Jeff and I flew from Alabama to California last week. He was attending a work seminar hosted by German presenters.
After a conversation, one of his German co-workers asked him, “I haven’t heard an accent like yours. Are you not from America?”
We got a good laugh out of it.
As a southerner, we frequently hear jokes about our accents.
And the connection between our accents and lack of intelligence.
Just like we judge people based on their looks/weight/clothes/toys, we also can judge people based on their speech.
And not just accents. We also judge people by their grammar.
As a child, my father wouldn’t allow us to use words like “ain’t.” He wanted us to speak proper English at all times, much to our dismay.
When my own girls were teenagers, I cringed at their use of “like” to talk about talking (“I was like, ‘No way am I going.’ And she was like, ‘Oh yes you are.’”). I pleaded in vain for them to break the habit (btw, they didn’t).
My current pet peeve is the ever-growing usage of “I” as the object of a preposition instead of “me” (incorrect: “Come ride with Jeff and I”; correct: “Come ride with Jeff and me”).
Remember the Bible story of “shibboleth” in the book of Judges 12?
To distinguish outsiders from locals, the Gileadites asked each person wanting to cross the Jordan River to pronounce “shibboleth.” If they pronounced it “sibboleth” instead, they were killed.
Maybe we aren’t that extreme in our judgments, but we do often disregard what someone is saying because of how they say it.
And even worse, disregard who they are, inappropriately classifying them as “other” instead of “us.” We miss out when we judge.
Words on the Move
Below is an excerpt I read from Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally).
I hope my southern accent won’t deter from the importance of the book.
(And in case you don’t know what a quotative is, because I didn’t before reading the book, it’s a word used to introduce a quotation, like, “said” or “replied.”)
Words on the Move is an enlightening work (I loved it!) by linguist John McWhorter, not only about grammar and all things word-related, but also about releasing our judgments on what is proper and improper speech instead of simply alternative speech. (For grammar snobs, this can be painful, but, oh, so good for us to hear.)
Drop the Prejudice
Because we often judge a book by its cover, or a person by their speech, without even thinking about it, how can we change?
First, we have to wake up. Pay attention to your internal response when someone speaks differently than you.
- Do you judge them as poor if they use “uneducated” grammar?
- Do you judge them as gangster if they are street talkers?
- Do you judge them as smart if they have a British accent (or is that just me)?
Language refuses to sit still. Words change. Accents migrate. Don’t get hung up on a word or voice and miss the person.
Once aware of our biases, we can then look deeper. Listen harder.
And thus love more.
More from John McWhorter:
“However, none of us is pretending that a society of human beings could function in which all spoke or wrote however they wanted to and yet had equal chances at success in life.
The linguist’s point is that there are no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense. To understand this is not to give up on learning to communicate appropriately to context.
To understand this is, rather, to shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many seem to harbor for people who use the forms we have been taught are ‘bad.’”
See Everything; Judge Little; Forgive Much
My newest motto is an adaption from Richard Rohr’s words:
“See everything; judge little; forgive much.”
(He adapted it from Pope John XXIII’s words, “See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little.”)
By stripping away stereotypes we frame around people, we can actually get to know them.
We can be blessed by their stories, and perhaps can bless them with ours.
We can see them as another of God’s unique creations, special because they are fashioned in God’s multi-faceted image, not ours.
Last week in California, Jeff and I visited the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.
At the north side of the bridge were visitors from all nations, speaking many different languages. I couldn’t understand any of them (thanks for nothing, Tower of Babel).
But I could understand the laughter, the smiles, the excitement.
That’s the same in every language.
* * *
Do stereotypes pop up when you hear different accents? How do you shake them? Please share in the comments.
- Listen to this interview with John McWhorter, “Why it’s Literally Not Wrong to Say, ‘Literally’” (another pet peave I’m having to let go of) on the Hidden Brain podcast.
- And finally, if you’re from the south, you’ll probably understand this southern-style GPS. For better or worse, I get it.