once more, with feeling: accent, dialect, language

Over at Smart Bitches there’s a long and winding conversation about various points in linguistics, particularly historical linguistics, accent, and the portrayal of such things in the written language. I put in my two cents, of course. But as the conversation gets more into details, I am having to resist trampling in there to set up my lecture podium.

So I’ll do it here.

Actually, all I’m doing is this: here’s chapter two (“The Myth of Non-Accent”) of English with an Accent: Language Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. You’ll need the ole standard Adobe Reader to open it.

It was written for an introductory course, so it’s pretty accessible — although the ground work set up in the first chapter is (of course) missing. English with an Accent is still used as the standard text in universities courses on the sociolinguistic nature of language variation in the U.S. Just to establish some credentials and/or perspective.

This chapter specifically addresses the definition and use of the word ‘accent’ from two directions. The first is L1 (First Language) — the way you speak your native tongue(s), and L2 (Second Language) — the way native language marks any language you’ll learn after (approximately) puberty.

For any linguists dropping by here, this is not meant to open up a discussion on the Black Box or the critical period (both of which I subscribe to, but don’t want to debate just here and now).

So if you’re interested, please have a look and post your thoughts.

7 Replies to “once more, with feeling: accent, dialect, language”

  1. This is slightly off-topic but it’s interesting that Filipino accented English is mentioned. In the Philippines, many affluent families raise their children to speak English alongside Filipino, and sometimes ahead of it, yet the children still come out with what is considered an L2 accent. Yet for all intents and purposes, their native language is English and the accent should really be thought of as L1.

    I’m also frustrated when I hear comments on the news about forcing people to “speak English” as a condition of citizenship. I think many native English speakers fail to realise how difficult it is to do this. And what they often don’t realise is that many migrants try valiantly but: a) can never get enough of the phonology and vocabulary right to sound “competent”, or b) prefer not to say anything at all rather than embarrass themselves, or c) become so alienated from the mainstream that they lose the opportunity to immerse themselves in the language and learn many of its subtleties.

    And finally, I find it interesting that my husband, whose family migrated when he was 3, struggles with a “reverse” accent. Whenever he speaks to his parents or parents’ friends, he tries to put on an “accent” and it just cracks me up. I keep telling him to speak naturally but for some reason, he feels uncomfortable doing that. It’s a constant source of amusement for me. *g*

  2. Kat, I usually avoid the English-only question because it makes me mad. Those arguments are so specious and xenophobic, they make me bleed from the ears. Here’s a letter I wrote to the editor of our local paper on this subject:

    Mr. xxxxx writes to encourage readers to work for the passage of official English legislation in Washington. He believes legislation codifying English as the official language of the state is necessary, and that without it national unity and well being are at risk. Across the country, calls for similar legislation rely on the same myths, hyperbole and lack of historical fact and logic. What Mr. Daugert cites as good and necessary can also be seen as xenophobic, mean-spirited, restrictive, discriminatory and protectionist.

    The reasons cited most often in support of this legislation are all transparently false. English is not threatened in any way: it is the predominant language of trade globally and of all spheres of public life in the U.S. The proportion of non-English speakers was larger at the turn of the last century than it is now (the 1890 census recorded 4.5 times as many non-English speakers than did the 1990 census). In 1910 the census recorded that no English was spoken by 23 percent of foreign-born whites, 39 percent of Japanese, 41 percent of Chinese, and 66 percent of other immigrants. In 1990, only 10 percent of foreign born residents spoke no English. All immigrant groups have gradually become Anglicized but this was not due to legislation; it came about as a part of a larger assimilatory process — and we are the poorer for it. Multilingualism is a resource, one we should embrace.

    These are facts. Hard data like this is lacking in all the arguments you hear from proponents of English Only. They provide only anecdotal evidence and unsupported claims founded in racism and xenophobia. Such groups would like to cut federal services, restrict access, and deny legal protection on the basis of language, but they conveniently overlook the fact that some 40,000 people are on waiting lists for English as a Foreign Language classes in California alone. As has been pointed out time and time again, laws making English the official language do nothing to increase or fund language classes, nor do they teach a single person English. The simple fact is, the status of English as the majority language was much more of a question in earlier times, but it survived without intrusive legislation.

