Must-read for Wednesday afternoon

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Josef Fruehwald, "America's Ugliest Accent: Something's ugly alright", Val Systems 10/1/2014.

Update — See "The beauty of Brummie", 7/28/2004 — some quotes therein from Steve Thorne:

In May 2002, I recorded short samples of 20 different accents of English… In order to limit the influence of extraneous variables, the speakers chosen were all male, white, aged between 35 and 40, and upper-working to lower-middle class. These recordings were played to 96 native and 109 non-native English speakers who were then asked to briefly describe each accent and rate each one on a scale of 1-10 (1 = very unpleasant, 5 = neutral, 10 = very pleasant). […]

… the native speakers reacted predictably. The French, Southern Irish, Edinburgh Scottish and Geordie (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) accents received the most favourable responses (none, incidentally, described the very nasal French accent as 'nasal'), the American and rural accents such as Cornish and Norfolk also did well, but Welsh, RP (Received Pronunciation), Northern Irish and accents associated with large urban conurbations such as London (Cockney) and Liverpool (Scouse) fared badly. No prizes for guessing which accent came bottom. Black Country. […]

Ask a British person what their least favourite accent is, and they will more than likely say 'Brummie' – the variety of English spoken in the West Midlands city of Birmingham. Ask them why, and they will more than likely use adjectives such as 'nasal', 'monotonous', 'miserable' and/or 'ugly' to justify their responses. Such views are based on the belief that all other accents are higher in aesthetic value than Brummie, and even those who are prepared to accept that Brummie is not 'wrong' (and many aren't) seem fundamentally opposed to the idea that other accents are not more aesthetically pleasing. But is Brummie really ugly? […]

The responses of non-native speakers, on the other hand, were inconsistent – ranging from 'harsh' (for Brummie), through 'nice', to 'melodic', 'lilting' and 'musical', and from 'clear' (for Southern Irish), through 'boring', to 'disgusting'. Although there was no significant difference between the overall scores for each accent, many appeared to prefer the characteristically Brummie 'rising' and 'high tone at the end of sentences', criticising instead the 'cold and unemotional' character of Edinburgh Scottish – one respondent even going so far as to describe the Scottish speaker as 'untrustworthy'. Scouse was also praised on many occasions for its intonational distinctiveness – its clarity, 'pleasant tonality', and dynamic 'rolling of the r', but reactions on the whole were generally mixed, and there was little evidence to suggest that foreign speakers were dipping into the same adjective cluster as their British counterparts – no high occurrence, for example, of the words 'nasal', 'common', 'whingey', or 'wrong' to describe the Birmingham accent. […]

These findings demonstrate that non-native speakers work to a totally different set of criteria when evaluating English accents, and do not discriminate on the same grounds as native English speakers. Judgements of the perceived beauty or ugliness of accents are based almost entirely upon a knowledge of the social connotations which they possess for those familiar with them.





  1. Keith said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 2:10 am

    "But just because something is framed as a game doesn't make it fun, and it doesn't make it funny." That sounds odd to me.

    I would re-word it to
    "But just framing something as a game doesn't make it fun, and it doesn't make it funny."

    Otherwise, a good read.

    It reminds me of those articles that appear in Britain every now and again about how listeners percieve a speaker to be more honest or more dishonest or to be more intelligent or more stupid, based on the speaker's accent.


  2. Lazar said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 3:23 am

    "Just because… doesn't mean" is common enough in speech, although the second clause, with it serving as a sort of double-dummy subject, does feel a bit strained.

  3. Robot Therapist said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 4:10 am

    I feel I need the "it" in the second clause, and the problem is that it's missing in the first one.

    I would say "just because something is framed as a game, THAT doesn't make it fun, and it doesn't make it funny".

    Well actually I'd say "…nor does it make it funny"

  4. Robot Therapist said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 4:11 am

    Loved the article though. Thanks.

  5. Paul said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 5:37 am

    What if some people genuinely find some or all of those accents ugly and it doesn't have anything to do with social class? For example, I find the Thai language ugly and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the people who speak it. I don't know anything about the people who speak it! I find Norwegian ugly too, even though many of my ancestors came from Norway. Swedish sounds much better to me and I don't have any ancestors from there AFAIK.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 7:44 am

    "What if some people genuinely find some or all of those accents ugly and it doesn't have anything to do with social class?"

    What is some people find some accents pleasing? I feel like this could be based on other than social distinction. There are certain foreign accents (in English) that I find pleasing like French and Irish. I don't think this based on my opinion of the nationalities.

