Accent elimination class

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In a better world, the speakers of the "standard" variety would take a prejudice elimination class instead.

Update — the Town & Gown divide associated with this sociolinguistic differentiation is in the background of a video featured on boston.com a few days ago ("Medford Resident to Returning Students: 'Nobody Likes You'", 9/10/2014):



38 Comments

  1. Quillpower said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 6:02 pm

    Oh, poor Mistah Bakah,
    Why would he want to intahfeah with a puhfect accent that's music to ah eahs? Howevah, puhsonally, I prfair the Scaw'ish accent. The rolled 'r' is a throwback to the time of the Mayflowah when all of England and Iahland rolled its ahs. Ah, me.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

    So it's basically a class on restoring a rhotic accent? What a screwed-up concept.

  3. Oskar said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

    As someone who speaks English with a pronounced accent, I would seize that clicker and throw it out of the window after five minutes. I don't know how those people stand it.

  4. mike said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

    Shades of "Pygmalion."

  5. Bathrobe said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 7:40 pm

    And the son should be ashamed of himself for losing his Boston accent!

  6. Chips said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    What an absurd idea. As Australians might say, "she can stick the clicker up her clacker".

  7. Jacob said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

    Just in time for "Talk Like a Pirate Day"!

  8. Mara K said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

    @Jacob, for Talk Like a Pirate Day we should learn some conversational Arabic or Somali.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 9:36 pm

    @Mara K: I assume for pirates that'd be Aaarabic and Somaaarli?

  10. Ben said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

    "In a better world, the speakers of the "standard" variety would take a prejudice elimination class instead."

    When I'm interviewing someone over a phone, if they have an accent I often have to ask them to repeat themselves, just as if we had a bad connection. For me it's a distraction from understanding their mental model, and for them they find the stress of an interview is compounded by having trouble being sure they're able to convey a complex concept clearly. I'm sure you could measure this and model it using something analogous to Shannon-Hartley.

    And I'm not surprised those individuals percieve a gain to learning a standard accent. I've told my coworker who repeatedly asks me English questions that his English is quite acceptable given that plenty of people in the industry are ESL speakers, but he still thinks there's value in getting advice to make sure his communications are clear and professional. The huge economic benefit to learning a lingua franca is a consequence of basic graph theory. While studying an accent provides less return than studying the language itself, you ought to respect the individual's assessment of the opportunity costs.

  11. Levantine said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 10:55 pm

    Quillpower, "ah eahs" would actually be pronounced with the R of "our" fully intact.

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 18, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    Linguistics, like anthropology or economics, is a discipline that acknowledges the myriad ways humans engage in certain behaviors, and takes care to study and understand them. "In a better world, the speakers of the 'standard' variety would take a prejudice elimination class instead" introduces politics and bigotry into an otherwise neutral, scholarly discipline. Very corrosive and very unbecoming.

  13. Martin J Ball said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 1:23 am

    Aah, sociophonetics. My mother wouldn't allow a postvocalic-r in the house; way too working class in our part of GB!

  14. David Donnell said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 1:41 am

    "In a better world, the speakers of the "standard" variety would take a prejudice elimination class instead."

    I'm reminded of an interview I saw with Sir Patrick Stewart umpteen years ago, when he was still playing the role of a "Star Trek" ship captain. The interviewer asked him why, with all the scientific advances in the intervening centuries between now and the time during which the show was set, would there still be a man who is bald? Stewart replied (something to this effect): "Well in that century perhaps they no longer care."

    PS: Hope springs eternal.

  15. Ralph said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 2:58 am

    @ Martin J Ball: You're from the West Country or Lancashire I'm assuming?

  16. Nate said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 3:13 am

    Bathrobe:
    "And the son should be ashamed of himself for losing his Boston accent!"

    1. He has a Boston accent. He just doesn't drop R's, which doesn't surprise me, given his age.

    2. How do you know that his accent hasn't always sounded the way it does in the video?

  17. Ken said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 3:27 am

    @ Martin J Ball: Are you from the West Country?

  18. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 3:30 am

    The interviewer should have asked Stewart why Captain Jean-Luc Picard has a British accent. Perhaps in that century the French no longer care about speaking French.

  19. Mooloo said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 3:52 am

    introduces politics and bigotry into an otherwise neutral, scholarly discipline.

    Tee hee.

