Accent Prejudice Isn’t “Prejudice Lite”

Pittsburgh

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?

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.] 

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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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32 Responses to Accent Prejudice Isn’t “Prejudice Lite”

  1. Thank you! I’ve seen too many otherwise kind and open-minded people behave really terribly to speakers of the wrong sort of dialect.

  2. Michael Fahey says:

    Thanks for the great post calling out small-minded snobs who betray their insecurities by making fun of those they wrongly consider different and inferior.

  3. Brian Powers says:

    Hi Ben,

    I had an anthropology professor while I was an undergrad in New Hampshire who originally hailed from Missouri. He explained to us that after he gained his Ph.D he was forced to suppress his native Southern accent to be accepted fully in Northern academia.

    Thanks for this article!

    ~Brian

    • adam cohen says:

      “I had an anthropology professor while I was an undergrad in New Hampshire who originally hailed from Missouri. He explained to us that after he gained his Ph.D he was forced to suppress his native Southern accent to be accepted fully in Northern academia.”

      That seems to be a rather common thing.Two anecdotes spring to mind:

      1. Three female members of my grad school cohort were Southerners, and they both worked quite hard at suppressing their native accent and mastering General American. They both felt that “talking like a hick” would hold them back.

      2. A very distinguished faculty member made a point of telling us during a seminar that a “proper” speaking voice was a very important asset. He noted that he had worked with a vocal coach to get the New York out of his speech.

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  5. Blake says:

    Start getting political correct with your blog then prepare to lose a viewer.

  6. Ted J says:

    Really disappointing blog entry. So what if websites poll these type of things? There’s similar polls all the time for these sort of topics. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. I’m also pretty certain that you’ve most likely participated in them. These type of polls have been around since the start of the internet. You’re the one that seems to come off as intolerant… and very rude.

    Sorry to say this, but I think the only prejudice I see here are those that tell people not to take part in something because of their own ‘beliefs.’ Which is the very definition of being prejudice.

  7. Billy Albright says:

    Prejudice will always exist.

    to fat
    to skinny
    to nerdy sounding
    to ugly
    to tall
    not my type
    Your ears are to big
    Your nose is to big
    Your accent is to weird
    Your an african
    Your from the middle east
    You’re to stupid.
    You’re to shy
    You’re to outgoing
    You’re taste in clothes is bad
    You’re not good enough for me.
    you’re to different

    I could just keep going on and on. Sorry but human beings are just this way.

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  9. Nick says:

    I didn’t call you names or accuse you of saying something you didn’t say, yet you still deleted my comment. How very open-minded of you!

    • Nick, I’m not going to get into the semantics of what “name calling” is. For me it’s simply saying “you’re a [x]” or “what you wrote is [x]” where [x] is just intended to express outrage rather than express an argument. I’m not trying to create a little clubhouse here where dissenters will be exiled. I’m just trying to keep conversations civil.

      • Dizzy says:

        I remember a few of them and I don’t remember them calling you derogatory names or even being in a threatening tone. One compared this to the other various similar polls that happen all the time. Another said if you didn’t care for the content of the website then not to visit the page. Not exactly removal/censored content worthy.

        Just my opinion. Nice site btw

  10. Ed says:

    At least in Britain, prejudice against accents has been acknowledged for more than a century. The 1912 play Pygmalion seems to have opposed this prejudice. Shaw said, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” I suggest that, if you were to travel in time back to the 1950s in Britain, you’d find that far more people opposed accent prejudice than opposed homophobia.

    Wells suggested that the situation was different in the USA. He wrote, “Except to some extent in the east, it is grammar (morphology and syntax) rather than pronunciation than people make stereotypical judgments about (foreign accents and Black English are exceptions to this generalization).” (Page 118 in Wells 1982) Do you agree?

    • I do, yes. We have our grammar absolutists, but usually when I hear people express negative sentiments toward dialects in the States, it’s toward the way an accent “sounds” more than toward non-standard grammar.

