Wednesday, June 11, 2014


"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."  GB Shaw, "Pygmalion"

We are not unfamiliar with this in America, where southern accents remain a moderate obstacle for those who would be thought intelligent.  The phenomenon has more variety in England, and came up in our discussion about CS Lewis's declining popularity as an apologist there, at least partly due to changes in accent over decades.

NYC-area accents are considered grating, and Western or Midwestern accents, particularly if they are rural, are also disfavored.  Hyphenated-American accents are also considered signifiers of those who are fresh off the boat and/or too lazy or stupid to learn how to get it right.  My grandmother's family was Swedish and tried to quickly shed all patterns of speech that would brand them as less American, less intelligent. Her husband's Scots-Irish family were schoolteachers after having been in Londonderry a hundred years, and were apparently the sticklers for correctness typically associated with that breed.

That is my culture.  That is my background.

But it's wrong. Accents might tell us something about a person's culture, but not his character or intelligence.  Displaying a favored accent, or the standard midamerican dialect is an advantage in many situations, and specific situations call for extremely strict rules of usage.  Those aren't quite the same as correctness, however.  We've been over this before.

The image I use to remind me of this is visiting a foreign country, where the varieties of accent would not be heard or understood by one such as I.  I think of one person in Elbonia describing the speech of another citizen:  "Hahaha, you can tell he is a stupid Mountain because of the way he pronounces his 't's!' We sophisticated Valleys do not do that, because we have been properly educated."

Thus, it seems amazingly ignorant to me that the English cannot simply shrug at Lewis's accent and tone and think - "Oh yes, the old accent.  Funny how things change" and just move on.  But it doesn't work that way, not for any of us, with accents that we actually encounter and have cultural associations with.  Those enter straight to the cultural centers of the brain and can only be overlooked with effort.

The effort is worth it.


james said...

The effort is vital. As an extreme case, some of my colleagues' English is scrambled enough to make it sometimes impossible to tell if they are registering support or objection to some detail. But only a fool would tune them out because they don't sound right.

Texan99 said...

I like hearing regional accents, the more intense the better, and I regret seeing them wash out and intermingle as much as they do now. I listen to a lot of Great Courses lectures. I'm very demanding in one sense--minor verbal tics can drive me right up a wall when I have to hear them for six to twelve hours at a stretch--but the accent itself is never a problem.

I had no idea so many people were familiar with C.S. Lewis via his radio voice, though. I thought most of us knew only of his authorial voice, which I quite like. I imagine I'd be fine with his spoken voice, too, for that matter. In my head, I suppose I hear Anthony Hopkins in "Shadowlands," but Lewis was more of a middlebrow Ulsterman, wasn't he?

My husband used to be driven to distraction by an Asian engineering professor who said "finksha" for "function." He had to rely almost entirely on what the guy wrote on the blackboard. But there's a big difference between a strong accent and a weak command of English, and anyway there were no flies on this professor's command of engineering.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I had a physics professor from Switzerland who kept saying in-TERR-fer-RENTS. It took me until March to figure out he was saying "interference." Needless to say, the lectures were not valuable to me. Fortunately, the textbook was.

Donna B. said...

I think there is little to compare when considering accents due to English being someone's 2nd language to the various accents of those whose 1st language is English.

My accent is a hybrid of western Colorado and east Texas southern.

I can also do, on demand, Atlanta GA southern or hillbilly. What I cannot do is any variation of the western Colorado accent... unless an ear for Mexican pronunciation of Spanish counts.

To my western Colorado relatives, I sound Southern, to my Southern relatives, I sound "you ain't from around here, are you".

I do not "get" Cajun any more than I "get" Tagalog. It's incomprehensible to me. I do believe that being exposed to a language/dialect/accent at an early age does have a benefit.

However, I've found that the accent that benefits me most often is the (somewhat fake) deep Southern. There are circumstances when it's desirable to be thought really stupid when I'm really only mildly stupid.

Sam L. said...

I do not recall ever hearing Lewis' voice. Found him on You Tube. Sounds English to me. Not a problem.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

The South does very well for itself, thank you very much. My mild Southern twang and sirs and ma'ams have served me well on business trips up north. And I've met a number of perplexed Yankees who were convinced they'd hit it out of the park in the "slow, stupid" South.

DCE said...

I grew up around a lot of people with a wide range of foreign accents, my grandparents included, so it's rare when I cannot parse what someone with English as their second..or third or fourth language, has said.

When it comes to American accents I can usually place someone within the right state or portion of a state when I listen. I can also pull off using most regional accents as well. (I am a pretty good mimic.) But my two favorite are the N'Hampsha and the Down East Maine accents. They come in pretty handy when storytelling!

Texan99 said...

I'm fascinating by a talent for mimicry. I used to love listening to Tracy Ullman take on accents of all kinds. She was one of the few non-Texans who could get pretty close, though she's Australian, if I'm not mistaken.

John Sayles's "Lone Star" was a good movie, but it had some spectacularly bad Texan accents, especially poor Yankee/Puerto Rican/posh schools Elizabeth Pena trying to do a Valley Chicana. Yikes. Not that I could imitate it either, but I can hear the difference.