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English Major Leagues: What's in an Accent?

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  • Tip Bones

"You talk funny."

"You're not from around here, are you?"

"What a weird accent!"

Do any of these sound familiar? Regional accent discrimination can be difficult, and especially when the accent that you have acquired over a lifetime of experience and exposure has a certain negative connotation. For example, here in the USA, the 'Southern' accent has traditionally been associated with a lack of education. Now of course, that's nothing but a rude stereotype: on the whole, US Southerners are not classless or uneducated. But it brings up how a simple accent can make listeners jump to bold conclusions about speakers, which quickly produces discrimination after just a few words.

But are some accents "better" than others? Short answer: no. What we call "accents" are simply a result of what is known linguistically as "language change." This is a general term that refers to how language, along with its grammar, pronunciation, semantics, and pragmatics, shift over time. What changes a language varies widely, but some great examples are a change in political power (such as the British Empire conquering any number of smaller nations and imposing English as the official language), introduction of new technology (such as the onset of the Internet), or just varied pronunciation by individuals that became accepted as a group.

What can we do about accent discrimination? Knowledge is power. Instead of viewing language change as something negative, we should study, document, and embrace regional and cultural variation in languages. The way we speak now isn't worse than how Shakespeare wrote, it's just different. So before we spout rude comments about someone's accent, remember that it is the result of hundreds, possibly thousands of years of language change, and accept that there's bound to be differences.

Photo: Pixabay

Check out this excellent Ted-Ed video on language evolution!