of that aspect of their history and quite rightly get sick of being associated with it.

  16. Andy R says:

    OK, I’ve read through the comments and would pose another point of view as well as comment on a few things. I’m from North Wales, I travel a lot in the UK, Europe as well as Canada and the USA.

    In the UK we have a huge array of accents including Scouse, Manc, North Walian, South Walian / Valley’s, Brummie, Geordie, Cumbrian, Scots Edinburgh, Scots Glasgow, Scots Aberdeen, West Country, Cornish, London and cockney. There accents were formed because of trading routes over the past 2000 years pre and post roman influence.

    However apart from uptight social climbers and idiots, regional accents are loved and defended as part of the local culture. Our accents are easily identifiable to us and for the most part everyone is understood. This is why we have regional telly programs with regional accents, this hadonly changed over the past 20 years but it is becoming the paradigm rather than a novelty.

    In the US, your accents are not as pronounced in short distances as in the UK, probably due to USA not being very old. We love the northern american accents very much, NY, Maine, minnesota etc very interesting. The lovely Southern broad accent we hear (We know mississippi and tennesee are very different) is marred by biggotry, and religious zealots.

    The idea of standardizing the american accent into that vile west coast hollywood isn’t everything neat smile is likea punch inthe chest. I onlyhope your regional cultures survive since it adds colour to life.

  17. Rachel says:

    My “English” grandmother (I use that term loosely – whilst being one of the most “English” people I knew, almost indistinguishable when I was little from the Queen, she was born to a Scottish officer serving in India and spent her childhood in New Zealand) very often complained about the move to using “those awful dialects” for weather forecasts and newsreaders (which happened about the same time Australian English started being used over RP for the same things in Australia).

    It’s interesting that you mentioned the television thing. I went to the US for the first time earlier this year, confident in my ability to understand the American accent perfectly – surrounded by American media, I had never had any trouble understanding any of it. When we arrived, I found that I had a lot of difficulty understanding anything anyone said (and this was in California!). For someone who can understand Doric Scots with reasonable ease, this surprised me. As we travelled, I was further surprised to realise that no-one actually sounded like the people on TV. Where do the actors come from, then? Canada?