Tag Archives: Henry Higgins

Do You Have an Accent?

Depending on what part of the country (any country) you grew up in, you have an accent, often recognizable by others, who are able to place you with varying degrees of accuracy. In the United States, people may be able to tell you are from the Midwest or the South, while others are able to be more specific: Minnesota or Alabama. Still others—perhaps related to Henry Higgins in G.B. Shaw’s play Pygmalion or in the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, which was based on the play—may be able to trace your linguistic origin to East Minneapolis or Birmingham.

Everyone has an accent. After all,what is unaccented English (or Spanish or Lao or Urdu)? When I was in grad school at UCLA, I stepped into an elevator and the man already in it asked me what floor I wanted.”Three, please,” I said. Immediately, he asked me what part of New York I was from. I didn’t realize my accent was so recognizable. My late mother-in-law, who had a strong New York accent to my ears, was certain she didn’t. After all, she insisted, “I’ve been in Califawnia faw fawty-faw yee-uhs.” I rest my case.

The way we speak depends on the first language in our childhood home, as well as on socio-economic factors, ethnicity, education, geography, and social class. So how can there be a way of speaking in any language that is unaccented? However, a strong non-native accent can stand in the way of comprehension on the part of listeners. As a teacher of English as a Second Language, I recognized that many of my students were difficult to understand; their heavy accents could hold them back. So we worked on pronunciation that did not eliminate their native accent but did make it more comprehensible. In no case did I ever tell students not to speak in their native language at home or among others from their home countries. That language was an intrinsic and valuable part of who they were.

The fact remains that some accents are prized and even imitated while others are looked down upon. Who doesn’t love a British or Italian accent? But if a person has an accent that is considered undesirable, that person might face discrimination in housing or employment. However, in America it is unusual to hear a newscaster (called, much more accurately, a “newsreader” in Great Britain) speak with a British, much less an Italian accent. What you are likely to hear is a neutral accent without definite geographical markers. Yet it still is an accent. Worldwide, according to one estimate, more than 50 million people speak English as a second language, so what in the world does a “native English accent” sound like?

You have an accent. I have an accent. Everyone has an accent.

 

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Filed under All things having to do with the English language