  7. Matt Juge said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    A systematic study (maybe one has already been done?) might examine esthetic proclivities in other areas and look for correlations. For example, maybe people who like heavy metal favor accents with certain traits (e.g., front rounded vowels). I suspect it would be difficult to develop a rigorous methodology for this kind of study, especially if one of the goals is to identify subconscious factors.

  8. Bjorn said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    @Paul "What if some people genuinely find some or all of those accents ugly and it doesn't have anything to do with social class?"

    Lots of people are physically/sexually attracted to people of certain ethnicities and not others, and that's perfectly okay. It would still be utterly reprehensible to run a "America's Ugliest Race" tournament.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 8:37 am

    In my experience, "Just because… doesn't make" is common in America too. The "just because" clause can be a noun phrase that acts as the subject of the sentence. That's why it can be replaced by "it". People who find this construction odd can usually understand it by replacing "Just because" with "The mere fact that". (I'm not claiming that the result will be good style.)

    The construction Robot Therapist mentioned, where the main clause has its own subject, is an alternative. I couldn't say which is more common.

    (Peeve omitted.)

    I agree with people that an understanding of disliking accents is incomplete without an understanding of liking accents, especially those of similar social class. And are some disliked accents stigmatized in other ways, say as "ignorant", but not as "ugly"?

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 9:32 am

    It's fun to ridicule other people. And one of the defining distinctions between humans and other animals is our ability to rationalize our behavior. So, if we can cloak our ridicule in the garb of post hoc moral superiority, we are fairly well girded against attacks on our motives. That said, I believe that Mr. Fruehwald may be more transparent than he intends. In my opinion, he commits the very social sin he decries in others. He imputes undesireable characteristics to an entire group of people based on his biases.

    Fruehwald asserts a) that people in Group X who dislike people in Group Y exhibit Behavior Z, and b) therefore people who exhibit Behavior Z must be in Group X. In short, if P then Q implies if Q then P. In this instance, a) people who dislike certain people express that by disliking their accents. This has not been proven, but may be true. I will stipulate that it is true. Therefore he concludes b) that people who dislike certain accents dislike the speakers of those accents. This is logically false. Nevertheless, on this basis he ridicules people in Group X, those who dislike certain accents. In fact, he takes the morally superior position that the people in Group X are bad people and he wants to have nothing to do with them. I maintain that he held the belief that Group X were bad people long before the game he questions was created. His artful rationalizing has allowed him to cover his distaste for people in Group X, and he uses Behavior Z to support his irrational position. The pot is calling the kettle black.

  11. Sybil said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    Such a useful antidote to a lot of ****. Thanks.

    It's all about race/class/social standing, except when it's you (me) doing it, eh?

  12. Sybil said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 10:43 am

    and gender. How did I forget gender?

  13. nl7 said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 10:47 am

    Not familiar enough with some of these particular gradations to have an opinion, but it appears that the assumption is that the number of candidates for "most annoying" contained within a geographic region is roughly inversely proportional to distance from the northeast corridor.

    The list is entirely east coast accents except for a handful of southern accents, two Midwest (three if Pittsburgh crosses over), and LA. Nothing between Chicago and LA at all, I guess because the accents are so mainstream. I'm unable to distinguish Providence from Boston or Charleston from Louisville from Atlanta, so these gradations seem unnecessary to me. Even after 5 seasons of The Wire, I have trouble noticing or identifying a Bawl'more accent. But I can sometimes hear a Texas accent, so I'm surprised it didn't pop up.

    Seems like this sort of question will mostly reduce down to "which region has stereotypically annoying cultural habits as well as a distinct accent?"

  14. Sybil said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 10:50 am

    what Bjorn said.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

    I am struck by the logical leap in the statement (not Fruehwald's words, but block-quoted by him with approval): "If as a nation we are agreed that it is not acceptable or good to discriminate on the grounds of skin color or ethnicity, gender or age, then by logical extension it is equally unacceptable to discriminate against language traits which are intimately linked to an individual's sense and expression of self." The "logical extension" seems highly contestable. Accent/dialect traits have nothing to do with DNA and we know that at least some people can and do change them over the course of their life (it may be unfair or undignified, but learning to change your mode of speech in order to evade prejudice is often rather less challenging than changing or masking your race or sex, or changing your age other than in the usual way).

    Now there's an argument to be made that certain sorts of learned cultural traits which are typically reflective of early childhood environment rather than conscious adult choice ought to be treated as analogous to genetically-determined traits for purposes of norms against discrimination, because in each situation it makes no sense to treat the individual as praiseworthy or blameworthy for having chosen his or her genes or early childhood environment well or poorly. But it's an argument that needs to be made (and will probably be subject to exceptions), not just a conclusion to be assumed.

