I’ve moved around a lot since leaving home for college, and in the course of innumerable introductions and casual chats inevitably someone will ask me where I’m from. When I tell people I grew up in Western New York, the response is usually one of the following:
From people who don’t know where that is, I’ll be asked,
“Is that close to New York City?”
(No, it’s not. It’s as far as you can be from NYC and still be in NY. It’s practically Canada)
From people who DO know where that is, I’ll hear,
“But you don’t have a Buffalo accent.”
(By which they mean my speech doesn’t have the characteristics of the Inland North accent that is broadly found in the Great Lakes region.)
I know I’ve written about accents before (here and here), but they’re a rather rich source of interesting stories. Case in point, I found two great articles this week about accents—the first is an argument for how all accents are valid and beautiful, and the second involves the much more serious topic of using language-based judgments to determine a person’s right to asylum.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve lived in several places, including two major cities, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and I have friends that live in or near most of the major cities along the east coast. So when I saw the bracket at the beginning of the article responding to Gawker’s “America’s Ugliest Accent” tournament, I was dismayed to see not only Chicago, but NY, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New Orleans and LA (along with 9 others) listed as having ugly accents.
Luckily this blog post (which was picked up by slate.com, which is where I found the link) against this tournament, “What’s Wrong with Gawker’s Tournament,” written by Josef Fruehwald—a University of Edinburgh lecturer with a PhD in Sociolinguistics—presented a lovely case for why this tournament is ridiculous. Fruehwald points out that accents are routinely used as a means of discrimination, or at least as the basis of gross categorizations that equate speaking style with demographics like education, income, and race. Aside from making people feel bad about their speaking style, the Gawker bracket is (perhaps inadvertently?) promoting linguistic stereotypes.
And the idea of stereotypes, or at least preconceived ideas of how people should sound, comes into play in the second article I found, “Language as a Passport,” which mentions how, in cases where paper documentation isn’t available, a person’s language can be used in determining whether they should be granted asylum in another country.
The long-held assumption that a person’s nationality can be determined by their speech (the article sites the biblical example that gave rise to the word shibboleth) meets with some strong contradictory evidence from instances of children being raised in a different speech environment from their “native” one. The article does mention that the Language Analysis for the Determination of Origin process can’t definitively provide nationality, but can only, “indicate the predominant country or region of socialization of an asylum seeker.” When asylum seekers find themselves faced with hurdles like this, it’s important to remember that language and speech are not fixed features, but can change based on a variety of factors at many points throughout someone’s life.
The way we speak is just one part of our identity—it can tie us together or it can separate us into groups based on things like geography or ancestry. It’s one thing to use it as conversation starter around a table in a college dining hall, and another to use it as the basis for prejudice.
**Update: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has written an article about the Gawker tournament, with comments from linguist Dr. Barbara Johnstone. You can check it out here. It also mentions that Dr. Josef Fruewald’s response to the tournament was originally a blog post that was picked up by slate.com, so I’ve made some minor adjustments in the post to reflect this.**