Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Accent on America

Growing up, I was blissfully unaware of my heavy Long Island accent. After all, everyone spoke the way I did, which made it near impossible to ever pick up on the difference. This came to an end the minute I came to college freshman year, when I was randomly placed to live with a girl from Boston. Our initial interactions were actually about the way we both spoke and those first few weeks living together were filled with laughter about our varied pronunciations of utterly common nouns (she said "cah" instead of "car," I said "cawfee" instead of "coffee). Even more than pronunciation variances, we learned that we had different mannerisms, called common items and stores different names and that we often used different phrases (Bostonians seem to think "wicked" is a universally appropriate adjective, mind boggling, I know). I think we focused on these differences because there was actually little else that divided us- we both came from middle class suburbs, attended good public high schools where we were involved in very similar activities, had close-knit families and were planning to pursue similar majors. We even had other more visible similarities, most strikingly almost identical wardrobes and a love of the color pink. It truly was our regional accents which set us apart and, for whatever reason, we fixated on them.

As college continued, I became very self-conscious of my accent, trying my hardest (especially on job interviews) to remain accent neutral and I definitely have noticed that my roommate now uses "wicked" less. I thought that this was just a natural progression, a possible sign of maturity and a way to practice professionalism. Turns out, our behavior is actually reflective of a much larger phenomenon that originally occurred in the 1960s, according to a New York Times Magazine article printed this week called "Speech Therapy: Is TV like 'Jersey Shore' Helping to Preserve Regional Accents" by Virginia Heffernan.

First off, I promise I will not talk about the horribly addictive yet disgusting television show on which the article focuses, just the basic premise of the article. Heffernan explains that William Labov "the father of sociolinguistics" conducted a study in 1966 which found that many people, especially New Yorkers, possessed a "lingustic self-hatred," thinking that their speech portrayed them as "distorted" and "sloppy." Heffernan goes on to explain that an era of "Newscaster English" followed this, a time when Americans focused on assimilation and refinement, and in line with this, displayed a strong desire to hide their regional badges. Heffernan then credits a wave of mass media for reasserting linguistic pride in America, like Saturday Night Live and Taxi.

Today, according to the article, shows like Jersey Shore tend to exaggerate regional accents and mannerisms in an effort to convene regional subcultures instead of ignoring them. Heffernan believes that "instead of erasing longstanding regional and social distinctions, television will help preserve them." I see her point, but think it is important to recognize that these accents are inauthentic- they are exaggerated. In producing these largely inauthentic accents, characters on these shows are not really uniting a subculture but forming their own new subculture- in the case of the Jersey Shore an especially disturbing one that repulses some of the original culture from which it it originates.

As American Studies majors, we are constantly reflecting on ways to study American culture and the many subcultures that exist within it, especially on the formulation and roles of community and identity. I never thought of American accents as strong identity markers or badges and this article made me think about that. The article also ended on an interesting note, stating that "cultivating and stylizing accents in order to stand out as part of a subculture- to represent in other words- may be as American as the melting pot."

The ability of accents to both unite and divide is perplexing. My roommate and I were divided because of accents yet our fixation on the source of division was something that actually brought us together, uniting us. Divided yet united- seems like an appropriate description of America to me.

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