      It’s interesting you mention accent prejudice in the UK, because as I think I may have expressed here, it’s something I suspect has actually become more of an issue in the US these days. And a lot of it, like you say, is that it’s been something acknowledged in the British Isles for a lot longer than I think we’ve acknowledged it here.

      • Redwood says:

        Accent prejudice in Britain goes back at least half a millennium. Just take a look at fictional ‘comical’ accounts.

        Regional English English varieties have been branded ‘humourous’ and ‘unpleasant’ since Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale.

        Meanwhile, foreign accented English has been stereotyped since Shakespeare’s time, where he used Welsh English for Captain Fluellen in Henry V – to a comical end. (Then, WE was more of a foreign accent influenced by Welsh L1, today it holds a place within regional varieties of British Englishes. )

  11. Brett says:

    Don’t see the big deal. I’m from where that accent won that contest. People just have different taste. Don’t think they shouldn’t be allowed to express their opinion. You have the right to respond but I think this is a bit over the top none the less.

  12. Dan says:

    Good post. This is something I need to monitor myself for – I don’t think I’m too bad but I have a strong suspicion that some kind of prejudice lurks beneath my liberal exterior so I welcome being made aware of this.

  13. Josh says:

    You should of kept your comments post up (the one you made above this post/topic today) I think it’s to bad you didn’t stick to your guns on your own personal website. If you want to have a blog with a certain atmosphere then that’s your call. It’s your private website.

    There’s a ton of negativeness on the internet. It’s always been this way and probably always will be to a certain degree.

    • Thanks, Josh! I didn’t remove the post to back off from what I said earlier. At a certain point, I just don’t want that to be the first thing people are seeing when they come here. Like I said, I have a comments policy and most people don’t have a problem understanding it.

  14. Dean says:

    What is being overlooked here is that the prejudice is bi-directional. You question why it is that it’s ok for the prof to tailor his intonation yet not so for the dock worker. As if the prejudice only ever comes from the so-called higher social stratum directed toward the lower. But the same prejudice arises – and you even, implicitly, allude to this – if, say, a Cameron-esque accent is heard in amongst a conversation between lower or middle-class participants.
    I myself have left a small town in rural Ireland and promptly lost that accent for a more ‘developed’ sounding one – but not to try to ‘fit in’ or convey a linguistic identity; rather because I associate the original dialect with a certain kind of ignorance, or small-mindedness. When I return, I find myself having to readjust back to the original dialect. This is a common occurrence, from what I’ve heard speaking with others who have parted with their original dialect for whatever reason, however, my case differs to most: whereas most people tell me they just fall back into the dialect ‘naturally’, perhaps after having spent some minimum amount of time at home, contradictorily I find myself having to consciously re-engineer my accent to be more like the home dialect, in order to avoid the very kind of discrimination spoken of here.
    (fwiw, it should be noted that mine is far from a Cameron-like accent)

  15. Redwood says:

    Very important post, Ben. That article really turned my stomach. People are often oblivious to language prejudice and the damage it causes. It’s one of the last discriminatory practices that’s still widely accepted. Whereas movements to combat racism, sexism, homophobia and others have seen much support: language prejudice still exists and little is done about it, despite there being enough evidence to show that people ARE excluded from communities and jobs based SOLELY on their speech.

    Anyone who believes it’s ‘not an issue’ or ‘not a big deal’ should read Lippi-Green’s ‘English With an Accent: Language, Ideology, and discrimination in the United States’ (1997).

    Articles and polls like this may seem harmless, but they reinforce stereotypes through subordinating the variety in question. A negatively loaded adjective like ugly, attaches semantics of ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’ quality to the ‘norm’ or ‘perfect’. True, some Pittsburgh speakers will brush this off, some will combat it with pride in their language, but others will read the results of the poll and feel like they should move towards a ‘better’ language. With language, like with race, gender and sexual orientation, there is no ‘ideal’. All varieties of a language ARE equal, don’t let any ‘standard English’ argument tell you otherwise. We shouldn’t try to standardise and eliminate people’s accents if they’re ‘unattractive’ or ‘ugly’, but rather move towards a goal of showing that each variety is equally valid to the human experience.

