Language and Theatre, Language on TV, Linguistic Stereotypes

Accents (Take Two)!

This past week, it seemed like accents were following me everywhere. While visiting family in Pittsburg this weekend, we got into a discussion about Pittsburghese, which lead to someone finding this talk by Barbara Johnstone at Carnegie Mellon University. We also joked about the part in Waiting for Guffman when the main character, Corky St. Clair, talks about how he is practicing for an upcoming audition for My Fair Lady by dropping his H’s (‘ello. ‘ow are ‘ou). Even a rerun of The Big Bang Theory got into the act, with Raj practicing his “American” accent.

Having had to perform several accents during my career onstage, I’m familiar with how and why accents are often used in movies, TV, and theater: accents are a shortcut—a way for people to make assumptions about a character, or to make a character sound more “believable.” So, if someone “sounds British” to an American audience, we make certain assumptions about where that character is from. Later, if we find out the character is from Miami, we start trying to figure out why he sounds that way. Suddenly that bit of information becomes an even more important piece of the puzzle, because why would the director want him to sound that way if it wasn’t important to our understanding of the story?

And what if the accent just doesn’t sound right somehow? My dad was watching a commercial about New York City’s Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts. He turned to me and said, “That guy doesn’t sound like he’s from Brooklyn. Doesn’t he sound more like he’s from Boston?” I told him I’d have to listen more closely next time, but it got me thinking about how accents also help us to decide if someone is who they claim to be.

A few weeks ago, on Halloween, I wrote about dialects, and how people use them to make assumptions about people. Today, I want to elaborate a bit about what kind of assumptions can be made (in addition to the one above, about whether or not people really are who they claim to be, or grew up where they said they did).

When we say someone has an accent, what we mean is that they pronounce certain words differently than we do. Sometimes the accent sounds very pronounced and distinct, sometimes they are far more subtle. Either way, here is a bit of truth for you:

Everyone speaks with an accent. There is no linguistically “correct” way of speaking any given language, against which all other accents are compared. 

Accents are another way of categorizing people—of putting people in the “us” box or the “them” box. If people sound like us, then the likelihood that we share other things increases. Things like similar cultural backgrounds or traditions, histories, geographical understandings, morals and ethics, even certain vocabulary words (pop vs. soda, anyone?). If people sound heavily accented to us, then it is more likely that they are different from us in all the ways listed above. And that’s where assumptions and stereotypes come in.

If we assume new people are like us based on how they talk, then it seems like we give them the benefit of the doubt. Because we know people like them already—we know we have some similarities, and so we think the differences are relatively minor in comparison.

On the other hand, if people sound differently, and therefore we assume they come from a different cultural background, then what knowledge do we rely on to understand where they’re coming from? We draw on previous interactions with someone we decide was like them or stereotypes that we’ve heard. For example, “if so-and-so was a jerk, and they sounded like this new person, then this new person is also a jerk, because it must be cultural” (doesn’t that sound awful?).

Ultimately, the more diversity we can cultivate in our interactions, the less likely we are to resort to assumptions.

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