An Introduction to Accent Discrimination

Diversity is a naturally occurring phenomenon throughout all of life, including language. Despite this everyone has their own idea of what is “correct” when it comes to speech, with some dialects and accents considered “better” than others. Even those who have been specifically taught otherwise can find it difficult not to make an instant judgment about a person solely on the basis of how they speak (Lippi-Green, 1994; Milroy & Milroy, 1991). It is in these moments, when snap judgments are made and not examined or discarded, that accent discrimination can arise.

For many people, the terms accent and dialect do not mean anything more than how someone who is other and different speaks. In fact, many people believe they themselves do not even have an accent (Morley, 1996), something linguists refer to as “the non-accent myth” (Cho, 2010). The word accent itself was originally a Latin translation of the Greek word “prosiodia,” (Vaissiere & Boula De Mareuil, 2004) which was used to differentiate between people who spoke “correctly” and those who did not (Oed.com, 2015). This seems to imply that approaching accents as something that is other is not a new view and has in fact been the prominent language ideology for millennia.

Yet everyone has an accent, and this accent is an integral part of a person’s identity. Matsuda (1991) says of this:

Your accent carries the story of who you are – who first held you and talked to you when you were a child, where you have lived, your age, the schools you attended, the languages you know, your ethnicity, whom you admire, your loyalties, your profession, your class position: traces of your life and identity are woven into your pronunciation, your phrasing, your choice of words. Your self is inseparable from your accent. (p. 1329)

The gravity of discriminating against accents or dialects is made clear here. It must be understood that rejecting the way someone speaks is to reject that person (Nguyen, 1994). Therefore, judging someone on the basis that they sound different from oneself cannot be supported. Unfortunately, studies have shown that very rarely is the presence of accent discrimination recognized or any action taken against it (Frumkin, 2007). Speakers of non-standard dialects are often discriminated against as being ignorant, low class, or more likely to commit a crime. It has been observed in other studies that even one non-standard marker can change how that speaker is viewed (Campbell-Kibler, 2005; Wiehl, 2002).

Variety in language is normal and noticing that variety is only natural. Discrimination only comes into play when immediate judgements are made regarding a person based solely on their speech and then used to justify actions that exclude them (Nguyen, 1994). If for any reason a listener decides they do not like a speaker’s voice, this is not automatically discrimination (Tamasi & Antieau, 2015). However, if the listener acts on their prejudice, no matter how well-spoken that person is, the listener will not hear or consider anything the speaker has to say as the listener has already deemed it irrelevant (Wiley & Lukes, 1996). Biases cause listeners to hear what they are expecting to hear (Kohler, 2004). This occurs most frequently in cases of linguistic stereotyping.

There is a significant amount of evidence showing that accent discrimination due to linguistic stereotypes is a common occurrence, happening “in employment, housing, education, the media, the courts and in everyday interaction.” (Lippi-Green, 2012, p. 67) Employers are seen to be fully within their rights to refuse advancement or employment to non-standard speakers. No one would permit this on the basis of race or gender. Yet it is believed to be fully justifiable to say that customers would not be able to understand them, even though research says otherwise (Nguyen, 1993). The media is not questioned when it requests its employees speak in the standard dialect (Lippi-Green, 1994). Landlords are permitted to deny housing to those who speak a non-standard dialect (Purnell et al., 1999).

However, linguistic stereotypes are not always negative. A recent advertisement in the London Underground shows this, included below. The common American stereotype associated with southern British English accents is one of high education and attractiveness (Bayard et al., 2001). As an advertisement, it is a clever idea. It flatters the viewer and implies that they will be treated quite well should they travel to Las Vegas. However, while it is not discriminatory in any way, it encourages the linguistic stereotyping that often leads to prejudice: it promotes being judged solely on the way one speaks.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 19.45.11
“Where your accent is an aphrodisiac.” (Lasvegas.videobooth.tv, 2015)

What are now your thoughts on accent discrimination? Have you witnessed this occurring before or experienced it in your own life? What are potential steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects of accent discrimination? Please leave a comment below.


