Is my accent a crime? (UNCLASSIFIED)

Mullins, Bill AMRDEC Bill.Mullins at US.ARMY.MIL
Tue Aug 3 14:19:57 UTC 2010

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: NONE

I agree completely that the question is one the answer to which can be
quite interesting and informative.  I just don't think the original
asker was asking it in that context.

Clearly, for kindergarten-level students, it would be preferable for
your first exposure to formal English instruction to be from someone who
speaks a more-or-less "standard" version of English.  I can't comprehend
any loving parent who is trying to establish a life for his/her family
in America who would believe otherwise.

And this doesn't mean that the teacher must not have any accent.  I have
a 3 year old son, and am seeing pre-school TV programming that I never
saw before.  Most shows have a diverse mix of characters, and some have
definite Hispanic/African-American/foreign accents.  He loves "Thomas
the Tank Engine" videos, which include narration by Ringo Starr
(Liverpool), Pierce Brosnan (Ireland), George Carlin (Manhattan), Alec
Baldwin (Long Island), and numerous anonymous British actors which have
numerous British accents.  No problem, because they all (at least as
they are televised) have clear pronunciation and standard grammar.  My
accent is different from my wife's, and my mother's is different still,
as is her mother's.  And my son has an accent that is different from all
of ours (so much so that I wonder how he got it).

My strong negative reaction yesterday to the article Tom Z. posted was
because it denied the idea that there are standards which are good and
which should be met.  The enforcement of those standards should not be
abused, but the idea that a teacher of English should be able to speak
it clearly is so fundamentally self-obvious to me that I am dumbfounded
that there is anyone, much less people who are administrators in public
schools, who finds it necessary to argue anything but that.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On
Behalf Of
> Damien Hall
> Sent: Tuesday, August 03, 2010 4:51 AM
> Subject: Is my accent a crime?
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Damien Hall <djh514 at YORK.AC.UK>
> Subject:      Is my accent a crime?
> -
> Bill Mullins said:
> > > Yet what is an accent?
> > If the original author doesn't know the answer to this question,
> > 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
> question and one which might have real consequences.
> The level on which Bill's comment is fair comment is probably that of
> language teacher him/herself: someone who hasn't investigated folk
> linguistics in any detail, and takes 'accent' as meaning roughly 'mode
> speech which is identifiably non-native / not from around here'. For
> people who've never looked into folk linguistics, this may therefore
> include any or all of phonology, phonetics, (morpho-)syntax, the
> 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
> 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
> _has_ looked at some folk linguistics and does decompose these cues to
> 'foreignness': the point of view of the academic linguist (the
> 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
> using it as a shorthand for any of the ways in which a speaker can
> recognise that someone else speaks differently, whether they're
> 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
> 'speaking differently' sense. if we are able to pin down exactly what
> person means in a given case when they say that so-and-so 'has an
> we may be able to be more precise in areas where it matters (the law
> one of them), and we may be able to give more targeted help where it
> required. For example (and this example is constructed), someone whose
> 'accent' in the ear of a native speaker relates mainly to phonology
> indeed be almost unintelligible to that native speaker, because the
> being said cannot be recognised. On the other hand, someone whose
> is closer to the native speaker's phonology, but whose syntax is
> foreign-influenced, may be more intelligible to the native speaker.
> incompatibility of phonologies is possibly more likely to occur
> English-speakers and native speakers of a Romance language (Spanish,
> course, in the Arizona case); the syntactic incompatibility is
> more likely to occur between English-speakers and native speakers of
> another Germanic language, for example. In theory, these could be two
> different kinds of 'accent', and yet both of them might simply be
> to as 'having an accent'. (I grant that it is unlikely that the
> 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?
> 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
>      (mobile) +44 (0)771 853 5634
> Fax  +44 (0)1904 432673
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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