    Official English legislation violates the first amendment as well as the fourteenth, which forbids abridging the privileges and immunities accorded to naturalized citizens. Finally, this legislation is short sighted. It does not promote national unity; it is a gatekeeping mechanism aimed at very specific populations. English Only legislation and the organizations which promote it are countered by principled resistance from other civic, religious and professional organizations, among them the National Council of Teachers of English, the Modern Language Association, TESOL, American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages, the Center for Applied Linguistics, the American Psychological Association, the National Council for Black Studies, and the National Council of Churches of Christ. All of these organizations have published position papers which provide more background.

    We have so many better things to do with our time and energy. Please encourage your legislators to put aside this hurtful, impractical and short sighted legislation to take up more important issues.

  3. Your letter reminds me of an overhead conversation on a bus that I read about, where a man leans over to a woman who had been speaking to a friend in another language and he tells her to speak in English. She turns to him and says, “You speak English because you have to; I speak English because I choose to.”

    National or official languages are interesting, too. The Philippines, being an archipelago, is home to many different “dialects” (although technically, they should really be considered languages since many are mutually unintelligible). Filipino and English were (are?) considered the two official languages, yet many people in regional areas don’t speak Filipino at all – and these people are native Filipinos, not imimigrants. In some areas, the lingua franca is English only because it is (was?) taught in primary schools so most people have a rudimentary knowledge of the language.

  4. In the UK accent is related to class, and geographical origins (whether that be within the UK or outside the UK), and it seems that in the US it’s much the same. Nonetheless, from what you’re saying, it would appear that there’s a perception that people in the US should be able to speak with one, ‘standard’ accent. I wonder if this is tied in with ideological ideas about America, for example that the US should be homogenous/classless and therefore people should all speak the same way and/or that if they don’t, they should be able to change (just as the American Dream suggests that everyone can achieve greatness if they try hard enough, so the onus for being a success is placed on the individual to a considerable extent). In practice it would seem, from the example you gave of the newsreader, that an insistence on people speaking with a ‘standard’ accent leads to discrimination against people with the ‘wrong’ sort of accent. And, as you say, accent is not something one can change (certainly not completely, though some people are better at mimicking accents than others), and some children are born into an environment where they’re more likely to be able to copy deluxe versions of the Sound House.

    The BBC’s newsreaders used to have a particular type of accent. Nowadays there are newsreaders with a variety of accents. Sometimes there’s controversy when a new appointment is made and the new individual has an accent which some listeners find hard to understand/find unappealing. Some regional accents are considered more trustworthy, more amusing, more stupid-sounding etc than others.

    [I tried including a link to the BBC website, but that meant that my post wouldn’t go up on the board. I’ve posted things in the past which seem never to have come up on the board, so I’m trying to post this again, without the link. I apologise if that means I end up double-posting]

  5. That was really interesting.

    I’ve been teaching EFL for nearly a decade now, and I love your analogy. “Building sound houses”. That makes me a building guide – an architectural consultant? (It certainly sounds better than, “I’m just another English teacher,”!)

    Next time I have some money and I’m in a country where I can rely on the postal service I might just have to order the whole book. (Even though I’m doing my Master’s with a British university and should probably be buying books on ‘standard’ British English.)

    P.S. Kat: I’m in China, and the whole ‘is it a dialect or is it a language?’ thing is fascinating here too. The main difference being that putonghua (standard mandarin) is strictly enforced as the lingua franca.

  6. Wow what a treat! An excerpt from English with an accent! I’l behave and just say that it would be tragic to see any kind of “standard english” legislation passed. Every person I’ve talked to who speaks english as a L2 learned English as a necessity, being told they HAVE to learn would be redundant. I think some people just refuse ta bend, flexability isn’t in there vocabulary. I think people forget that we are the most adaptable animal on this planet and if we continue to be so narrow minded we won’t survive. Woof!

  7. And now I know I have to get ahold of the whole book and read it. Aaarrrghh. I meant to before, as promised, I really did, but then I moved and life became very odd and now getting my grubby paws on such books requires a bit more organisation.

    Something my cousin and I were talking about as consequence of this was the point when we realised our mothers had accents (they’re sisters and English is their third language). Even after people pointed it out to us, it was very hard to hear unless we concentrated even though I now recognise my aunt’s as strong (and vice versa in the case of my cousin).

    I’d better get reading rather than bugging other people about this…

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