    And there are other arguments to be made that at least some types of discrimination on the basis of non-mainstream cultural affiliations in general, even those freely chosen as an adult (getting tattooed, converting to a controversial religion that you weren't raised in, becoming a vegan, or a nudist, or what have you) is undesirable and counterproductive in a modern pluralistic society. But those are very different arguments, with different grounds, than (at least many of) the arguments against racial discrimination. And of course for any given language variety (including deprecated or stigmatized varieties) there will be some speakers for whom it is "intimately linked to [their] sense and expression of self" and others for whom, eh, it's just the way they happen to talk because of various contingent past life circumstances and they have no particular emotional investment in it.

    I think stigmatizing certain language varieties is often an unpleasant thing which ought not to be encouraged, but I don't think analogies like this for why such stigmatization ought to be discouraged are productive. They may even be counterproductive.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

    Just re stigmatization of the "Brummie" accent, when my middle child (now 10) was a lot younger I used to watch with her in its US-cable-tv run. I vaguely recall the accents being a bit different and perhaps slightly harder for me to follow than the other generic-UK-kid-tv-shows I'd seen, but I don't know whether the animated cars etc. were supposed to actually be speaking Brummie (e.g. I don't know what the local accent is like on the Isle of Man but I'm pretty sure the dialogue on Thomas the Tank Engine doesn't try to replicate it) and, if so, whether that was a sign of decreased stigmatization or to the contrary of a painfully self-conscious decision by the BBC to try to reduce such stigmatization in the future by exposing preschoolers to it in a positive environment.

  17. Joe said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

    @J.W.Brewer: So, discrimination against someone because he sounds Pakistani is less egregious than discriminating against someone because he looks Pakistani? Because he can change his accent but not his DNA?

    Sorry, don't understand why this analogy is faulty or counterproductive.

  18. Chris C. said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    They left off General American, which is arguably the American dialect least blessed with aesthetically pleasing features.

  19. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    I think the BBC does go to considerable pains to ensure that its CBeebies output promotes all accents, ethnicities, abilities, etc. and stigmatises no-one.

  20. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

    "No prizes for guessing which accent came bottom. Black Country. […]

    Ask a British person what their least favourite accent is, and they will more than likely say 'Brummie' – the variety of English spoken in the West Midlands city of Birmingham. "

    A Brummie accent – as in Birmingham – is not the same as a Black Country accent though.

    The Black Country accent – at least the traditional one – is very distinctive, even if obviously closer to Brummie than most.

    The male interviewee in this film has a fairly strong Black Country accent, his wife less strong and closer to Brummie.

    (Ignore the linguistic nonsense in the intro from the Brummie-tinged narrator. Also I didn't know she was going to call the accent 'very distinctive' when I wrote the identical statement above!)

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    I have no idea what "sounding Pakistani" means. People who immigrate to the US from Pakistan when they are older than a certain threshold age tend to speak English with a certain accent (don't think I could distinguish it from other South-Asian-origin accents, but maybe others could) even if naturalized, but their US-born children (or Pakistan-born children who were young enough when they changed countries) typically speak English with a different accent, usually an accent close to identical to that of some reference group of Americans of other ethnic backgrounds who were their neighbors or schoolmates during their formative years. If accent-based discrimination treats the US-born children differently than their own immigrant parents (while simultaneously treating them the same as US-born white children with the same accent), it's . . . not very analogous to racial discrimination, is it?

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

    One interesting omission from the gawker "tournament": since the "contestants" are all cities, the traditional opportunity to express uncharitable disdain for how rural/rustic/yokel/dumb-hick/hillbillies talk is excluded by definition.

  23. Chris C. said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    @J. W. Brewer — As far as "Brum" goes, I'm not sure what voices you're talking about. The entire program is done in pantomime with a narrator, and I don't know enough about UK accents to tell you where she was from. (Although now that I look it up online I find it was Toyah Willcox, who is indeed from Birmingham.)

    The oldest Thomas the Tank Engine episodes were voiced in a Liverpool accent, as the only voice was also that of a narrator, and that was Ringo Starr.

  24. GeorgeW said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

    "The male interviewee in this film has a fairly strong Black Country accent, his wife less strong and closer to Brummie."

    Oh my goodness, my Southern AmE ears could only pick out words. I worked with a guy with this kind of accent years ago in the Middle East. When he spoke, I just smiled and nodded my head. Fortunately, we didn't work on joint projects.

  25. Martha said,

    October 2, 2014 @ 11:37 pm

    "@Paul "What if some people genuinely find some or all of those accents ugly and it doesn't have anything to do with social class?"
    Lots of people are physically/sexually attracted to people of certain ethnicities and not others, and that's perfectly okay. It would still be utterly reprehensible to run a "America's Ugliest Race" tournament."

