Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Do native Americans speak with an accent? Yes, but most of us don't know what they are, including our own


Stephen Colbert challenges Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, and Allen Leech to read a Downton Abbey scene in American accents. Stephen's own idea about American accents could use some touching up, it seems.

"Nationally, most Americans don’t really know that much about the people who live in [Colorado, Wyoming, or Nebraska], which means we also haven’t constructed elaborate and unreliable legends about the ways people in those states speak. And because the way we see people is the primary factor in the way we hear them speak, if we don’t know much about a population? We don’t hear much of an accent, either."
-- Dan Nosowitz, in "Is There a Place in America Where
People Speak Without Accents?
," for Atlas Obscura

by Ken

Though Howie and I go back together to the ninth grade at the James Maddison High School annex, we go back together only that far, because I'm not a native New Yorker. When we moved here in 1961, many of the Brooklynites I now lived among were puzzled by my accent, which had been concocted through seven years in my native Baltimore and five years in the Midwest bastion of Milwaukee, where the kids I went to school with made fun of my "Southern accent." In Brooklyn especially, having what might be called "Midwestern speech" was interesting, because as I came to learn, Midwestern speech is the basis for what had come to be known as "General American" speech -- the sort of thing favored by the people who hired newscasters and other on-air personalities they hoped would sound "un-accented."

Only now it turns out that "General American" speech was itself mythologicall Oh, it might have described a cauldron of speech patterns, among which the "General American" speakers may well have tended to employ a few. But it doesn't seem likely that there was ever anywhere where the locals generally spoke "General American," and even in the areas where it was thought to be spoken, it isn't anymore -- there have been major shifts in the speech patterns of the whole presumed-"General American" belt since John Kenyon "laid out some linguistic and geographical guidelines for General American," which he claimed was spoken by 90 million Americans, in his 1930 book, American Pronunciation, as Dan Nosowitz reports for Atlas Obscura in a piece called, "Is There a Place in America Where People Speak Without Accents?"

Dan draws inspiration and courage in debunking the whole concept of General American from Oklahoma State University dialectologist and sociolinguist Dennis Preston, who says, "General American doesn't exist. He was demoted to private or sergeant a long, long time ago."
But the concept persists: we believe that, for example, newscasters, maybe some actors, and certainly some people, somewhere, speak an unaccented variety of American English. For instance, when Stephen Colbert explained his vocal patterns to 60 Minutes, he said:
"At a very young age, I decided I was not gonna have a Southern accent. Because people, when I was a kid watching TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that someone was stupid, you gave the character a Southern accent. And that's not true. Southern people are not stupid. But I didn't wanna seem stupid. I wanted to seem smart. And so I thought, 'Well, you can't tell where newsmen are from.’"
The name of this accentless accent varies; sometimes it’s called Standard American, or Broadcast English, or Network English, or, as it was created by two independent linguists in the 1920s and 1930s, General American. It is a neutral accent, one without distinguishing features.

But where does General American come from? Is there a place where people, young and old, speak like newscasters?
I expect it won't surprise you to learn that, while Dan has an answer of sorts for the first question, his answer to the second is a resounding "no." It turns out that John Kenyon's General American was based on the speech he tended to hear from the speakers he was most familiar with growing up in Northeastern Ohio. It seems most unlikely that even then it was the "standard" speech of the area, and as noted above, since Kenyon's time, "The entire vowel system of the parts of the country along the Great Lakes, stretching from New York cities like Rochester and Buffalo straight through to Chicago and Detroit, began to dramatically change," in what came to be known to linguists as the "Northern Cities Vowel Shift."

You can check out for yourself some of the specifics, but the key point is that, "within the linguistic community, the idea that General American had any relation to any actual geographical place was quickly destroyed."
The field of American linguistics advanced very quickly in the mid-20th century, and by 1950 numerous studies were released that found that even within Northeastern Ohio, there were multiple distinctive accents and dialects, and that certainly Kenyon’s rules for General American did not apply to the vast part of the country he claimed. The Northern Cities Vowel Shift work further combusted any idea that General American described the way people talk in the Midwest.
In this more sophisticated understanding of American "accents," researchers like Dennis Preston have concluded that Americans (a) mostly think they themselves don't have an accent, except for some specific regions like the South, in part because (b) Americans are pretty terrible at recognizing accents, their own or anybody else's. Ironically, for example, "Midwesterners tend to not actually hear the very things that distinguish them to the rest of the country." Again, go to the source for some description of the kinds of things Dan is talking about, including some video clips of broadcasters speaking anything like a standardized "accentless" American.

One thing broadcasters frequently do do, though, is to enunciate with great care, which apparently is easily mistaken as "accentless" speech by hearers who aren't good to begin with at recognizing most American accents, which Dan assures us do exist, in every locality in the country. In the end, he says,
the search for an accent-less accent is more about our own perception and lack of understanding of linguistics than any objective, observable pattern. In other words, we are hearing what we want to hear, not what people are actually saying.
Hmm. "We are hearing what we want to hear, not what people are actually saying." Nothing surprising about that, is there?

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