    Get over it. A person being an arse is a person being an arse. Calling them out does not make a "discipline" no longer "scholarly". (As if one person's sharp temper could ruin an entire field of study.)

    For me bigots are bigots, and calling them out is worth it, even if it sullies the supposed purity of some field of study.

  20. Maria Candea said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 4:00 am

    striking contrast between the comments on youtube and the comments on this site, I feel

  21. Bathrobe said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 4:15 am

    @Nate

    Forgive me for not picking out his accent. I'm not good with North American accents.

    As for losing his accent, well, I guess you are right. It's obviously a generational thing (i.e., natural language change) for him not to speak like his Dad.

  22. Bathrobe said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 4:19 am

    Is there really such a difference between here and Youtube (except for Ben, who introduced an "anti-prescriptive" note into the discussion). I agree with this guy:

    That old guy is adorable. I wish i still had my boston accent. I lost mine because i was ashamed to sound like that, it was real bad. And now im just a generic white accent. Lol. Spohts. Omg he just sounds fun

  23. maidhc said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 4:57 am

    I think in many business environments it's OK to have a bit of an accent but people have to be able to understand you. Your co-workers may have many native languages–Russian, Vietnamese, Rumanian and so on. Certain accents–Geordie, Jamaican, AAVE, etc., can be very difficult for ESL speakers. People have to be able to code-switch to some kind of standard dialect. In English this would be either British or American; the two are not so far apart as to hinder communication.

    I've been involved in some informal experiments where speakers of Indian English attempt to converse with people whose first language is Mandarin. There are a lot of problems because the Chinese people typically learned American English, and the peculiarities of Indian English are difficult for them.

    In European languages like Italian and German, people often code-switch between a local dialect and a standard national language.

    I'm reminded of a story told by David Niven (I don't know how reliable his stories are). When he first arrived in Hollywood, he was advised to learn to temper his British accent. He was advised to get an American girlfriend for intimate language coaching. He followed this advice, but after a while when he was asked how his acquisition of an American accent was getting on, it was discovered that his American girlfriend was from the Deep South. Had he kept it up, it might have qualified him to play Rhett Butler, but in terms of his general film career, it was not a good choice.

  24. Rodger C said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 6:51 am

    Rhett Butler was a Yankee.

  25. leoboiko said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 6:52 am

    @Ben: Training someone to be able to use the standard variation is ok & a very fine thing. "Eliminating" their native variation as if it was some kind of blemish is not. And yes, it's possible to be bi-dialectal; in fact most dialect speakers I know (in Portuguese and Japanese) are, including myself.

  26. David Morris said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 7:56 am

    I was always under the impression that the Boston accent was considered prestigious, but then again Major Charles Emerson Winchester III may have been an unrepresentative sample.

    [(myl) The way that people talk in South Boston ("Southie") or in Medford (as in the "welcome back" rant in the update) is definitely a working-class variety, and recognized as such in the Boston area, though I don't know how it's perceived in California or Scotland.]

  27. Ray Girvan said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    @David Morris: that the Boston accent was considered prestigious

    Depends what Boston accent – the prestigious one would be the wonderful Boston Brahmin accent (YouTube link).

  28. SamC said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 9:54 am

    @David Morris – Maybe the old Boston Brahmin accent is prestigious, but the stereotype for Boston accents from the outside is usually working class & brash – people usually associate it more with Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting, not Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting
    From the Onion:
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/best-cities-for-millennials,36937/#4
    "Boston
    Dialect: Shouting
    City Nickname: [unintelligible]"

  29. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 12:11 pm

    It would be interesting to know whether (and to what extent) the code-switching by "TJ" referenced in the separate "matched guise" post involved material changes in accent/phonology in addition to changes in syntactic structure and lexical choice. I guess since it's fictional dialogue in a novel, there's no audio recording available to check that . . .

    My anecdotal impression is that many Americans with potentially-stigmatized regional-or-ethnic accents can and do code-switch their pronunciation along a somewhat limited continuum. I.e., depending on contextual factors (level of formality, nature of interaction, dialect background of interlocutors and the speaker's relationship to them) the accent may be more or less "thick" but rarely so "thin" as to be imperceptible, i.e. indistinguishable from "standard" or "prestige" pronunciation (which is of course a somewhat vague concept in AmEng, since it's more than there's a standard range within which the variations are not perceived as particularly stigmatizable). Getting closer to standard than that type of code-switching typically enables might require more self-conscious work or dialect-coaching. It might also be possible that some people can code-switcher closer to standard in a more or less spontaneous/self-taught way than others of the same native-dialect background, and that those who for whatever reason find doing so more challenging might benefit from some instruction/coaching if they wanted to have the same capacity and resulting sociolinguistic flexibility.

