LINGUIST List 5.443

Tue 19 Apr 1994

Disc: Accents

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  1. benji wald, Re: 5.438 Accents

Message 1: Re: 5.438 Accents

Date: Mon, 18 Apr 94 20:13 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.438 Accents

I have been followingthe discussion on accents with more than my usual
interest. I have some observations to make and a request. I'll make the
request first, andthen go on to the observations. The request is: can anybody
out there tell me how I can subscribe to the American Speech network on
which this particular topic started?
Observations: first that stereotypes of accents are distinct from accents,
regardless of whether the stereotypers have the accents or not. This is
 relevant to all portrayals of accents by actors etc, where the actors box
 office drawing power is of more concern to producers than their ability to
 do "authentic" accents of whatever type is needed. It is also relevant to
 Cokie Roberts "joke" about unintelligible Mississippi accents, if I got the
 areal reference right. Sure, Cokie has a discernible but underplayed Southern
 accent of an educated type, approporiate to her profession -- but that doesnt
 mean that her comment does not reflect a smugness which may accomodate to
 her "sophisticated" Washington DC milieu, or have a class basis among
 educated Southerners. So while it's worth observing that she is Southern,
 as many postings have done, that does not mean that it is not a reflection
 of the same prejudice which is acknowledged when coming froma "Northern"
 mouth/pen -- and then I have allowed that it may also be a more local
 class-accent prejudice among Southerners, but I think she was playing to
 the general American audience to whom she addressed her remark as a witticism.
 Northern prejudice of the Southern accent, and stereotyping it with undesirabl
e but particularly "country" and "ignorant" characteristics has a long history,
 but I think it reached its height of unpopularity as "dangerous" "racist"
 and "evil" in the films of the 1960s, starting with "Easy Rider". There is
 also a sexual split, so that I have heard many Northerners say they hate the
 Southern accent in a MAN, but find it charming in a WOMAN -- and come to
 think of it, I can't think of any MALE Southern actors with the success of
 female Southerners like Holly Hunter (but there are not many like her either
 in Hollywood, does Cissy Spacek, how do you spell it? count?)
 Stemberger had asked about whether North American accents had been
 radically altered by immigrants -- implying some substratal phenomena.
 Actually, when I first read his question, I thought of Northern US accents,
 in the context of Southern US accents -- although I realised that is not
 what he meant. But I already had some thoughts about that, so I thought I
 would mention them. To begin with, a concept which became popular among the
 creolists in arguing with the dialectologists about the origin of Black Englis
h is very disagreeable to many white Southerners and contradicts their own
 myths about their varieties of English. This was that SouthernUS English in
 general was (largely?) shaped by the African population and their descendents,
 this was in the context of arguments about the African and/or creole origin
 of various BE features like double modals, invariant be, etc etc, to which
 the dialectologists, like McDavid, a Southerner, said whites had them too, as
 if precluding a creole/African origin -- to which then the creolists came
 back with the argument I just mentioned. For example, Dillard cites a
 British traveler in the late 18th c who had the impression that Southerners
 who did not go to Northern or British schools to learn how to speak "properly
", which included many of the "ladies" even in adulthood, spoke like their
 Black servants. Features were not given, but that's not the point. From
 the age of this particular document I imagined, but have not done all the
 research, that the argument is actually an old one, and one which Northerners
 were in more overtly racist times able to taunt white Southerners about their
 accents. With that in mind, I read into the following passages of one of
 the usual popularising stereotyped accents books, in this case, Dian Eaton's
 "Is it true what they say about Dixie?" (Secaucus,NJ: Citadel Press, 1988)
 a loving treatment, and informative, but no less stereotyping for that:

 Quote 1: The Southern population has grown by natural increase rather than
 by the waves of immigration that swept the more industrial North. Therefore,
 the same principal population divisions as the original settlers have pretty
 well been maintained: the Anglo-Saxons, the Scotch-Irish, the Germans, French
, Spanish, Mexicans, and the Africans. (p.3)
 Quote 2: The Southern dialect is not really Southern at all, but the
 Queen's English of the time of Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Marlowe...
 if Shakespeare were to travel into the remote regions of North Carolina
 today, into the coves and hollows of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky
 Mountains, he would find highlanders conversing in his own pure mother
 tongue (although heavily accented), and he would have no difficulty in
 fitting in (p.8)

 Quote 2 is of course a familiar version of the myth of Appalachian speech
 (rather than Lowland Southern varieties). Although the two quotes are
 pages apart I read them together as a subtext in response to the Northern
 "taunt" that they speak like "Africans". The retort is: not at all, we
 speak "real" English, the way it was spoken in England when WE left. On
 the other hand, you Northerners speak a jargon corrupted by your many waves
 of immigrants who have overwhelmed your original "Anglo-Saxons" -- listen
 to the way you talk -- isn;'t that enough proof?