References

Bayard, D., Weatherall, A., Gallois, C. and Pittam, J. (2001). Pax Americana? Accent attitudinal evaluations in New Zealand, Australia and America. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 5(1), pp.22-49.

Campbell-Kibler, K. (2005). Listener perceptions of sociolinguistic variables: The case of (ING). Ph.D. Stanford University.

Cho, C. (2010). “Qualifying” as Teacher: Immigrant Teacher Candidates’ Counter-Stories. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, (100).

Frumkin, L. (2007). Influences of accent and ethnic background on perceptions of eyewitness testimony. Psychology, Crime & Law, 13(3), pp.317-331.

Kohler, B. (2004). Racial Voice Identification: Judicially Condoning the Bogus Science of Hearing Color. Temple Law Review, 77(3), pp.757-780.

Lasvegas.videobooth.tv, (2015). Las Vegas – Visit a place where your accent is an aphrodisiac. [online] Available at: http://www.lasvegas.videobooth.tv/landing/ [Accessed 29 Jul. 2015].

Lippi-Green, R. (1994). Accent, standard language ideology, and discriminatory pretext in the courts. Lang. Soc., 23(02), p.163.

Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Matsuda, M. (1991). Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction. The Yale Law Journal, 100(5), p.1329.

Milroy, J. and Milroy, L. (1991). Authority in language. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Morley, J. (1996). Second Language Speech/Pronunciation: Acquisition, instruction, standards, variation, and accent. In: Alatis, J., Straehle, C., Ronkin, M. and Gallenberger, B. (eds.) Georgetown University Round Table On Languages And Linguistics (GURT) 1996: Linguistics, Language Acquisition, And Language Variation: Current Trends And Future Prospects. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Nguyen, B. (1993). Accent Discrimination and the Test of Spoken English: A Call for an Objective Assessment of the Comprehensibility of Nonnative Speakers. California Law Review, 81(5), p.1325.

Oed.com, (2015). prosody, n. : Oxford English Dictionary. [online] Available at: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/152998#eid27915687 [Accessed 28 Jul. 2015].

Purnell, T., Idsardi, W. and Baugh, J. (1999). Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 18(1), pp.10-30.

Tamasi, S. and Antieau, L. (2015). Language and Linguistic Diversity in the US: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Vaissière, J. and Boula de Mareüil, P. (2004). Identifying a language or an accent: from segments to prosody. In: MIDL. [online] Paris: Hal. Available at: https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00185539 [Accessed 29 Jul. 2015].

Wiehl, L. (2002). Sounding Black in the Courtroom: Court-Sanctioned Racial Stereotyping. Harvard Blackletter Law Journal, 18, pp.185-210.

Wiley, T. and Lukes, M. (1996). English-Only and Standard English Ideologies in the U.S. TESOL Quarterly, 30(3), p.511.


Grace Wood is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at the University of York. She works on topics in contemporary English sociolinguistics, with a focus on perceptual dialectology.

One thought on “An Introduction to Accent Discrimination

  1. I think that accent discrimination cannot be completely avoided. The gap between accents can only be reduced. This reduction can only be realized of users of the English language, for example, try to find common ground. That is to say, if there are accent divergences, they should not be too serious to impede intelligibility among users of different linguistic backgrounds. There is what I call “linguistic substratum” which has a serious impact on the use of English as a second or foreign language.

    Linguistic substratum occurs when a second or foreign language user is influenced by their mother tongue (first language). I can illustrate with this example: In the Bafut language (my mother tongue) there is the expression “Ndah Mfu’u” which can erroneously be translated literally into English as “House White” instead of “White House”. This because “Ndah” and “Mfu’u” mean “House” and “White” respectively in English. This problem of rendition is occassioned by the fact that there is post-modification in the Bafut language whereas the English language abounds in pre-modification.

    We talk of post-modification when the modifying or qualifying element (which can be an adjective, an adverb, or a word functioning as such) comes before the noun or pronoun it is qualifying or modifying. On the other hand, there is pre-modification when the modifier or qualifier precedes the noun or pronoun it modifies or qualifies. By Julius Suh Ayancho, Linguistics Lecturer and Consultant.

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