August 04, 2004

Disgust for voices and accents

A.L.D. links to two recent articles on disgust, one by Martha Nussbaum in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and another by Paul Bloom in the Guardian. Nussbaum has recently published a book Hiding from Humanity, in which she "argues that shame and disgust tend to distort public discourse in highly illiberal ways", a point echoed in her Chronicle piece. Much of the seminal work on the psychology of disgust has been been done by Paul Rozin.

I'd like to draw attention to what I think is an omission in this literature. As far as I know, none of those writing about disgust have focused on speech as one of its objects. Nor, as far as I know, have sociolinguists examined this question. (I may be wrong about this, and if I am, I'm sure that someone will correct me...)

Sometimes individual vocal characteristics cause reactions of disgust: "disgusting nasal whine", "hoarse, revolting croak", "nauseating reedy voice", and so on. It's interesting to consider what aspects of voice quality can trigger disgust, and what they might have in common with disgust-inducing tastes, smells, sights and ideas. But in this post, I'm interested in what happens when people find a particular regional, class or ethnic accent disgusting.

Disgust is not always involved in linguistic prejudice: accents may trigger stereotypes of sleepiness, ignorance, boringness, etc. that are negative in character but don't (necessarily) involve sensations of disgust. However, in many cases it does seem that something very much like disgust is involved. Henry Higgins asserts disgust explicitly in addressing Eliza Doolittle:

A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespear and Milton and The Bible; and dont sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

It's easy enough to find explicit references to sociolinguistic disgust on the web (though some of them may just be conventional expressions of prejudice that don't reflect real emotions of disgust):

(link) That disgusting Boston accent mixed with the obnoxious attitude could drive anyone insane!
(link) The people - and the common, disgusting accent of people who're actually from the city - at least those from surrounding areas sound like they have a bit of decency about them and dont sound like such total minks!! [worst things about Aberdeen]
(link) And there are two of them right outside my window, in my cosy little cul-de-sac street, and when I walked past them they did the whole whistling thing and shouted, really loudly, in the most disgusting accent you can possibly imagine:
(link) ... eventually Wahlberg, in his revolting Bronx accent, got a microphone and explained “Here’s da situation – we is gonna start da show again”.
(link) Rainmaker, your right. It sounds like a Jamaican accent................I hate that accent, its so frickin annoying, as is the Aussie accent.
(link) Homicide rates would go through the roof as more people are driven to kill thanks to the annoying accent.
(link) Why anyone would want to listen to that nauseating scouse voice again is beyond me.
( link) When she asked him if he'd like some "wooder" to drink, I had flashbacks to a high school classmate of mine from Jersey who would ask me to "cawl" her. I never did. That accent makes me shudder.

Disgust also seems to be the emotion involved when someone writes about "one of those Southern accents that puts your teeth on edge", and perhaps also when Christie Vilsack observes that "the only way I can speak like residents of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania is to let my jaw drop an inch and talk with my lips in an 'O' like a fish".

Following Rozin, Nussbaum insists on the role of cognitive categories in distinguishing disgust from distaste:

Disgust is not simple distaste because, Rozin has found, the very same smell elicits different disgust reactions depending on the subject's conception of the object. Subjects sniff decay odor from two different vials, both of which in reality contain the same substance; they are told that one vial contains feces and the other contains cheese. (The real smells are confusable.) Those who think that they are sniffing cheese usually like the smell; those who think they are sniffing feces find it repellent and unpleasant.

And Paul Bloom underlines the special role of sexual attraction in overcoming disgust:

After Stephen Fry outlines what he sees as the disgusting nature of sexual intimacy - "I would be greatly in the debt of the man who could tell me what would ever be appealing about those damp, dark, foul-smelling and revoltingly tufted areas of the body that constitute the main dishes in the banquet of love" - he notes that sexual arousal can override our civilised reticence: "Once under the influence of the drugs supplied by one's own body, there is no limit to the indignities, indecencies, and bestialities to which the most usually rational and graceful of us will sink."

In that connection, remarks like these may be revealing:

(link) I think the Australian accent is disgusting on girls but pretty sexy on guys.
(link) the boston accent is cool for guys but is horrible for girls.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 4, 2004 08:00 PM