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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

Episode 2: Accents and Dialects

I spend a lot of time thinking about things. Thinking about why things are, how things got to be a certain way. My dad is a huge history nerd, and I am too- I’m full of random knowledge. My mom always said that my dad and I were the kind of smart that doesn’t really do you much good in a practical sense. We can spout off who led a battle in ancient Scotland or how many warriors were REALLY at Thermopylae (300 spartans? Frick off), but we struggle with slightly complicated math. Whatever.

One of my favorite lines of thought, and one of my most frustrating experiences in life, has always been around accents. Everybody has an accent. Yet, why do we so often make judgements of people based off of their accents? Why do we think of someone as less than, because they have a twang, or better than, because they sound posh?

It is so important to recognize how the aspects of language are indicative of our past and play a role in cultural identity. I’ve mulled over that for years, and it’s been something that I feel very passionately about- having a drawl myself, I've had everything from a condescending “where are you from?” to the ever so endearing “oh wow- can you say that again?”

I was raised in Appalachia, and while neither of my parents have a particularly strong accent (though they will certainly adapt one when the situation sees fit), I have quite the southern drawl. I’ve been told it is a soft, Antebellum lady situation- especially depending on the words- though I know I have quite the backwoods twang when I get tired. I guess I learned it from my uncles, because nobody knows why I have it quite the way I do.

My parents, though, left me acutely aware of how our ancestors settling in this region has created the accent that people so often call “country”. To take it a step further, many associate this accent with low class and minimal education. Few take the time to realize that the way we speak is this unique mixture of our Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestors, with some British slang, some Native words, and some African influence as well.

Have you ever heard a Scottish brogue, or the lilt of an Irishman? Take those, throw a few extra dialects in, mix them up really well in your martini shaker and then LEAVE THEM ALONE for a few hundred years and, well, here we are. Appalachia is not unique in this sense, though- that’s pretty well how every accent comes about. It’s nothing to be ashamed of my friends- it is a sign of where you and your culture come from!!!

Whether it’s the French influence on New Orleans, Spanish lilt in California, Native influence in New Mexico, Irish influence in Boston- our accents are all a product of those who came before us. They are manifestations of our ancestors, and all of the work they put in to finding their way.

Though unfortunate, I must admit that accent does play a role in perception, which is awful and judgmental. It is so common to make judgements on people based on their accent, though, whether it's a “country” accent or the accent of a fluent speaker in a non-native language.

Because of this, some accents are seen as more competent than others. For example, people have a tendency to quickly write off listening to a speaker with an Indian accent but will be more patient with a speaker with a French accent. In the same vein, country and southern accents are more typically associated with a lack of education whereas a posh British accent or a New England accent may be associated with wealth or education. Additionally, some research has purported that Asian clients report frustration with being socially accepted in comparison to people of European origin.. No one can deny that Asians certainly get the butt end of a lot of jokes in popular culture- A Christmas Story, for example, or Family Guy. How are these acts of prejudice not more commonly acknowledged?

Not surprisingly considering that some accents are more competent, there has also been research that certain ”foreign” accents are seen as more favorable or attractive than others; one language learning app did a survey of users, which found that French was the most attractive accent. While I would have to disagree, and would argue that Australian or Irish accents are more attractive, I think that proves a point.

All of this brings me to the fact that accent discrimination is a thing. Not only that someone can be racially or socioeconomically discriminated against, but they can be casually discriminated against because of their accent. Though awful, people can be denied jobs or internships because of the perception of their accent under the pretense of not having effective oral communication. Which is… wild. I understand that a thick Scottish brogue or a deep Creole accent is hard to understand sometimes, but that’s not a reason to deny someone a job.

Now I want to talk about dialect just a bit. Dialect is specific to a region or a group. Even though this group is part of a larger whole, these unique forms of speech set them apart which subsequently provides a sense of individuality and community at the same time, because a lot of communities will take pride in their specific dialect. This can create some difficulty communicating with those outside of that dialect, but overall it’s usually pretty easily overcome. It does make for some interesting nuances when trying to learn a new language, though- like when my dad tried to learn Arabic before he was deployed to Iraq, but learned the wrong version for where he was.

Even within the same language, though, it can make things difficult. Adam had trouble understanding me sometimes at the beginning of our relationship especially- some of the southern/Appalachian colloquialisms that I use regularly, even though I don’t live there anymore, were just mind blowing to his Cincinnati brain. He had never heard some of the words I was using and could not understand why those things meant what they meant. Now, we have less trouble with that- though my mom and my aunt (a very prim English teacher) love quizzing him with Appalachian words to see if he knows what they mean.

So obviously, dialect is a form of cultural identity just the way accent is; sometimes a language or an area will have a specific word for something that an exact translation of is impossible. But you know, if every language had only the exact same words and pronunciations.. where would the fun be? Where would the uniqueness lie? I think that’s why some people will so fiercely defend their pronunciation or their weird word or phrase that their friends from elsewhere have never heard of- it's in essence a pride of community, of culture.

Ultimately all of this comes down to- accent and dialect is inherent to your individual culture, wherever you’re from- whether that’s Creole Louisiana, Kigali, southern Appalachia, Yorkshire, Dublin, Manilla or Tokyo. The way we speak reflects our past in the best way, and preserving accent and dialect is a beautiful way of preserving a piece of our culture for future generations.

Pod and Blog sources:

Important ideas with this topic:

Accent is important because creates community

Divides bc of stereotype, etc

Discrimination based on accent

Representation is important

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