By Jane Lee
Do you have an accent? Or do I?
In the early 2000s, Harvard linguistics professor Bert Vaux established a series of words and questions that the Internet today calls the “accent challenge.” The rise of the YouTube tag began a small celebration of the differences in word choice and pronunciation.
From a linguistic perspective, an accent isn’t defined by the auditory pronunciations, but by the social stigma, assumptions and prejudice associated with one’s speech patterns. Professor Tej Bhatia, professor of linguistics and cognitive sciences at Syracuse University, calls this an “invisible source of social bias.”
“A hierarchy of accents resides within every speech community,” says Bhatia. “This is beyond the linguistic issue; what is really going on is the social evaluation of people. To discriminate based on one’s accent is a function of displacement, creating ingroups and outgroups based on social language.”
Just as we recognize physical differences — “Hey, you’re taller than I am” — our brain is wired to categorize and make sense of information through socialization. Accents, in this sense, are analogous to race, gender and class. While conversations in Western academia about the discriminatory spectrum of race, gender and class abound, discussions on accents as mechanisms of exclusion are far less prevalent.
Perhaps the field of academia is where this exchange should begin. “Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia” discusses the socio-cultural influence of presentation and thus presumptions about the academic abilities among women of color. “Social-class differences may include family expectations, patterns of speech, emotional expressions, responsibilities to communities, cultural mores, ways of expressing friendliness, warmth, music and dress,” the authors write. “Women of color cannot — and should not — reasonably be expected to change their culture because they have entered a white academic world.”
It is not just in academia that the dialogue around accents as social tools needs to be addressed. Remembering
the landmark case of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American student who was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, brings light to the issue in a legislative context. In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, a juror described the prosecution’s star witness, Rachel Jeantel, as “not credible” because her dialect made her “difficult to understand.” Her testimony was completely dismissed during the 16-hour jury deliberation.
On the flip side, in 1992, a reporter asked then-President Bill Clinton, “Governor Clinton, you attended Oxford University in England and Yale Law School in the Ivy League, two of the finest institutions of learning in the world. So how come you still talk like a hillbilly?”
When someone tells us that we have an accent, it is only then that our self-assessment changes. Until then, we presume that our speech is unaccented, or “zero accented.” It’s not a compliment to tell someone they have a “good” accent — it’s condescending because it implies that you have a better accent and have the right to decide what passes for good diction. The conversation should not be about the quality of one’s verbal fluency, but about learning to listen beyond a spectrum of differences.
Historically, accents of the elite — the Queen’s English’s place as an exalted accent, for instance — are perceived with more admiration and value than those of the repressed, like dialects of the same language in colonial outposts. In the former, accents are a privilege and in the latter, accents are a detriment. Ironically, those who represent the privileged, “good” accent reside within the fields of education, law, and media — all areas supposedly governed by egalitarian principles. This subjective approach instills regional and national biases that color people’s assessment of one another and further emphasizes the idea of “good” accents and “bad” accents, when really, they are on a spectrum.
Efforts in communication are a two-way street. Just as one learns to look past physical appearances, one should not determine the worth of another based on their accent. Accents are distracting by nature — they are meant to distinguish our speech from someone else’s. But learning to accommodate for such differences is part of celebrating the uniqueness in people.
President Jane Lee is a junior studying public relations at Syracuse University.