“I don’t have an accent.”

posted by Sandeep

What do you drink?

No, I’m not interested in your bar habits. I’m asking about the fizzy pop in your can at lunch. The sugar-rush soda you drink to stay up late. The caramel-colored coke in your cup. Which one is it?

According to linguistic surveys, the name of your soft drink is determined by your geographic origins. People in the Northeast and the West call it “soda”; people across the Midwest largely know it as “pop”; and Southerners call it “coke,” no matter the brand.

(credit: Pop vs Soda)

The emergence of a mass-market American image in the last few decades has reduced regional differences like these. With mainstream newscasters and sitcom stars speaking in essentially the same dialect and accent, successive generations concerned with embodying a normative American identity have readily adopted linguistic traits that were once confined to certain regions in the central Midwest. They created a General American standard that now defines “average” in this country. This dialect of English is so unconsciously “normal” in the U.S. that speakers of General American identify themselves in a vacuum of identity: “I don’t have an accent.”

Please. General American isn’t a monolith; it’s a heterogeneous amalgam of related accents. Don’t believe me? Try these simple tests.

Pronounce these words: “Mary,” “merry” and “marry.” Are they all the same? You are seemingly in the majority, at least in America. The Mary-merry-marry merger is associated with rhotic dialects—that is, those that pronounce the written “R” at the ends of words or before consonants. General American is a rhotic form of English.

But I grew up near coastal New Jersey, and although I didn’t speak with the non-rhotic Jersey Shore—excuse me, Jersey Shwa—accent, my schoolteachers and my friends’ parents did. I was surrounded by it. Speakers of non-rhotic accents usually pronounce the three words differently—and so do I. Although neither my friends nor I speak with a Jersey accent, this anomaly has stuck with us.

Here’s another: “cot” and “caught.” If they are indistinguishable, you’re in the same boat as about 40% of Americans and nearly all Canadians. According to linguists, you’re probably from the Midwest, New England or farther north. Most other Americans pronounce the two slightly differently. The cot-caught merger is associated with a large shift in vowel pronunciation that occurred around the Great Lakes—a transformation that gave us, among other things, the much-maligned folksiness of one Sarah Palin.

Okay, one more: how do you pronounce the ubiquitous suffix “–ing”? Many people drop the velar closure “ng” and say “–in.” Others, like my Pennsylvanian roommate, pronounce it “een,” stretching out the vowel. Sometimes it’s situational: you’re “chillin,” but other times you’re “relaxing.”

It can be stunning to see how different we are, even when we fall under a “monolithic” label like General American.

It’s just the same with those accents that are associated with very broadly painted geographic regions (“Southern”), ethnicities (“African-American”) or classes (“redneck”). To ascribe a certain linguistic destiny to swaths of people based on one aspect of their identity is foolish: we all know people who break the mold of stereotypes. Everyone’s accent is formed by multiple experiences and sources. And like other traits, it can be intimate and treasured.

When we enter a world in which our accent is unusual, though, how do we react? With exaggeration or with assimilation? When I was abroad in Australia, I swung wildly between the two. Sometimes I would find myself emphasizing my accent, amplifying my “R” pronunciation and stubbornly using American vocabulary; other days, I’d yearn to fit in, studying the bizarre intricacies of Australian vowel production. In New York City, a speech coach market has emerged for those desperate to part ways with their distinctive accent, complaining that their “tawking” colors their professional and social relationships.

When the General American dialect is taken as a homogeneous, normative identity, some react by emphasizing their “heterodox” accent. Others can’t hear the difference. Still others assimilate. Universities pride themselves on diversity—but in truth, to be associated with a regional linguistic idiom can be crippling because it forms a lens through which others perceive you, often to the exclusion of other aspects of your identity.

Those who fall under the General American normative umbrella are privileged in this country to be evaluated first on non-linguistic traits. Many, if not most, other speakers are not. This discrepancy is antithetical to a mission of diversity.

Maybe my examples of linguistic heterogeneity are just fun quizzes, but maybe they’re a little more, too. Perhaps even a small understanding of the diversity within a so-seen monolith of identity like General American gets us somewhere toward an appreciation of larger, non-standard deviations from the norm.

It’s interesting, after all, to see how some of the last vestiges of regional linguistic idioms—minor pronunciation differences among General American speakers—are humorous, whereas bigger dialectal differences can be personal and professional handicaps.

I do have an accent—we all do. I just hope that I’m far more interesting than my choice of soft drink. (Soda.)