    True, but I feel like this misses (my interpretation of) the point of the original comment. It may not be accurate to say that the reason people dislike an accent is related to their opinion of the speaker's social class. Just because there's a history of black people being discriminated against doesn't mean that the reason non-black person X thinks black person Y is ugly is that X has some sort of problem with black people. Y might just be ugly, and it isn't really fair or useful to assume X is racist just because they think so.

    Regarding the bracket, I'm with nl7. Maybe if I spent more time east of the Rockies, but nothing in particular comes to mind when I hear the names of some of those accents, so any judgements I made would solely be on the basis on what I know/believe about the areas.

  26. D.O. said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 12:12 am

    Judgements of the perceived beauty or ugliness of accents are based almost entirely upon a knowledge of the social connotations which they possess for those familiar with them.

    No matter how true this might be, it does not follow from the Steve Thorne's experiment. Or at least form its exposition in the exerpt.

  27. Nathan Myers said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 12:20 am

    I have always found Scots accents the most pleasant among English varieties. I grew up in Hawaii, and have never had any reason to associate Scottishness with any social class or in-group. It just sounds good.

    Someone mentioned generic American as unpleasant. It is worth noting that, as with national Italian's special connection to Florentine, what people call accentless American (or sometimes newscasterese) really comes from Portland, Oregon.

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 5:41 am

    Really? I always thought General American was basically mid-Western. Is that different from newscasterese? And how did the Portland accent come to be standardised?

  29. David Morris said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 7:43 am

    Two days ago in my class the topic of different English accents came up, so yesterday I played them a video on Youtube of a young English man demonstrating 30 different accents. Without any prompting from me, several of the class nominated Jamaican as the nicest and Liverpool as the least nice (whatever their criteria were, and with due acknowledgement of the un-rigorousness of the experiment).

  30. Rodger C said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 8:03 am

    I always heard that newscasterese was based first on Indianapolis, then Salt Lake City. Has it migrated west again?

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 10:09 am

    I have likewise heard SLC/"Great Basin" speech called the basis for newscasterese, although not from what I would call a rigorous scholarly source. The wikipedia piece on General American claims that Labov et al have determined that the most prototypical (they probably wouldn't want to say "purest") GenAm accent is found in a fairly small geographical area that includes most of Iowa, the eastern part of Nebraska, part of central Illinois (it "plays in Peoria"), and the northernmost bits of Missouri. From a tv perspective I note that this includes the boyhood home of Johnny Carson and possibly (depending on just how deep into Missouri the line goes) that of Walter Cronkite.

    That GenAm heimat probably includes less than 3% of the total national population, but the same wiki piece says that John Wells (who knows a bit about variation in English pronunciation . . .) says about 2/3 of the US population natively has GenAm pronunciation. The key point, I suppose, is that GenAm covers a certain range of pronunciation variations and as long as you stay within that range your speech will not be obviously perceived as regionally marked or, at least, not perceived as regionally marked in a way that will get you deprecated. The 60%+ of the population who a specialist like Labov can peg as outside the Omaha/Des Moines/Moline benchmark version of the accent presumably do not deviate enough to be noticed by a non-specialist who is not focused on the issue. Indeed, regardless of how they do it in Des Moines you can probably have or not have the cot/caught merger (and probably some other common variations that a non-specialist would perceive if appropriately cued) without seeming non-standard. You can also probably be someone like me who has mostly GenAm pronunciation but with one or two markedly regional features (in my case, my GOAT vowel, which is decidedly Delaware Valley/Mid-Atlantic, although I don't necessarily have too many of the other features of the "Philly" accent Dr. Fruehwald has studied).

  32. maidhc said,

    October 3, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

    Peoria and the Quad Cities may have a generic accent, but much of central Illinois has a very distinctive local accent.

  33. Nathan Myers said,

    October 4, 2014 @ 12:53 am

    JWB: If what you expressed was what you meant, I'm afraid what you meant was fundamentally incoherent. Yes, discrimination based on accent is not the same as racism, or sexism, or even classism, but only analogous. But what of it? None of those is the same as any other. Analogous is all we've got.

    The fact underlying all is that the trait disparaged correlates poorly, often negatively, with any given undesirable quality a bigot attributes to the group. Intelligence, diligence, honesty and heroism respect no boundaries. They are with certainty disappointingly rare among the Others, but they are about equally hard to locate in your own group, with possibly less justification. Which is worse, to hope to find those qualities and be disappointed, or to miss one when you meet it because you were blind to it?

