Is my accent a crime?

Damien Hall djh514 at YORK.AC.UK
Tue Aug 3 09:50:58 UTC 2010

Bill Mullins said:

> > Yet what is an accent?

> If the original author doesn't know the answer to this question, then
> there are probably multiple reasons he/she shouldn't be teaching
> English.

On one level, fair enough; but, on another, this is actually a very good
question and one which might have real consequences.

The level on which Bill's comment is fair comment is probably that of the
language teacher him/herself: someone who hasn't investigated folk
linguistics in any detail, and takes 'accent' as meaning roughly 'mode of
speech which is identifiably non-native / not from around here'. For most
people who've never looked into folk linguistics, this may therefore
include any or all of phonology, phonetics, (morpho-)syntax, the lexicon,
pragmatics, and possibly other modules of linguistics too. If a teacher of
English as a foreign language can't tell when someone is 'getting it wrong'
in any of these modes, then they probably _shouldn't_ be a language

The level on which this is a good question, though, is the one which maybe
_has_ looked at some folk linguistics and does decompose these cues to
'foreignness': the point of view of the academic linguist (the phonologist
and phonetician in particular), who probably uses 'accent' to refer only to
phonology and phonetics and would use another term for cues to
'foreignness' in the other modules. (When I say 'foreignness' here I'm just
using it as a shorthand for any of the ways in which a speaker can
recognise that someone else speaks differently, whether they're actually
foreign, or simply from another part of the country, or whatever.) From the
point of view of this linguist, 'What is an accent' is a question worthy of
serious investigation. This serious investigation could have real
consequences for people who (rightfully) use the term 'accent' in its wider
'speaking differently' sense. if we are able to pin down exactly what a
person means in a given case when they say that so-and-so 'has an accent',
we may be able to be more precise in areas where it matters (the law being
one of them), and we may be able to give more targeted help where it is
required. For example (and this example is constructed), someone whose
'accent' in the ear of a native speaker relates mainly to phonology may
indeed be almost unintelligible to that native speaker, because the words
being said cannot be recognised. On the other hand, someone whose phonology
is closer to the native speaker's phonology, but whose syntax is noticeably
foreign-influenced, may be more intelligible to the native speaker. The
incompatibility of phonologies is possibly more likely to occur between
English-speakers and native speakers of a Romance language (Spanish, of
course, in the Arizona case); the syntactic incompatibility is possibly
more likely to occur between English-speakers and native speakers of
another Germanic language, for example. In theory, these could be two very
different kinds of 'accent', and yet both of them might simply be referred
to as 'having an accent'. (I grant that it is unlikely that the Germanic
speaker would have Germanic syntax and absolutely no trace of Germanic
phonology, but, for the sake of an example, this will stand here.)

In any case, hence the question: in general terms, what is an accent? The
question may be easy to answer in specific cases, but it is not easy (is it
possible?) to arrive at an all-encompassing generalisation about it.


Damien Hall

University of York
Department of Language and Linguistic Science
YO10 5DD

Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
     (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673


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