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What’s In a (Spoken) Word?

April 5, 2019

I recently had the opportunity to hear the voice of a woman I respect, admire and hold a lot of affection for, for the first time.  I knew a little of her background and the possible influences on her accent that may have arisen in her lifetime, yet still I was surprised by her voice.  Why was that?  Why did I hold preconceptions and what was it about her particular voice that surprised me?  Accents are myriad as a step outside into any street will tell you; even in a village where no-one has moved in or out for about 200 years will hold people whose accents may vary, even slightly*.

tongue with world on it

My initial reaction was to question myself about implicit bias and presumption based on racial identity; mine and hers.  I think it is vital we hold such questions at the forefront of our analyses of social interactions; I have a lot of privilege in the eyes of society and hope to practice the self-questioning that I preach at all times (of course I fail occasionally, we all do and will, but that just means we keep trying).

Then I realised what it was with this particular accent.  To me, there were notes in her voice which reminded me, of all things, of the TV show “Murder She Wrote” and of the north New York/Cabot Cove accent I had recently heard being voiced by Richie Cunningham’s Dad, that chap from Happy Days, Tom Bosley.  The show is currently on endless repeat on one of the satellite channels in the UK.  To me, Tom Bosley was using a fictional accent as I’d heard him in Happy Days when he didn’t sound like that.  I am from the UK and my accent is Received Pronunciation with a serving of west country (according to m’beloved Sooterkin®), so I had assumed the accents I heard on the TV were fictional and not representative of real people.  I assumed all the accents this actor used were fictional!  As a result, I thought my friend’s accent was fictional until I heard it in real life, and it surprised me!

That got my little brain whirring.  The “little grey cells”, as Hercule Poirot in the guise of David Suchet (or should that be the other way round?) would say, in what (I now have no idea if it is) a Belgian accent.  How much influence does mass visual and auditory representation have on how we perceive and predict about others if we deem fiction to always be fiction?  If the accent we hear in a play is entirely alien to our ears, how can we know whether it is real or not?  If the accent is really bad, and I have heard some shockers (Dick Van Dyke, I’m looking at you, but affectionately because you are adorable), not only does it destroy the suspension of disbelief in the fiction I am watching/listening to but also makes me believe that such an accent cannot possibly exist in real life.  Rather than presumption of existence of such voices, I have a presumption of non-existence of such voices.

I have trained myself and continue to practice awareness to not to think of accents by racial stereotyping nor by gender inference, nor to make presumptions about voices which are marred by a disability of some sort.  I have not though of the bias that may exist in me as to whether an accent is a fiction or a reality.

This is important, because people are still very much judged on the sound of their voice.  In the UK, class is assumed and presumed quite frequently based on accent; if your accent doesn’t match your perceived class there is an inherent belief that in some way you are not truthful.

Those who identify as or identified as BAME will have their racial/ethnic identity questioned if their accent does not fit the stereotype of how they should sound, especially if they are second, third or more generation immigrants into the population in which they reside.  A white person will not be questioned unless their accent is very much identified with a BAME culture or racial identity.

Accents hold a lot of power in our world, subliminal influences on our attitudes towards and assumptions about those around us.  We are all constantly learning about ourselves and the world we inhabit, and until now I had not realised that even the basic belief in the veracity of an accent I may hold is influencing me, and that is something I will take forward when I question myself and address my own privileges.

Check your privilege bingo

By the way, the following may be the worst accent I have ever heard on a television show, and I’m apparently not the only one who thought this.  Oh Castle, how could you? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ei1DnFdJrww

*not even remotely citable by any source, but it would be an interesting experience to find out the truth of it, don’t you think?

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From → Ideology

One Comment
  1. Sarah Sarita Ratliff permalink

    This was so interesting to read. It would have been whether it was about me or not, by the way. I spend a lot of time dissecting accents, speech patterns and tones. I think the only times I’m tripped up is when I hear a speech impediment I wasn’t anticipating. You’d think someone with one might anticipate them better. 🙂

    I also jump to conclusions about what I believe someone will or won’t sound. (By the way, you sound exactly as I’d imagined.) And as you noted, a lot goes into accents. Oddly this isn’t my original accent. I went to diction school because my parents didn’t love the fact that I was developing a thick New York accent. I used to talk like Rosie Perez. I loved it but they didn’t, so today I have a fairly non-regional accent.

    The whole idea is funny, isn’t it? And moreover, Facebook is pretty damn cool to bring two people from very different corners of the globe together in friendship. I admire the hell out of you, my friend! ❤

    I left the same message on your website but it asked for my wordpress password and now I'm logged out of my own website. Life is crazy, ain't it? 🙂

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