    Disappointment comes to us every day without looking for it. To make yourself less able to recognize virtue is foolish. To blame the person who had it for not learning to speak like you when he or she perhaps could have done is doubly so.

  34. Keith M Ellis said,

    October 4, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

    "Accent/dialect traits have nothing to do with DNA and we know that at least some people can and do change them over the course of their life (it may be unfair or undignified, but learning to change your mode of speech in order to evade prejudice is often rather less challenging than changing or masking your race or sex, or changing your age other than in the usual way)."

    Over the course of my lifetime I've been befuddled and alarmed at the entrenchment of biological essentialism within the context of rights and related ethics. It is conveniently persuasive to argue that discrimination against incontrovertibly involuntary characteristics is wrong, but this argument has the unfortunate side-effect of implicitly sanctioning any/all discrimination on the basis of any (thought to be) voluntary characteristic and, just as problematic, reaffirming the already-strong popular bias toward a deterministic essentialism about human nature. The result is that we now have, for example, popular defenses of discrimination and bigotry on the basis of religious affiliation because it's "voluntary" and feminists forced to take extreme positions denying sex differences in cognitive function of humans because the dominant essentialist paradigm would allow sexist discrimination were such differences to exist.

    All of this is the product of the social and political history of racism and its apotheosis into modern scientific racism with the corresponding biological essentialism. To fight racism, we've had to deny (truthfully, as it turned out) the biological essentialist notions of modern racism with regard to things like cognition and behavior while accepting it with regard to the gestalt culturally-mediated notion of race that is built around presumptions of biology. With that history, we then reached the modern gay rights era, with the presumption of a "gay gene" used as the rationale for the anti-bigotry program.

    But the result is a mess with a lot of undesirable consequences. The question of choice and biology isn't actually determinative, as we already can see when we think about scientific racism where people were more willing to accept bigotry with regard to presumed essentialist traits. And I remain unconvinced that homophobes ultimately are persuaded by essentialism, given that the racists never were and still aren't. And the corresponding devaluation of rights and respect to anything and everything that could be called "voluntary" is deeply problematic. It's a false qualitative distinction — false in every sense, from the scientific perspective (race is socially constructed, ultimately, and the genetics related to cognition and behavior are complex and unclear and nature/nurture is a synthesis, not an opposition) to the even more important social and ethical perspective.

    There's a deep irony involved in the fact that progressive social values have embraced what is effectively an antihumanistic value that elevates essentialist determinism above choice; particularly so with regard to notions of rights and identity. The humanist tradition has in the past, and would otherwise, privilege choice and individual identity above biology.

    And, ultimately, this becomes a distraction. As is very clear in this post and this topic, it's extremely common for there to be bigotry against every dialect that isn't prestige and in inverse proportion to its class associations and this is self-evidently wrong and rationally unsupportable — it's distressing that it's become so easy for people like yourself to defend it on the basis of it being "voluntary". It's not really that useful of a pragma and the proof of the injustice is in the pudding of self-perpetuating, institutional social inequality.

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 6, 2014 @ 6:55 am

    I may have been misunderstood. I am not saying that discrimination based on accent is benign or even necessarily in the abstract less-bad than discrimination based on skin color. I am saying that the case for why it might be bad needs to be made in different terms. I also posited that accent is often in sort of a middle category, where it is neither "voluntary" nor genetically-determined, because it is often the result of early child environment that the child (and the resultant grownup) cannot be viewed as morally responsible for having chosen.

    On the other hand, Fruehwald, in defending the honor of his stigmatized fieldwork subjects, makes a rather counterproductive rhetorical move. He cites a study that in the Philadelphia area, people who "sound black" over the telephone suffer disadvantages in obtaining employment. In other words, people who possess the deprecated Philadelphia accent (i.e. the traditional local white working-class acccent) he celebrates actually benefit from the "institutional social inequality" of which accent is a marker. On the third hand, it is telling that the Gawker people (who are snarky assholes but also cowardly assholes with an instinct for self-preservation) are focused on mocking white working-class accents and assiduously avoid mocking any variety of AmEng stereotypically associated with non-white speakers. It is probably the case that we have a social problem with prejudice against working-class whites, not least because the social taboos against openly expressed prejudice against non-whites (and various other groups) have left fewer and fewer groups as safe targets for the natural if unedifying tendency to bigotry. So criticizing that sort of bigotry is positive. On the other hand, the magnitude of the real-world effects of bigotry against working-class Philadelphia whites is perhaps not quite so great as the historical impact of bigotry against blacks, and treating all forms of "discrimination" as equally bad tends to blur such distinctions and trivialize the impact of the more extreme forms.

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