Make American Accents Great Again


Image by Jenny Chang, courtesy of BuzzFeed*

A recent Daily Briefing email newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education to its subscribers included this snippet of news from a sample of faculty members who mailed in about things they have learned from student feedback on their courses:

Shaun Bowler, a political-science professor at the University of California at Riverside, wrote that he had received a course evaluation reading, “His accent is a problem. Why can’t we have teachers who speaks [sic] English properly?” Mr. Bowler is from England.

That’s funny. But I hope you won’t be too shocked that I found it rather encouraging, in a left-handed sort of way. Let me explain

Far too many Americans regard British accents as classier, better, and of higher prestige than their own. At least the student quoted has escaped the shadow of the Old Country, and takes American English to be English spoken “properly.” If you take some variety of American English as your standard for what’s proper, then of course southern British is not proper.

So deal with it, immigrant Brits! In California, class rhymes with gas, which is what you put in the fuel tank of your car, in between the hood at the front (it’s not a bonnet) and the trunk at the back (which is not a boot). Rubbers are for contraceptive purposes, not for erasing pencil marks; cookies are not biscuits; public schools are not private; and regardless of whether you are trying to refer to a cigarette, a tedious task, or a junior schoolboy assigned duties by older boys, it’s probably best to forget there ever was such a word as fag, so just paraphrase, OK?

Of course, it’s true that many Americans are far too insular, and one of the key things they need to get out of a college education is the experience of encountering smart people with accents they never heard before, and may initially have trouble understanding. Treating every different kind of accent as weird and upsetting as you go through life in this globalized world would be babyish, so students who have never been outside Riverside County or seen a foreign film do need to grow up a bit linguistically. But I like the fact that this student wasn’t laboring under the misapprehension that his own American English was some kind of debased patois and only people from England speak properly.

When I first arrived in America so many decades ago, I relished the sound of high-powered academics, giants in their fields, speaking about linguistics in their native accents, whether it was working-class Brooklyn, or unreconstructed South Texas twang, or the kind of Chicago English that pronounces Chicago as one syllable (Shgaw). To me, this was just evidence that the accents of Brooklyn or Texas or Chicago were high-prestige.

How else could I view it? When I finally met in the flesh some famous linguist whose books I had seen in libraries in Britain, the variety of English they spoke instantly became high prestige in my estimation. I was truly shocked when I encountered American academics, way smarter and more famous than me, who confided that they had always thought their own accent was low-grade, and that my educated southern British standard English seemed to them more elegant and desirable and appropriate to the professoriate.

A few people (not usually academics) even thought, when I first moved to California, that my speech was “cute”! I didn’t want to be cute, any more than I wanted to be Britishly elegant and urbane. I just wanted to be an American linguist. And in accord with the basic principle of sociolinguistics that you tend to adopt the linguistic practices of the groups you identify with, I acquired at least something of an American accent (I still tend to have the syllable-final [r]-sound to this day).

That’s why I find something refreshing about the story from Riverside. Whether you regard him as innocent or ignorant, at least the student is utterly unaffected by old-time cultural cringing. He thinks speakers of educated southern British need to be sent to a speech therapist.

Professor Bowler is a distinguished professor of American politics and a dean at UCR, who not only has degrees from Aberystwyth and Essex in Britain but also, interestingly, earned a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis! I hope he chuckled as much as I did.


[[*Illustration courtesy of BuzzFeed, where it illustrated "Can You Guess the U.S. Accent?"]]

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