Is my accent a crime?

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Aug 3 11:51:30 UTC 2010

Adding to the problem is the loose way inwhich nonspecialists, including
bureaucrats, the indignant, and the media, use terms like "grammar" and
"accent."  As Demien and others observe, these may or may not be
problematic. Language competence and effective teaching are the bottom

It all depends on individual cases, and from what I can gather, the Arizona
D of E is looking at cases individually.


On Tue, Aug 3, 2010 at 5:50 AM, Damien Hall <djh514 at> wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Damien Hall <djh514 at YORK.AC.UK>
> Subject:      Is my accent a crime?
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> 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
> teacher.
> 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
> --
> Damien Hall
> University of York
> Department of Language and Linguistic Science
> Heslington
> YO10 5DD
> UK
> Tel. (office) +44 (0)1904 432665
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