What exactly is an accent? In a 1994 paper from the academic journal Language in Society, linguist Rosina Lippi-Green explains that ‘accent’ is not a technical term, but rather “a loosely defined reference to a set of distinctive differences over geographical or social space, most usually phonological and intonation features.” Simply put, accent is how speakers pronounce words and phrases.
While we tend to think of an accent as something that “other” people have (e.g. people from different regions of the country, different countries or different social classes or groups), the truth is that everyone who speaks has an accent. Lippi-Green goes on to point out that it “may refer to the carryover of native language phonology and intonation” affecting the pronunciation of a second language
Enter the broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards when host Ricky Gervais – known for, and in fact reveling in, being shocking by poking fun at the Hollywood elite – claimed that actors Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek’s English was incomprehensible when he introduced them as co-presenters. You may have missed it since part of the introduction was censored due to his use of one of broadcast media’s taboo words. (See the clip here.) The introduction, including the censored bit in brackets, is:
“I can’t wait to introduce our next presenters. It’s Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas, so you can see why I’m excited. I’ve loved their work for many years and I just got to talk to them for the first time, so I’m made up. They’re ridiculously gorgeous specimens, they’re extremely talented and probably very interesting. I’m not sure, cause I can’t [understand a fucking word they say!] Please welcome Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas”
With this introduction, the proverbial rug is pulled out from beneath the two international movie stars before they even get to the microphone. Sure, they’re big-time stars, but their accomplishments are undermined by their implied inability to master the English language.
Hot on the heels of the Golden Globes broadcast came a second even more pronounced incident of accent ridicule, this time in a make-up ad featuring comedian Ellen DeGeneres and actress Sofia Vergara. A few seconds into the ad, there is this exchange:
Ellen: …and one bottle helps improve skin tone over time.
Sofia: That’s what I was supposed to say now.
Ellen: Well, no one can understand you.
Sofia: New tone rehab 2-in-1 foundation-
Ellen: (making nonsensical mocking noises)
Sofia: Cover Girl
Ellen: See? That’s what I’m talking about. What did you just say? I’m looking for some (making nonsensical mocking noises)
Here Vergara is constructed as Lucy and Ricky all wrapped up in one – sexy and funny – yet incomprehensible and, in the end, the butt of the joke.
Why is this a problem? Well, the answer is two-fold: (1) it reinforces a standard language ideology that – through the widespread practice of accent discrimination – excludes and subjugates speakers of non-standard language varieties, and (2) it makes you look bad. Below, I tackle those two points in reverse order.
To take up the second point, why does joking about someone’s accent make you look bad?
Simply put, it makes you appear as an unworldly jerk. Lippi-Green points out that in the communication process where accent is an issue, especially where there is a class, race, ethnicity or nationality difference, the listener’s goodwill is as important or even more important than the speaker’s language proficiency.
Understanding accents is a skill, which means that the more experience someone has interacting with people from different cultures, nations, racial or ethnic groups, the more easily she or he will be able to understand.
Therefore, if you claim not to understand and you put the blame squarely and solely on your interlocutor’s shoulders, you are exhibiting a lack of goodwill and a lack of experience interacting with people different from yourself.
While we learned above that everyone has an accent, it is an unfortunate fact that not all accents are treated equally. Linguists James and Lesley Milroy, authors of Authority in Language, coined the term standard language ideology to describe a worldview in which language variation is stigmatized and language varieties are hierarchized according to their approximation to an idealized (mythical) standard language.
Speakers of non-prestige language varieties are discriminated against, denied opportunities in education and employment, and even negatively evaluated with regards to trustworthiness in courtroom settings.
Accent is an ‘immutable characteristic’ linked to national origin, which is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barring employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) policy acknowledges this link; their description of national origin discrimination reads in part:
“National origin discrimination involves treating people (applicants or employees) unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not).”
Lippi-Green argues that various social institutions are responsible for imposing and enforcing the standard language ideology, including schools and the media, using various strategies – chief among which is ridicule and mockery. As Lippi-Green summarizes, this ideology that privileges one standard and marginalizes all variation (accents, dialects, bi- or multilingualism) “is introduced in the schools…vigorously promoted by the media, and…further institutionalized by the corporate sector”. By participating in the ridicule, we participate (however unconsciously) in the process of reinforcing the standard language ideology.
So, to sum up, mocking someone’s accent is funny, just like joking about her or his weight, skin color, nationality or religion. If you’re cool with that, go for it. For a really great and approachable treatment of accent-based discrimination and its repercussions in the U.S., check out Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent, just available in an updated second edition.