Today there is a repost of an article by Jessica Love in The American Scholar titled The Disappearing Accent. In this article the author goes on to discuss how certain age groups have more difficulties distinguishing English accents than others, particularly younger age groups to focus on only familiar accents and will tune out unfamiliar accents.
Accents and dialects play an important function socially by helping individuals distinguish locals from non-locals. This gives an immediate sensory input of “in-group” vs. “out-group” and based on the associations with that group a person will have a response. Accent responses contribute to a global issue of systemic racism and sometimes, these responses aren’t so friendly (see: almost every anti-immigrant accent joke ever – even Disney is guilty of a long history of these).
Accents do help individuals determine where, geographically, someone is from rapidly without conscious thought. Interestingly, accents can tell us a lot about the history of human migration as well.
Expanding on this, even English accents and dialects demonstrate this history of human migration. The accents found throughout the former British Empire are based on the timing of colonization compared to when the Great Vowel Shift occurred, when and where the colonists originated from, and whether their English dialect originated from Victorian or Elizabethan English.
As someone from the Chesapeake Bay my accent originates from Elizabethan English prior to the Great Vowel Shift. This is unique and part of what makes accents from this area special and different sounding from all other Southern accents. Tangier, Hog, and Smith Island are the famous Chesapeake Bay islands, but there are so many others no longer occupied by more than one or two houses, if any. The watermen lived along the shorelines and worked the bay.
My grandfather was born north of the Bay and we came into the area. My parents lived most of their lives elsewhere, then raising us in towns always on the Shore as opposed to on the Islands. This is an important distinction. My accent is not multi-generational, and therefore not as thick as others.
The Accent Tag
If you haven’t been exposed by now, there’s an incredible thing called the Accent Tag. This has been used extensively for documenting the way people speak through YouTube videos and is a wonderful resource for authors who want to research how someone from a particular area would sound. I decided to read off the words from the word list after several hours of silence and white noise as auditory input to provide a baseline of my accent.
What About Youtube Videos And Podcasts?
I would love to! Based on my pronunciations above, do you think people could understand me if I slip into that? Do you think I’ll need subtitles? I’ve had students accuse me of needing subtitles before, during classes while teaching and that’s been embarrassing. In the past my accent has made it difficult for people to understand me.
In past relationships it meant I was lectured on correct pronunciation, and it may have played a role in why they never introduced me to their family. I have been told that my accent makes me sound “low class” and “uneducated”. I’ve had to explain to my own husband that he needed to back off with the “you’re pronouncing it wrong” bull crap.
Long story short, people experience accent discrimination by losing job opportunities and by experiencing people being dicks to them, sometimes their own spouses and friends. The moment this is combined with any other factor their lives get way worse. To be blunt: it’s a lot of effort to keep constantly worrying about how I’m pronouncing things. You can hear me trip up in the word list with “Spitting Image” because… That’s not how I would even begin to say that phrase because it’s not even spelled that way in my head.
For these reasons, I’m nervous about being public with my voice. I know my accent that slips out is not as thick as a Tangier Islander accent:
That said, my accent is something I think is special and unique. It is one of the most beautiful things about where I am from and about the history of the United States. And it’s disappearing. Accidentally, I may be part of the last generation of Americans to have a Chesapeake Bay accent.
The Delmarva peninsula and the Chesapeake Bay are the settings of many of my stories. I look forward to sharing these with everyone so you too can know the joy of stories of Accomack, Onancock, Harborton, Onley, Wallops Island, and more.
Accents are complicated. They are used to make judgments that are often unfair and completely uncalled for. They are used as a deciding factor in job interviews and by random people we meet in passing for an introduction.
“An accent comes with a connotation. You think you know if someone is smart or stupid because of their accent. And yet the truth is an accent is not a measure of intelligence, it’s just someone speaking your language with the rules of theirs.”
Trevor Noah Afraid of the Dark
In Trevor Noah’s quote, which I love, I think dialect comes into play. A dialect is a particular form of a language specific to a region. Think about an accent as a language being spoken with the rules of a dialect or another language than the one the listener thinks is “normal”. That’s it.
So… Next time you want to correct someone for pronouncing something “wrong”, pay attention. Is that how they always pronounce it? Are they consistent? Is that how everyone pronounces that word where they’re from? Maybe it’s okay to not correct accents that are different from your own. Besides, it’s on both of you to adjust during the conversation to improve communication.