How is it possible that still in this decade there are people that stereotype and judge others based on the accent that gives a different sound to their English utterance? The misconception is that people who speak English with an accent or different dialect are less intelligent than those, who on their opinion, have no accent when speaking Standard English or that they are not speaking Standard English. Many people speak English with a foreign, regional accent or dialect, and this should not be a reason enough to define this misconception of low intelligence because the presence of an accent reflects a regional or cultural background, not an educational level.
A vivid example of that is Barack Obama, who stands far from being ignorant or uneducated and yet one may find videos of him publicly speaking with an African-American dialect. It seems like an archaic dilemma to encounter in a country that takes pride in its multiculturalism, besides, who are we to judge people’s competence ?
Standard English was defined originally by grammarians from the 18th century after English and British colonized the America.
Since then, the definition of Standard English has been modified because of the successive waves of immigrants to the United States. One of the most recent is from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, which presents a definition with a broader spectrum, they state that Standard American English is “the English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood”.
To take a case in point, this term was created by a small group of linguists with a narrow cultural experience, and a prescriptivist attitude towards the language. Equally, It is tailored to the cultural and social domain of those making a living out of promoting this concept and “have achieved a high level of skill with written language”. In the many definitions of Standard English there may be some room for accent variation but definitely none for any social diversity. Accents are directly linked to social aspects since language is the way we interact with the people around us, although there may be “no way to compile a dictionary which is truly descriptive in terms of pronunciation; maybe it is necessary to choose one social group to serve as a model…But there is nothing objective about this practice”.
The modern study of language has shown that all native speakers are competent in their language. Linguistics applies the term dialect to refer to patterns in the way people use language. Patters entail pronunciation or accent, vocabulary, and grammatical structures that mirror the speaker’s cultural and regional background. The belief that some variations of the English language are not as good as others is generally “attached to minorities, rural people, and the less educated, and it extends even to well-educated speakers of some regional varieties”. The judgments over people’s language, for instance, the laziness of a glottal stop, the slowness of rural speech, the supposed ugliness of a particular urban accent, are verdicts that have no linguistic justification and reflect only the prejudice of the judger.
To prove this statement there have been many quantitative studies that explore how people across the U.S. speak and perceive language depending on their regional location. The results are substantial, the least correct English is perceived to be spoken in the Southern states with a 94% and New York City with 54% of respondents. “These responses immediately confirm what every American knows-the least correct English is spoken in South and New York City” (100), however, according to a special on language from The History Channel, the southern dialect is actually most closely related to Old English. The aristocrats even went as far as to use “ain’t.” In some cases, just by inserting a lilt (which is where the voice rises and falls on certain vowels) into the old English, you get a Southern accent.
Everybody has an accent, everyone vocalizes their ideas with different rhythms, intonations, percussiveness, and inflection, and ideas are not less perspicuous or profound because of it. Someone who says “I don’t have an accent” is presuming incorrectly that an accent is a variation from some original standard that they themselves speak. For example, President Barack Obama has demonstrated to be a very eloquent, and educated speaker, and yet he carries a Midwestern accent and some Black English dialect that he used when speaking to a black or southern audience. President Obama’s ideas were just as presidential when he spoke with his accent or without. In fact, his accent empowered his speech and made him relatable, because people “associate “correct English” with some official or national status, although the majority of people do not relate to this social group, they may still fully understand the president’s language, because like the definition of Standard English points out, it “is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken an understood”(213). Obama is living proof that intelligence and use of Standard English lies not in the accent but in the purpose of thought, “because Black English is as systematic as Standard English, and what we hear as “mistakes” are just variations, not denigrations” (126).
He’s using a rule-governed systematic way of speaking that is not the mainstream standard we may hear on the news, but it’s still a dialect that uses proper grammar and one that should be respected. Moreover, the technique of code-switching is taught to many students during their school year. This method teaches speakers to switch between two or more different dialects or languages depending on the environmental setting they are presented with, so it is clear that “humans can be bidialectal as well as bilingual and, therefore, can speak both Standard and Black English”. In our modern age, a popular dialect known as slang is referred to by many as an “undignified and unintelligent” (183) or dumb form of language. Modern slang has, in my opinion, invaded our so-called standard language to the extent that many of us may use slang in our daily lives without even thinking that it’s slang. It is considered extensive and includes some vocabulary that shows familiarity with special activities both criminal and innocent, but most importantly modern slang also embraces the creative and cultural evolution of language.
Researchers at Marist College in New York say that an extensive vocabulary of curse words is a sign of higher rhetorical skill, and those that can name the most swear words in one minute tend to have a greater overall vocabulary. Here, many people would probably object, because extreme slang may be related to poor socioeconomic status and possibly to people of delinquent nature, however, to that I say that in my experience I know many people that are educated, come from decent families and still use slang with no harmful effect. This misconception of language has rooted so deep that some speakers seek accent reduction training courses to eliminate their accent. People are mocked because they pronounce the word “before” as “be-fo-wah’ instead of “before the word is the same, yet the sound makes people believe that they are less intelligent. Case Studies led by John Baugh, a sociolinguist at Stanford University, made repeated phone calls in answer to newspaper advertisements for apartments, using different accents, and recorded how many of those apartments were available or unavailable, depending om whether he used African American English, Chicano English or Standard American English accents.
When Baugh used any accent other than the Standard American English accent fewer apartments were available to him. This comes to prove that it’s not because there is anything wrong with those accents, but that listeners judged them as markers of racial, ethnic, and intellectual traits that they found undesirable. It’s thanks to these language attitudes that for some, an accent becomes a source of cultural pride, but for others, a secret source of shame. Rather than advising people to change a core part of their identity, it’s important that all of us become more aware of our hidden linguistic prejudices. Instead of just using grammar or standardized English to decide if we’re intelligent speakers, we should let words and thoughts speak for themselves. The ability to analyze and to think critically is more important than the rules of our language. We should be teaching these skills at young ages and not punish or laugh at those who speak a little differently than us. Standard English seems so stand tall in the misconception toward accents.