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February 5, 2018

Accent Matters

A friend of mine from New York shared a post on Facebook that read, "Don't ever underestimate New York ladies!" If you hadn't watched the rest of the movie, you'd get the impression that this scene is about a woman being underestimated as stupid, partly due to her thick New York accent. The turnaround comes when it turns out that she is actually extremely knowledgeable, and without having to compromise her identity or hide her origins. Considering that the friend who shared this has a New York accent, I wondered if this may have been relevant to her.

Unfortunately, having a non-Standard accent can have real consequences in the courtroom. All Things Linguistic posted a link to a video on the consequences of lack of accent-awareness. In short, people with non-standard dialects can find that their deposition is not accurately represented in text because the court reporter was not familiar with their accent. This is an egregious example of how speakers of non-standard dialects can find themselves let down by the system they live in. Even if their speech is accurately represented, they still have to overcome prejudices which can affect how they are viewed.

The unfortunate reality is that people are more than willing to judge someone by their accent. "Accent discrimination" by itself is unlikely to happen; when someone is discriminated because of their accent, it's more because of what their accent means about them. Someone with a strong New York accent could face prejudice because an employer could assume they are rude and uneducated. Someone with a Southern accent could find that people are less likely to take them seriously because they are assumed to be uneducated hicks. If you speak African American Vernacular English, even at the most formal register, you can still end up discriminated against and being discounted for racist reasons. The same goes for Chicano English. And all this is just American-specific - every language that has multiple dialects will allow for this.

Rachel Jeantel, 19-year-old star witness for the case, testified for six hours in her Haitian-influenced version of AAE (she is trilingual, also fluent in Spanish and Haitian Creole) about the night of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Jeantel was on the phone with Martin in the minutes immediately before Zimmerman shot and killed him, making her testimony uniquely valuable. Jeantel was widely criticized on social media and in the comments sections of online news outlets for her speech and demeanor, derided as uneducated and untrustworthy, and incorrectly portrayed as illiterate after she struggled to read a handwritten cursive note in court. Rickford and King, citing evidence that Jeantel’s testimony was not mentioned in the more than 16 hours of jury deliberation, argue that jurors acquitted Zimmerman because they could not “hear, understand, or believe her.” “Her crucial testimony was dismissed as incomprehensible and not credible,” they conclude. (Source)

What can alleviate this? As per the above video, having access to interpreters or court recorders who are familiar with non-Standard varieties is important. In the United States, there have occasionally been calls for African American English interpreters in response to testimony by AAE speakers being dismissed as incomprehensible. There are arguments for and against having dedicated interpreters - I recommend checking that article out to see them in detail.

Part of the reason I focus so much on accent and dialect is because I want people to understand that speaking a different dialect is not a marker of low intelligence, nor does it say anything about your character. All it says is something about where you grew up. Mocking someone for happening to speak a dialect that is farther from the Standard is unfair. For dialects that are especially different from the Standard, learning the Standard can require as much effort as learning a different language. There needs to be more understanding of how dialect and accent works. Otherwise, we will continue to fail and unfairly penalize people who speak a different dialect.

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