    “What is surprising, even deeply disturbing, is the way that many individuals who consider themselves democratic, even-handed, rational, and free of prejudice, hold on tenaciously to a standard language ideology which attempts to justify restriction of individuality and rejection of the Other” – Lippi-Green (p.73)

    “We do not, cannot under laws, ask people to change the color of their skin, their religion, their gender, but we regularly demand of people that they suppress or deny the most effective way they have of situating themselves socially in the world. ie. ‘You may have dark skin but you must not sound Black’. ‘You can wear a yarmulke if it is important to you as a Jew, but lose the accent’. ‘Maybe you come from the Ukraine, but can’t you speak real English?’ ‘If you just didn’t sound so corn-pone, people would take you seriously’. ‘You’re the best salesperson we’ve got, but must you sound gay on the phone?’ “(p.63-64)

    • Michael says:

      The Internet is full of ****. Just glance over the slate article comment section this article author links to. The Slate article complains about the poll and by and large all the comments in the comment section say awful mean spirited things about the way people speak. Just about every accent came under scrutiny. But the internet has a problem with sexism, racism and all sorts of things. You just got to know where to go and not to go.

  16. Dylan says:

    “he’s just trying to talk that way” why not put “they’re just trying to talk this way” since it goes both ways? I know women that unfortunately had to change their accents from sounding like they’re not from Alabama.

  17. Payton says:

    Dude, it was just a poll. Most people like myself who took part in this poll just did it for fun. Have a thicker set of skin, or you’ll go through life offended at everything. No-one wants to live in a society that is suppressed to the level of never trying to ever be offensive to anyone. And if that type of society did come to pass, I’m sure you wouldn’t like it as much as you think you would.

    I say this as a fan of random fly by polls that are done from time to time. Just to see the results. It’s interesting – to me and many others – to see the results of these type of polls. Do you honestly think this is incredibly awful?

  18. Samuel says:

    …but the philly accent is ugly…

    you would think that your wife or something had this accent the way you go on and on about this. Certainly something personal about this article that touched a nerve.

  19. CoffeeJanitor says:

    You don’t speak for me, Mr Smith.

  20. Christa says:

    I know this wasn’t probably the intent on your part, but I would of liked for you to give more female examples. This is very much a problem with women as well. Which should of been discussed in this piece more to cover that topic as well in regards to this. Lacking to do so makes the article seem kinda sexist which is in itself prejudice.

    Take care.

  21. SamC says:

    While I agree with you that people will use accents and the way they hear other people talk to make snap judgements about them, and we need to examine our prejudices… am I allowed to just not like the way an accent sounds, without thinking any less/more of the people who speak with that accent? The Pittsburgh accent just sounds a little grating to me, but I think people from the area are perfectly normal/no different from people from other areas of the country. Living on the other side of PA, I’ve interacted with plenty of Pittsburghians in different social situations (and never hostilely, since I don’t give a fig about sports), & just think of their accent as one of my least favorites, not as an indicator for class, intelligence, or anything else. Well, except maybe an affinity for Sheetz over Wawa.

  22. Steph says:

    I hate my accent. I’ll be honest lol. I am from Ontario Canada and have a lower class Canadian accent (worst canadian raising you could possibly ever hear). I have tried to tone it down a bit (hence the reason I frequent this site lol) but it’s been so tricky to do. A lot of other people my age (I’m 25) have much more “conventional” or “general Canadian” accent than me and at times it makes me feel a little less intelligent or sophisticated in comparison to them as people do comment on it occasionally.

    I don’t know.. Sigh. I guess at this age it’s too late to lose for good so I might as well just accept it.