Snap Judgments – Accent, Discrimination and Identity

Dr. Jillian Cavanaugh is a professor of linguistic anthropology at Brooklyn College, where she focuses on the relationship between accents, culture and identity. The following is from an interview with Dr. Cavanaugh, abridged and edited.

We don’t think of accent discrimination often. At this point in America, we’re pretty attuned to what racial or ethnic discrimination looks like, right? But accent discrimination is just how people sound. We equate how we sound with who we are. It doesn’t seem to be discrimination, just discernment.

We, as Americans, use stereotypes that are attached to accents as a way to think about and activate social difference. Here we have a lot of geographically distributed accents that help us make kind of quick judgments about people. When we hear somebody with a Southern accent, we think we know something about them, socially. We make assumptions about their educational level, maybe their class position, and so on.

I was with my sister in Georgia recently, and we have lots of cousins there who we didn’t grow up with, and they have strong Georgian accents. And it’s striking because we’re family, but we sound so different.

My sister spent the weekend saying, “I can’t believe how stupid they sound. I know it sounds terrible, but they sound so awful, it grates on me. I mean they’re perfectly nice, but…” There was no separating her social evaluation of them from her language evaluation of them.

When somebody hears someone use a strong New York accent, the stereotypes that come to mind are that you are not very educated. You are locally oriented and your world is small.

I’m thinking about the movie “Saturday Night Fever” and John Travolta’s girlfriend, who’s trying so hard to move across the river, to get out of Brooklyn and into Manhattan. And she’s trying to change her speech. She’s trying to get rid of all traces of Brooklyn so she cannot just move out but up, right? Up the socioeconomic ladder, and leave all of Brooklyn behind her. So she tries to do that by changing her speech. She tries to do that by dropping her R’s and saying New York instead of New Yawk.

So some people try to get rid of their accents. On a linguistic level, it’s changing your phonological pattern. But it’s always described as getting rid of something, as if you could, like, unpack your bags and leave them behind. Be a different kind of person.

Anthropologists argue that language and identity go hand in hand. The efforts to change your language patterns are part of larger projects to change your self.

Because it involves a change of self, changing your accent sets up a lot of conflicts –with people you’re closest to and yourself. You are, in a sense, learning to talk like another person, so the people around you wonder, “Who is this new person? Is this changing my relationship to them, or how they view me or view their priorities? Are they trying to move out of this group and into some kind of other group?”

And then of course the person doing this has all the same worries: “Who am I becoming?”

There’s been some research done with accent discrimination and its legal ramifications. While you’re not allowed to discriminate against a person based on ethnicity, race or gender, what an accent is remains very unclear. Is accent an expression of who you are, or is accent a malleable thing that can change? If it falls under being something that’s part of you, like race or ethnicity, then it can be protected by law. But if it’s seen as something you can change then it’s not protected, and is considered a personal attribute.

People aren’t often aware of the snap judgments they make based on language that may or may not reflect the person who’s speaking. In that way, making judgments about accents can be very limiting. But the fact kind of remains that we do it – we do it all the time, good or bad.

Not discrimination, just discernment.

She’s trying to get rid of all traces of Brooklyn

“Who am I becoming?”

Accent discrimination and its legal ramifications.

We do it all the time, good or bad.

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