The Brits are intelligent. The Russians are frightening. The Italians are romantic. These are examples of preconceived notions that we make based on accents. What do people truly think of your accent?
An accent is a sociolinguistic term to describe a specific pronunciation in a language, influenced by a speaker’s previous acquired languages, the time in which they learned a new language, their sociocio-economic status, and ethnicity. My parents for example are native Russian speakers, and in the Russian language there is no “th” sound. Growing up I would celebrate my “birsday” instead of my “birthday”, as my parents (and most Russian speakers) compensate the “th” sounds with “s”, as they never grew up learning the voiceless, dental fricative “th”. Accents are shaped by our native languages, and it is tough to escape that.
Take Chile for example, a country where your accents reveals which social class you are a part of. Social classes are determined by education, occupation and material possession. Speech patterns reflect this background. Individuals belonging to the “lower-class” pronounce the “ch” (like in cheetah) with a “sh” (in “sheer”). In this case, communication becomes a point of insecurity, as people are judged based on their speaking patterns, influencing friendships, careers and opportunities in life.
Episode 4 of Aziz Ansari’s TV show Master of None, titled “Indians on TV” describes the stereotypes that Indian actors face while auditioning for acting roles (Master of None, 2015). The main character Dev (an American with Indian parents), runs into a friend who is auditioning for a TV show. The scene begins with a group of men with Indian backgrounds who are auditioning for the part of the “Indian Taxi Driver”. When Dev is called in, he auditions for the role in his natural American accent saying “where can I take you?” The casting director stops him, reminding him that he is auditioning for the part of the “Indian Taxi Driver” and needs to therefore put on an Indian accent (which Dev does not have as he is American). The point of this episode was to share the limitations of cultural stereotypes. We have preconceived notions of where someone should be in life based on their accents. When these individuals break their accent stereotypes they are viewed as an anomaly. In this episode, Dev made it clear that he no longer wanted to be cast for the role of a cab driver or an employee at a convenience store and started his own Indian Advocacy Group because of it. Accents influence opportunities in life.
So, what does it really mean to be Canadian? We thrive on the fact that we are a multi-cultural country, though we still hold social connotations of people having accents (think of all the Newfies who hide their accents when moving to Ontario). What’s interesting to think about is the linguistic term “idiolect”, meaning a personal dialect; people speaking the same language but having small phonological or grammatical differences (Crystal, 2006). No matter how we speak or where we come from our accents will never be identical to our neighbour’s. We have different ethnic backgrounds, our parents speak different languages and we have different jobs. Rather than pointing out someone’s accent, understand that an accent is an autobiography, shaped by so much more than someone just being “really good at a language”. Think of the bigger picture.
Crystal, David. How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 2006. Print.
“Indians on TV”. Master of None. Netflix, United States, November 6 2015. Television.