 So much for that, because all this stuff is pretty naive and simplistic as
 linguistics, but it's very interesting and important as a reflection of
 American society and the continuing rift for whatever current reasons between
 the North and the South. My next thought has to do with the apparent fact
 that Southerners are much more disturbed and resentful of the misportrayal
 of their accents in the media than are, say, New Yorkers, who seem almost
 obtuse to itsimplications,True enough, New York stereotypes are widely
 romanticised as glamorous or at least cunning gangsters, preferrable to the
 violent, racist, nasty stereotypes of Southerners. But still...? Well,
 it seems to me that New Yorkers are able to laugh off the stereotypes, or
 even accept them, as applying to some "other" New Yorkers. Southerners
 seem more communal in taking offense, because of the longstanding historical
 hostility. Some examples of New Yorkers accepting the stereotypes, Mae
 West in "She Donna Him Wrong" (193something) She's an authentic "oi" speaker,
 like a lot of New York performers of the time, e.g., Groucho Marx. Of course,
 "oi" is not pronounced "oi" except in the stereotype. In one scene, someone
 else use the stereotype,"I'm noivous" (it's a showgirl before the show where
 Mae West sings at her nightclub) -- the stereotype is used by someone who
 is not really a New Yorker. Mae West repeats her pronunciation of "noivous"
 mocking it "don't be noivous", as if unaware that the stereotype stems from
 a New York pronunciation like her own, never commented on by anyone in any of
 her films. That is, the stereotype became the written "oi", not the actually
 pronunciation. Later 1930s "Dead End" or whatever with Humphrey Bogart
 Sylvia Sydney and those Dead End Kids, Muggsy n them. Bogart is a real New
 Yorker, but of a relatively elevated class, prep school and all that. In
 the film he is a gangster returning to the hood. He has a phoney "oi"
 stereotype which comes up often, and contrasts like night and day with the
 authentic pronunciation of some of the street kids (that is the actors who
 portray them and do not have to phoney up this particular aspect of their
 character accents). In the late 1960s I found that New Yorkers I asked
 were deaf to the phoniness of Dustin Hoffman's accent in "Midnight Cowboy"
 portraying the New York City slimeball Rizzo. Actually he was quite good,
 but his dream was to go to "FLOOR-ida" that is "Florida" with the vowel of
 "floor" rather than "far", a feature of his native LA accent, common in
 the US outside of the East Coast, but alien to New York City or much of the
 East Coast. More recently I saw some movie where Jessica Lange plays a
 New Yorker opposite Robert DiNiro (a 199something movie) I forgot the title.
 Her accent is amusing and much less competent than Hoffman's. Particularly
 striking was that in the film DiNiro was "Harry", but she was incapable of
 calling him anything but "Hairy". Again, that's typical of American accents
 apart from the East Coast, but short a and "ay" are distinguished before r
 in open syllables in New York, just as short "o" as in Florida, forest, orang
e, etc etc is distinguished from long "o" in the same environment. These
 aspects of pronunciation are almost impossible for people whose authentic
 accents have suffered the mergers to get right. So pop the films into your
 VCRs and check out what I have said.
 Getting back to the main point, New Yorkers are not upset by these mis-
 portrayals of their accent the way Southerners are, and I have already
 suggested that this has to do with the stereotyped character of the people
 associated with the (stereotyped) accents, and how the stream of history
 compels people who are the target of different stereotypes to take the
 stereotypes more or less personally, fearing -- with good reason, I think --
 that the stereotypes are poisoning people's minds in a way that will be to
 their personal disadvantage. In closing, I want to encourage more talk about
 stereotypes, their relation to linguistic reality, and whether it is
 excusable for targets of stereotypes to play to the stereotypes, as seems
 to have been suggested, I think naively, in the case of Cokie Roberts.
 But I also think the irate Southerners should also discuss THEIR stereotypes
 of each other and other people, and discuss that too. Stereotypes will
 always be with us for comic effect, I think, although I'm not quite sure
 why it is universal to laugh at other people's speech. Benji
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