Monthly Archives: February 2014

Do You Have an Accent?

The short answer is: yes, you have an accent. We all do, even if most people perceive the accent as “neutral.” When most people ask if someone has an accent, what they mean is “do they have a stigmatized accent?” or “do they have a different accent?” Remember the discussion of “marked” speech in my post on women’s language? Different accents and different dialects can be “marked” in the same way that women are “marked,” compared to men. If you’re from Michigan or Ohio, you’re much more likely to notice someone’s accent if they’re from, say, the South, or the UK, than you are to notice someone who speaks like you or someone who speaks like they’re on TV.

Whether or not you think you have an accent, chances are you have plenty of opinions on the subject. Watch this video of linguist Dennis Preston, asking passengers on a train what they think of different American accents.

These opinions, among other things, constitute language ideology. We have very strong ideas about what having a certain accent means. Think about characters with Southern accents in TV shows and movies where there aren’t any other Southern characters*. Generally, that character is not very bright, but is probably very friendly and well-meaning. This sort of stereotyping is not rare, and most marked accents have them. Ever notice how many movie villains are British? Ever notice how almost none of those villains are poor?

Language ideology can not only shape our opinions of fictional characters, but they can also affect what we think of real people we interact with, and even our own language. Southerners often say that they don’t speak English well because their accent is so stigmatized, and many Southerners who move north modify their accents in order to avoid being stereotyped as unintelligent. A high-profile example of someone who has done this is Stephen Colbert, who grew up in South Carolina but lost his accent when he moved north to pursue a career in television.

The ideologies people hold about their language can even affect what they can hear. An anecdote: in college, I tutored athletes in linguistics. I tutored one player from Baltimore; a big city, not too far South (although, below the Mason-Dixon line). He considered his dialect to be fairly standard. People from that area do what linguists call “/l/-vocalization,” where they pronounced the L in words like “call” as a sound similar to “w”, so it comes out sounding like “caw.” Listen to this paragraph and focus on the words “call,” “small” and “will.” I decided to ask him if he heard the difference between the way he said the word “call” and the way I said “call.” I repeated “calllll” and cawww” over and over, and his response was always the same: “one is longer!” He couldn’t hear the difference between the two sounds even though his teammate from Chicago could hear them quite clearly. I tried this again with my mother, who also does l-vocalization because she is from rural Maryland. She has lived in the Midwest for 15 years – and she still couldn’t hear the difference, even though she gets a lot of comments on her accent.

I tried this experiment a second time, with a pair of football players from Texas and Michigan the following year. I knew that in Texas and in many parts of the South, there is no difference between the pronunciation of the words “pin” and “pen.” Linguists call this the pin-pen merger. I asked the Texan football player if he could hear the difference between “pin” and “pen” as I (a non-merged speaker) said them. He looked at me as if I was an idiot. He could hear the difference perfectly, even if in his native dialect he wouldn’t pronounce them differently. He had also recently told me that he “toned down” his accent when he was in Michigan. He got teased pretty constantly by his Michigander teammate for his accent, slight though he had made it. For this player, he knew the difference because he had to know the difference, or risk social consequences. The stigma of his Texas dialect made him very aware of his speech.

Because the player from Baltimore considered his dialect as “standard” and didn’t consider it much different from people on TV or from dialects in the Midwest, he didn’t pay any attention to the smaller differences in his dialect. The player from Texas, however, did know the differences between his dialect and the Michigan dialect he was immersed in, in part because he was constantly reminded of it by his teammates and friends. He also had some obvious insecurity about his speech, because of the ideologies surrounding Southern accents in our culture. Who wants to look like the dimwitted character in a TV show? No such stereotypes exist for speakers from Baltimore, so the first player could be blissfully unaware of the differences between his speech and mine.In this case, social realities of geographical stereotypes changed what sounds they could hear. If Southern varieties had more prestige, the Texan player may have been unaware of the difference between “pin” and “pen,” in the same way that people in the blue areas on the map above can’t hear the difference between “caught” and “cot.”  Linguistic stereotypes literally affected what sounds they can hear.

*There is no one “Southern accent,” but TV shows, movies, and other media don’t generally make any distinctions between those accents.

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Accent Reduction

via the Oregon Department of Transportation's Flickr

via the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Flickr

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about academic subjects. I do that because I find them interesting and I have a strong background in those topics. However, I realize that not everyone who reads this blog will be academia-oriented, and this blog has the potential to answer some of their burning questions about language in the context of real-world applications and technology. For example: how does Siri work? How does voice recognition work? How can I use knowledge of language to help other people? How is language used in industry? Following my usual MO of starting with things I know the most about, I’ll tell you today about the field of accent reduction.

