The suburbanization of English

Ever pull into a city in a suburb and notice a shopping center with a Target at one end, a Home Depot at the other, a bunch of chain stores in the middle and forget what city you’re in? It could be Anywhere USA. That, my friends, is what people are trying to do with the English language.

NPR’s All Things Considered this afternoon interviewed Billy Baker of the Boston Globe, who wrote an ahticle article about a class in Boston to help residents get rid of their accents (Story here but audio won’t be posted until later, apparently)

Treating Bostonians as if they were dogs pooping indoors, the teacher uses a clicker — a dog clicker — to call attention to any hint that Bostonians were, in fact, from Boston.

I went through something similar in college back in the ’70s, without the dog clickah clicker. Constantly beat into us was the notion that the perfect accent for aspiring radio broadcasters is the Midwest accent. Well, good for y’all.

I’ve always been fascinated by regional accents. I have a hard time understanding, for example, what people in St. Louis are saying (my Kentucky colleague refers to this as Mississippi mushmouth), I love the Cajun influence of someone from Louisiana, or the slow drawl of Charleston, South Carolina.

Why do we want to get rid of these and bulldoze our way to the language version of Target and Home Depot?

As you might expect, this notion isn’t sitting well with the people of Boston, judging by their comments attached to the story…

“What sounds dumb is judging people’s intellectual abilities by the sound of their voice. Taking all the regional flavor and character out of peoples’ accents also sounds dumb – do we all want to sound like newscasters?”

“If this were an article about a class which taught African Americans to lose THEIR speech patterns(like “ax” for ask) we would hear shouts(and rightfully so) of racism. I moved here in 1973 with a mixed London/Brooklyn accent tinged by some upstate New York. No one could tell where I was from. I pick up speech fast(foreign and otherwise) and picked up somewhat of a Boston accent. Of course my kids, born here, speak with one tho my son who recently moved down South now says,’Hey did youall pak youh cah?’”

“All language is composed of dialects which in part are comprised by accents. So the question, unanswered by the story, is what accent these folks are being taught to adopt. Presumably it is a Midwestern accent. So it’s not about ‘getting rid’ of an accent, it’s trading your local, native accent for one from 1,000 miles away. That’s pretty self-hating.

We are who we are. We’re from where we’re from.

And with the close of this post, I’m heading back to Boston for 10 days of house painting. I’ll miss you all and your perfect accents, but I shall try to console myself with a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and a cinnamon doughnut.

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  • Martin

    Nice post, Bob. Believe it or not, even midwesterners sometimes feel compelled to adopt a more “standard” midwestern accent. In the 50s, my uncle from the Red River Valley — a smart young Norwegian-American aspiring to bigger and better things — paid good money for elocution lessons. The real point of the lessons was to help him drop that long, Scandinavian “ooooo” sound. (Of course, he also wore a hair piece and had lifts in his shoes — all part of the self-improvement plan, I guess.)

  • Momkat

    We just returned from New York City by way of Ontario. I was so happy to finally have an Ontario-ite say “Nice day, eh?” to me. I was also kind of discouraged to see so many chain stores, including Target and HD, around Toronto.

  • Momkat

    We just returned from New York City by way of Ontario. I was so happy to finally have an Ontario-ite say “Nice day, eh?” to me. I was also kind of discouraged to see so many chain stores, including Target and HD, around Toronto.

  • Lily

    We’re all different, I suppose…

    growing up in the Shutdown State I always longed for a Bostonian accent…

    Never got close….Uff Duh!

  • TheMole179

    Darn straight, learn to speak, you East Coastians…

    (kidding)

  • Jennifer

    This tendency to adapt your own speech to the speech of others around you was termed “linguistic insecurity” when I was in grad school in the early 90′s. I was always offended by the term, since it was a condition I “suffered” from myself. Having grown up in Fargo, then lived in England, Madison, and the borderlands of Mexico/U.S., my own accent was such a mish-mash by the time I returned to the midwest that people often looked at me oddly and asked where I was from.

    I think the social linguists have since wised up and now use a different term, something like “linguistic plasticity” and view the trait in a positive light, noting that those who adapt their language to their environment are both better listeners and better understood by those around them.

  • Jennifer

    My take on the topic, by the way, is that the more variation in English dialects, the better! When our speech adapts on its own, that’s one thing. But trying to train people to drop their own accent — like a dog, no less! — that’s a sad state of affairs.

    Although I suppose the people in the class had their reasons…. and as long as the class was voluntary and not part of a public school curriculum, live and let live, as they say. Let them be bi-dialectal, if they want. (Because I don’t believe for a minute that their Boston accents won’t come back as soon as they have a few beers and start hanging out with the home crowd!)

  • Jeff

    I grew up in Boston, went to college in St. Paul and then moved to London. My English accent got better and more pronounced with each pint of beer. I did find it odd that I, like my Boston and Minnesota accent (yes, there is one) only came out for certain words when I was sober but, unlike my Boston and Minnesota accent, was very prevalent after four pints.

    In college I started listening to one radio station (WFNX) on the drive home as soon as we were close enough to get the signal just so I could hear one announcer read the “Bahst’n Ahts and Entahtainm’nt calendah.” When I heard her say that, I knew I was home.

  • Bob Collins

    WFNX. A fine station back when. Here at work –or there at work, I guess as I’m presently sitting in Boston’s North Station, entire meetings would come to a stop when I’d say “idears.” I cured the problem by (a) not going to meetings and (b) not offering any more idears.

  • Suzanne

    I love accents. One of the regional U.S. accents that I believe is most stigmatized is the southern accent. People think it’s okay to call southerners stupid because of a simple accent. I wish that would stop. (Full disclosure: grew up in the south; not too much of an accent, but enough so that people know I’m not from here).

  • John P.

    Is it just me, or does the Minnesota accent get stronger the more rural I get?

    It also seems to be more pronounced in older people. Are we losing the Minnesota accent in favor of the generic American?

  • Chris D.

    Have a crullah for me, Bob.