    I have never personally interacted with a native speaker of any variety of AmEng whom I could not understand perfectly well when they had code-switched to the as-close-to-standard-as-they-could-manage end of their personal continuum, but I certainly can't rule out the possibility that people from an ESL background might not always be able to do the same.

  30. James Kabala said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

    Am I crazy, or do I hear an r when the father says "sports" and also when he says "ignored?" He says at least half-rs for sure.

  31. James Kabala said,

    September 19, 2014 @ 10:33 pm

    Older (and funnier/more humane) video featuring father and son: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCBT-qJmafw

  32. Lane said,

    September 20, 2014 @ 9:40 am

    Apparently the Oak Ridge National Laboratory was offering a southern-accent-elimination class, until people complained.

    http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21611122-southern-speech-still-draws-unwanted-attention-mind-drawl-yall

  33. djw said,

    September 21, 2014 @ 11:51 am

    I taught technical writing in a graduate engineering program that had students from something like 27 other countries (and a few Americans). I often had trouble understanding students whose English retained a lot of their home language pronunciations (I guess "phonemes"?), but if I asked them to repeat more than once, whole classes of ESL students would translate for me (and any other Americans in the room).

    The students all claimed to understand me (six decades in central Texas, but often questioned about my accent) just fine, but they complained frequently about two professors with deep, slow west Texas drawls.

  34. Erin said,

    September 23, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

    I think it's perfectly fine if people want to alter their speech to suit a certain context. Language has a huge impact on the way others perceive you, and the individual should be able to do what they want to change others' perceptions of them. We're given other such tools to manipulate our communication; why not dialectal ones as well? However, the fact that some dialects are favored while others (like a working-class New England accent, a southern one, AAVE, Chicano, etc.) are downright denigrated is pretty shameful, and if it were changed, we would see much less need to alter in the first place. People should see dialectal differences for the fun and intrigue they offer and not just maintain them as a gatekeeping function.

  35. Jonathan said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    @Erin: you make a fair point. Humans can be very shallow and we judge each other so easily on mere appearances, so why single out linguistic prejudice or the desire for linguistic conformity? In defense of Mark, I would say it's still right to struggle against such prejudices, even if only in a piecemeal fashion. Not everyone has the benefit of a liberal education, so the virtues of tolerance need to be spread more widely by other means sometimes.

    Also, I like the idea of taking a class against linguistic prejudice insofar as I have an antipathy towards people changing themselves to suit the irrational whims of others; I also hate to my core when people pretend to be something they are not. And I say this as a conservative who grates against having to keep his mouth shut in order not to offend liberal colleagues and friends (not always successfully). I suppose my reactionary vision is of a calmly ordered, peaceable and tolerant society where people's station in life may be associated with their manner of speech, but everyone is nevertheless respected regardless of social class, dialect, occupation or any other category. I find the whole concept of social climbing deeply distasteful, so in my universe the issue of "dialect coaching" wouldn't even arise. This probably just shows how un-American I am, though.

  36. etv13 said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 7:09 pm

    Rodger C: It's been a long time since I read (or saw) Gone with the Wind, but I'm pretty sure Rhett Butler was from Charleston, S.C. and made a fortune during the war as a blockade runner.

  37. Tom Parmenter said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

    The speech consultant on GWTW had only one comment on Gable's performance. The final line, 'Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn' should be stressed on 'give' not 'damn'.

  38. Rachel Quinn said,

    September 29, 2014 @ 2:32 am

    I hate this attitude. You're not eliminating an accent; you're replacing it with a new one. You don't "lose" accents. They're not your keys. Likewise, the idea that changing one's accent is somehow a betrayal of one's "true" self irks me. We often tend to subconsciously talk like the people we surround ourselves with as a way to connect with a new in-group, so that a well-practiced accent is simply a tool for social maneuvering, a new regional tune in a repertoire of bird songs if you like. It's bad enough that people put a value judgment on a given accent. The assumptions that arise about the necessity or immorality of changing accents is ridiculous.

    "In a better world, the speakers of the 'standard' variety would take a prejudice elimination class instead."

    Oh, gods, yes, please!

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