In college, I did an internship at the Accent Reduction Institute (ARI), under the direction of President and Founder Judy Ravin and CLO Barbara Niemann. Although the internship came highly recommended by a friend of mine because he loved the people he worked for, I was a little nervous about the job. As you can probably gauge from the topics of previous blog posts, I am very concerned with language discrimination and issues of social justice within linguistics. Was it okay to work for a company that taught people how to modify their foreign accents? Were we encouraging people to give up a part of their identity because being more American was the correct way to be?

In fact, I needn’t have worried. The views of the people at ARI were completely in line with my own. They use linguistic knowledge every day to help people in real, tangible ways. They were sensitive to issues of identity and did not denigrate the speech of their students. They also knew that many other people would see a strong accent as a reason to deny promotion to hardworking foreign nationals. In order to correct that problem, Judy Ravin developed the Ravin Method, taking her knowledge of phonetics and made it accessible to non-linguists. This allowed students to learn exactly how to move their tongue in order to master the trickier sounds of English.

This training has helped foreign nationals become more competitive in the workplace. White men completely dominate the executive positions in Fortune 500 companies. When many of ARI’s students completed their courses successfully, they were able to be promoted to higher-ranking positions. The majority of ARI’s students were diverse speakers of Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, and many other languages. These students were able to attend these courses because ARI was paid by the company they worked for, so the employees of the company were able to receive this valuable training without paying out of pocket.

Another impressive attribute of this particular company, which I believe is unique even in the accent reduction field, is that they provide services for native speakers of American English as well. While their main business was in helping foreign nationals learn American English pronunciation, they also helped people learn how to better understand speakers with foreign accents. They provided this training mainly to public employees, in the military and to firefighters and police officers. In an emergency situation, understanding the people you are helping is key. This program, called Building Bridges, puts the onus on Americans to learn how to deal with foreign accents, rather than requiring foreign speakers to seriously alter their pronunciation. At ARI, communication is a two-way street.

To read more about Accent Reduction, outside of my experience with ARI, you can read about it in this LA Times article by Anna Gorman.

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Language Change: Not the End of the World


Via, by Randall Munroe

In the past, I’ve alluded to the fact that linguists consider all varieties of language to be equal. A linguist friend of mine suggested that I expand on this topic, and discuss why linguists don’t think any one dialect is better than another. To address this question, let’s talk about the difference between linguists and people who care about “good grammar.” The latter are called “prescriptivists,” because they prescribe the way people should speak; they are sometimes referred to as “grammar Nazis”. Prescriptivists have an idealized standard of language that they believe everyone should follow. Linguists, on the other hand, are “descriptivists”: they describe what people actually say.

Having a standard dialect has many advantages in formal, written language. Agreeing on spelling, punctuation, and rules about writing helps editors and printers make their products uniform, just like McDonalds wants all their burgers to taste exactly the same, no matter where you buy them. However, many prescriptivists take their prescriptivism outside the realm of formal, written language. They judge you when you speak, they judge your Facebook statuses, they judge your tweets. Here are some issues linguists have with prescriptivism (apart from some of the ones I addressed in my post on Language Discrimination).

Language changes. Period. It has changed, it does change, it will change. Language has always changed, and at least since the time of print media, there have always been people to complain about it. Here’s an example from Language Log of a prescriptivist rant from the 19th century:

 “This modern form [“is being …”] is very seldom used among writers of the highest class…. “The house is being built” does not express what is intended; being built denotes existence in the state expressed by built; as, “Our house being built, we have now a home.” It would be better for those who are not satisfied with the well-established classical form [“The house is building”] to say, “The house is becoming built” — coming into the state expressed by built.”

This is very different from the construction we use today. If someone were to say “the house is building” now, you might imagine an anthropomorphized house creating other houses. However, that phrasing was the standard in the 19th century, and when it changed, prescriptivists freaked out. And yet, here we are, building houses left and right, and civilization has not collapsed.

People will tell you the old way is always considered clearer, more precise, and just all-around better. They’ll tell you that good grammar is important and creates easier-to-understand sentences that we can better understand. Here’s an example of why using non-standard grammar is considered “confusing”:


While I understand that this is supposed to be a joke, there are a lot of perfectly serious people who argue that they really cannot understand non-standard grammar. Another example of the “unclear” argument is the usage of double negatives. If someone says “I don’t have no pencils,” a prescriptivist may argue, “Oh, they must mean they HAVE pencils, because it’s a double negative! One negative negates the other!” I think that people who make that argument are being a bit disingenuous. Any speaker of English in a normal conversation would not even blink at that sentence. A grammar nazi in that situation might think of the speaker as uneducated, but would never actually think that the speaker has pencils. The argument for clarity is an ad hoc justification for why a usage is “correct.”

For more interesting discussions about prescriptivism and developments in the English language, I highly suggest following work by Anne Curzan on the topic. She writes for the Lingua Franca blog, and she has a show on Michigan Radio which you can listen to online.

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