Eastern Kentucky accent and UK accents

Frank Abate abatefr at EARTHLINK.NET
Fri Dec 6 12:37:09 UTC 2002

The following from Patrick Hanks is forwarded to the ADS-L at his request:

As a Brit, I have no idea what an Eastern Kentucky accent sounds like. (Is
it like the Everly Brothers? if so, that's a prestige accent where I come
from.)   Anyway, British English is rich in accent differences, so my
comments may be of interest.

I think there are two quite different notions buried in Stephani's protest:
"norm" and "correctness". The question is, was Stephani's professor
criticizing her accent on pragmatic grounds of deviation from widely
accepted norms (i.e. was he trying to help her with job-hunting in places
where Kentucky English is not understood or recognized) or was he just
being a pointless pedant trying to impose his own notion of correctness on
her Eastern Kentucky speech?  The distinction is crucial.

What he might have added was, "....if you want to teach English outside
Eastern Kentucky."

Here's a relevant cautionary tale:

A couple of decades ago, in Sweden, I learned more about English-language
teaching techniques from Jim, a Scottish colleague, than from anyone else
I've ever met.  His knowledge of pedagogical techniques was profoundly
illuminating, and he shared his expertise generously. He spoke a rich and
expressive form of Glaswegian English.  Unfortunately, his Glaswegian
accent was so strong that the course participants (including businessmen,
diplomats, and members of the Swedish and Norwegian parliaments) could
hardly understand a word he said. Cruelly, he got fired, while I, with my
southern British English accent, got all the credit for what he had taught
me, because my accent conformed to what the students had been led to
expect.  Stephani, do you want to end up like Jim, or can you bear to learn
"code switching"? Many Brits have one code of English for the home and
another for the workplace.  After all, if you applied for a job in Germany,
you might be expected to be competent in German, and this would in no way
be an attack on your heritage as a speaker of Eastern Kentucky English.

I mentioned the "Jim" experience (which troubled me) to John Spencer,
Professor of English at Leeds University (now Emeritus). He had an
interesting comment.  He said that he encouraged his students, who were
from West and South Africa, Austria, Eastern Europe, etc., etc. to develop
an accent that would combine local identifiability with international
comprehensibility. Ha! Easier said than done!  Anyway, John Spencer
actively discouraged "parrots" from sounding like Old Etonians.  You see, a
student with a good ear can sometimes produce perfect RP or General
American (it often happens), parrot-fashion, and this too can be a
disadvantage, because it generates false expections. The interlocutor is
led to expect that such a student's English comprehension will be as good
as their spoken English production.  So then the poor parrot gets lost, and
cannot bring themself to admit their comprehension failure.

[I hope you all enjoyed "themself:" in that last sentence  -- it is highly
relevant to "notions of correctness".]

In short, I think that, on the limited evidence before us, Stephani writes
so punchily that I doubt she will ever be short of a job for long -- though
it may not be an English teaching job, or at any rate not in parts of the
English-speaking world that are far distant from Eastern Kentucky, like New
York or Nigeria. If she expects New Yorkers and Nigerians to adjust to a
highly distinctive regional norm, she's on a hiding to nothing.  (Is "a
hiding to nothing" a British regionalism? Oh,
I'm. sorry....)

Code switching is an acquired skill. 500 years ago people like Erasmus did
it regularly between Dutch and medieval Latin; there's nothing bad about
asking Stephani to join those who can do it between General American
English and Eastern Kentucky English.  It's not a matter of asking her to
give up something; it's a matter of proposing to her that she should
acquire an additional communicative code for outside Easten Kentucky.

Patrick Hanks
Editor, Dictionary of American Family Names (forthcoming);
Lecturer, Department of Computer Science, Brandeis University;
Visiting Professor, Department of Informatics, Masaryk University, Brno,
Czech Republic;
Formerly Chief Editor, Oxford Current English Dictionaries;
Formerly Chief Editor, English Dictionaries, HarperCollins Publishers;
Formerly Visiting Scientist, AT&T Bell Laboratories;
Formerly Research Fellow, University of Birmingham, England;
Formerly Teacher of English for International Purposes, Furudals Bruk
Kurscentrum, Sweden;
Formerly British Council Course Organizer, In-Service Teacher Training,
Universities of Lodz and Katowice, Poland;
etc., etc.

[I thought it might be good to throw in a few of my credentials here,
although the current ones are least relevant]

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